I found out what poverty looks like. In the United States. In the shadow of the most magical place on earth. In a place known as “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” How is this possible? How is such opulence juxtaposed with such poverty in such a short distance? I wrestled with this and many other questions along with three other leaders and twenty-one high school students in late July.
We traveled to Orlando, Florida, for a mission trip. We went to the community of Bithlo. A community that has a history of struggles that would make any outraged at the inactivity of the government. A community steeped in poverty and the fallout of a hard life. A community that is trying, with the help of United Global Outreach, and director Tim McKinney, to stand on its own two feet and have hope for a brighter future.
What is the goal of a mission trip? To serve, of course. To get things done. To bless others. To make a difference. To accomplish a task for someone else. Often someone who has had different opportunities in life than we have had.
But this trip was a little different. There was an additional component. Brett Wiersma, our fearless leader, challenged us all at the beginning of the trip to not only consider the tasks we hoped to accomplish. He also asked us to consider hearing stories and building relationships. Turns out that advice was priceless.
I have not previously been on a mission trip where relationships were so important. The way the students interacted together and all were included. The laughter and joy in service. Groups of students listening to stories of people who have lived hard lives, but are no less human for it. I saw signs of hope for our future with these young future leaders as they wrestled with the reality of life and how it is much different in Bithlo than it is in Pella, Iowa.
We worked. Hard. In the sun. And the humidity. And the storms. Did I mention the humidity? And we met Hank. An amazing human that challenged us in many ways on the trip. More about Hank in another post. His story is too good to just write a few sentences here.
But the real challenge came for many of the group when we had some downtime the next day. We googled shopping malls in the area and we found one. We found quite the mall. Opulence was the name of the game at the mall with Versace, Gucci, Rolex, and Prada just to name a few. And students that have lived a very comfortable life were wrecked as they tried to make sense of the poverty of Bithlo and what we have.
Friends, we have a lot. there are always things we don’t have. And when we focus on what we don’t have we create a false sense of urgency. We need that thing. Or that trip. Or that experience. But usually it is a thing. It occupies our mind and we figure out how to get it.
Hank and the other residents of Bithlo are trying to survive. One day at a time. They have hopes and dreams just like us. They breathe the same air we do. They just have different opportunities. So my pint in all of this is not to wallow in our reality versus theirs. The next time you want something or are feeling bad that you don’t have something, and that #falsesenseofurgency starts to rise and get you agitated, take a pause. Look around at what you have. Take a good look at your reality. How you have been blessed. And #WINtheNOW. Don’t forget about those less fortunate. The least of these, as Jesus described them. But remember how fortunate you are. Gratitude is powerful