Building humility and partnership

You may have seen in this paper in December a photo of a dilapidated shack outside St Aidan’s Church. The story accompanying it explained that it was put together by some of St Aidan’s youth, who are preparing to go to Nicaragua during their March break to participate in a building project in a poor area of Managua. The idea was to create a shack similar to the ones that are to be replaced through volunteer work by sturdy, simple houses. So our usual crèche that houses life-sized Nativity figures was covered over with a tarp, pieces of cardboard, some tin and wood, and other scraps of garbage used all over the world as makeshift shelter. Shortly before Christmas the garbage was removed and the crèche restored to its usual appearance. And a few days after you read this, the group will be en route to Nicaragua to get to work on replacing shacks with decent housing.

On the face of it, a volunteer trip to another country to take part in a project aimed at improving living conditions for others is a praiseworthy and valuable thing to do. But there have been criticisms in some recent books and articles about ‘volun-tourism’. Wouldn’t the money raised for airfares and other costs be better spent if it were sent instead to aid organizations in the country in question? Don’t well-meaning youth and adults from Canada who show up to help in developing nations just highlight the global inequities, rather than diminish them? Isn’t there poverty right here in Canada that needs to be addressed, especially in indigenous communities? We need to face these critiques honestly.

The youth and accompanying adults going to Nicaragua from St Aidan’s have expressed their desire to help others who are less fortunate. But that’s just the beginning. What they may not realize is that they are not there primarily to give, but in fact to receive. They will live with gracious and generous host families, work under the leadership of local people, and hear about how Nicaraguans are improving their own lives. They will be encouraged to think of themselves not as donor volunteers but as companions of people with whom they would never normally come into contact. They will feel unskilled, ignorant, out of place. They will be unable to communicate and not in control of events. But they will also find friendships growing, feel enormous gratitude for Nicaraguan hospitality, and understand the privilege of being let in to participate in a small piece of transformation. They will be humbled.

I know this because it has happened to me, three times before, on similar trips. I have been moved from thinking I’m there to do good, to understanding that I’m there to unlearn some of the habits of privilege. I’m there, as awkward and inequitable as it is, to receive: a new perspective, a new humility, a new understanding of my part in the injustices of this global village.

The organization facilitating our trip is Compañeros Inc., a Nicaraguan-Canadian social enterprise. The name says it all. We will be companions for a brief time with people in a very different world. And we will be changed. Thanks to the God of surprises.

Rev. Lucy Reid is the Priest-in-Charge at St Aidan’s Anglican Church.

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