I am really enjoying reading my way through my TBR list. I’ve got some pretty good taste. Plus I adore lists and crossing things off lists and watching lists get smaller. So this is great. Currently I am reading State of Wonder by Ann Patchett and today I read something that made me say, “Yes!” and get a piece of paper and a pencil to copy down the words.
I first read Ann Patchett last summer on my friend Tamara’s couch in Louisville. I had met Tamara the previous summer while visiting a mutual friend of ours and we hit it off right away. So the next summer (which was last summer) when I was planning out my road trip, I knew I wanted to stop in Louisville even though the mutual friend that had introduced Tamara and I had moved to Brooklyn. I arrived at her house on a Wednesday afternoon and had a couple of hours to kill till she got home from work. So, naturally, I perused her book collection and picked one out. I read Truth & Beauty in that afternoon and the next morning before heading out to my next destination. I devoured it. I wanted more Patchett!
State of Wonder is very different from Truth & Beauty because the latter is the nonfiction story of Ann’s friendship with a woman named Lucy and the former is a fictional story researchers in the Amazon. But they’re both written beautifully and are both very captivating.
So this morning while my students were at recess I was reading one of those scenes that kind of takes your breath away. One of the characters, a beloved little guy, was being strangled by an anaconda (they’re in the Amazon, remember?) and I didn’t know what was going to happen! Because this is a real story, not some feel good stuff, and I thought he really might die. Well, SPOILER ALERT, he doesn’t die, because the main character Marina manages to save his life. After that terrifying scene we see Marina and Easter (the boy she saved) in Marina’s hut talking to Dr. Swenson.
Dr. Swenson is a no nonsense, no frills, no friends researcher who has been living in an isolated jungle for years doing research for a fertility drug. Marina does similar research, but in the comfort of a fully functional lab in Minnesota. Marina goes to check up on Dr. Swenson, more or less, which is what she was doing with Easter when the anaconda tried to kill him. In the hut after the scare, Marina was still kind of shaken up and was still processing what had happened and what she felt about it. Dr. Swenson, not waiting for Marina to explain what she was feeling, told her this:
You can’t change people like that. You can’t make a hearing boy out of a deaf boy, and you can’t turn everyone you meet into an American. Easter isn’t a souvenir anyway, a little something you pocket on your way out to remind you of your time in South America. If you think the reward for saving the boy’s life is keeping the boy, then I must tell you that is not the case. A simple thank you will have to suffice. He is not available.
I have been on almost every side of the short term missions experience. Between the ages of 11 and 20 I went on 11 week long mission trips. Since the summer of 2012 I have spent as little as 1 and as many as 10 weeks a summer hosting short termers with YouthWorks. For the past 4 years I have been on the receiving end of countless church groups on short term trips to the DR. I absolutely believe there are benefits to short term trips when they are done well with integrity and honesty and as much education as possible. I believe that good intentions are not enough and that too often short term mission trips are all about the goers while the receiver’s needs are either imagined or ignored. But I’ve talked about all this before.
Dr. Swenson’s words reminded me of so many well intentioned women who have visited our ministry on short term trips and met adorable children and said something like, “I just want to put him/her in my suitcase and take them home!”
The thing is, almost everyone who goes on a short term trip is well intentioned. But having seen the other side of things for four years definitely has changed my perspective. When women from the suburban United States meet a little baby whose mom was exploited in the sex trade and say, “Oh I just want to take him/her home with me!” what I hear is, “Oh, this baby would be so much better off in my home! In my country!”
What I think is, “They have a mom! They have a home! They are so, so loved! Right here where they are!”
I thought maybe I was overreacting, that maybe I just needed to chill, that maybe I was being overly judgmental of these well intentioned women who flew all the way down here to serve. Then I talked with a friend who said hearing people say that about Dominican and Haitian babies made her skin crawl. And then I read Ann Patchett’s words.
Whether we realize it or not, so, so many of us have this belief ingrained in us. That our way is better, that our way is best. That this child would have such a better life if we just transplanted them to the United States. If we bought them a bunch of junk from the United States. If we provided them with tip top technology and taught them all English. We buy all these things and we plan all these trips and we never stop to ask what people actually need. (Which is sometimes nothing.)
Heartline Ministries in Port au Prince, Haiti says that they work in maternal care and education so that one day there will be no need for orphanages in Haiti. That’s what I’m talking about. That kind of attitude and that kind of work. If we want to help, let’s help people where they’re at. What skills, talents, resources do I have that can serve the people around me? Not to make them more like me, but to provide them with opportunities to fill their lives up with good and productive things.
I’ve said it all before (What Alec Baldwin Taught Me About Missions) and I’ll say it all again. Because good intentions are not enough. Because we have to talk about these things in order to do them better. Because no mother’s love should be underestimated.