Reflections from Bolivia

I just got back from Santa Cruz, Bolivia.  Our church took a group of 10 high schoolers on a week and a half long service trip.  Our primary work was on the Samuelito Daycare building, a project of the Mennonite Churches in Bolivia.  Our church here in Harper, Ks has had a relationship with the Bolivian Mennonites for going on 20 years.  For a fairly typical rural Mennonite church, it’s a partnership that is pretty special and really quite amazing.

One thing to know about our group is that the majority of the kids that we took aren’t particularly involved in church.  Also, most of them haven’t really been out of the state or even our county, let alone to another country.  That to say that this trip was the first profound experience of the working of God on a global scale for most of our kids.  As with most service trips, yes we did do some amount of good work on the building project.  However, we certainly received more than we gave and were changed in some profound ways.

As part of our reporting back to the congregation, I offered the sermon below.  Hopefully it’s a helpful reflection.  It’s specific to this trip and to Bolivia, but I think it really should to many cross-cultural situations.

Oh, yeah and it’s cross posted here.


I went to the Grand Canyon with my family when I was in High School.  As my family toured various parts of the canyon and different times of the day it felt as though I was seeing new things about every 10 minutes.  And of course, I felt compelled to take picture of every new thing that I saw.  When we got back home and had our pictures developed I remember looking at all of the pictures and thinking, “yep, that’s a hole in the ground.  Yep, another hole in the ground.”  What had been so vivid when I was experiencing it lost it’s uniqueness when I tried to put it on film.

We just got back from a 2 week trip to Santa Cruz, Bolivia and on some level, I have a similar feeling about this trip.  This trip was an intense and life-changing experience for everyone who was on it.  But it is a really hard thing to figure out how to explain that to the people who stayed at home.  To me, every picture of construction that I have is unique, but for most people looking at them, it’s hard to tell them apart and it’s just one more picture of kid’s moving dirt.

At one point on the trip I asked the kids what was the one thing they wanted people to really understand about this trip when they got back home.  There’s all kinds of things that we can’t fully explain but what is the one thing that they would want family or friends to really understand.  As I thought about this for myself, my one thing that I want people to really understand is what it really means for all Christians to be one in Christ.  I want you to really understand what it means to seriously say that we are brothers and sisters, that we are family with the people in Bolivia (or anywhere else for that matter).

To tell you what I mean by this I first need to tell you what I don’t mean.  When we in North America look at the relationship between us here and the Bolivian Mennonites there are a number of reactions that I often hear that really seem to miss the mark.  The first reaction is often one of pity.  

When we are confronted with the differences in material and financial wealth, and the poverty that exists, often our first reaction is to feel sorry for them.  One night when we were talking with one of our hosts named Tito, he made a very profound comment.  He said, “It is true that we have poverty here in Bolivia, but we are not poor”.  I think he meant a number of things by that comment.  One of the biggest things that he meant by that statement is that there is more than one way to measure wealth.  We in the U.S. often think of wealth in terms of having money and physical possessions.  However, it is also just as important to measure your wealth in terms of your faith, the strength of your family structure, your community and many other things that can’t be measured in Dollars and Cents.

The other reaction that many Christians have when they see the differences between Bolivians and ourselves is to think, “look at how God has blessed us.”  Some of us have the tendency to think that the physical wealth and the financial wealth that we have in comparison to those in Bolivia is a sign that God has blessed us and has given us much more than them.  Even if we want to say that because of this blessing we should be responsible and generous, this understanding of blessing is a false one because it is not a full measure of the ways in which God blesses people.  I would guess that all of the youth would be willing to say that after getting to know the people in Bolivia and seeing how God has blessed them, that in reality, we are the ones who are dirt poor.  We are the ones who are lacking in faith, in strength, in family.  We just have more stuff.

The last main reaction that many people in the states have is one of guilt.  We can look at the gulf between us in terms of money and resources and we can become very guilty for how much we have accumulated.  This is probably the feeling that I have struggled with the most.  Early on in the trip one of the people at the daycare complimented me on my camera.  I instantly felt a sense of embarrassment and shame.  The reason is that I recently learned that I paid more for my camera than most manual laborers in Bolivia would make in a year.  This sense of guilt can almost be crippling at times.

All three of these reactions are understandable, but I would say that they are ultimately wrong.  They’re the wrong reaction because with all three of them they maintain the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’.  With all of these reactions we continue to see ourselves as somehow different, or separate from the people in Bolivia.  If we are going to seriously say that the body of Jesus Christ goes across borders, nationalities, continents, races and whatever boundaries we might set up, then this separation between us and them has to go.  We must see ourselves as one family.

The best analogy that I can think of right now is that of a marriage relationship.  There are some relationships where one person is working outside the home and is the one who is responsible for earning the income for the family.  The other person will often work just as hard as the breadwinner and contribute just as much to the relationship and to the family even if that work isn’t measured in terms of dollars and cents.  It does not mean that either one is less valuable.  It also means that the one who earns the money freely shares those earnings with their spouse, not out of pity, not out of guilt but out of mutual, self-giving love.

This is what our relationship needs to be with the church in Bolivia.  Yes, we have should have a great desire to give to the Bolivian church.  But it should not be out of a sense of pity or guilt.  And it had better not be out of a desire to make ourselves feel good about how much stuff God has given us.  We need to give of our resources because we are the family of God and that’s what families do.

I can tell you that the Bolivian church has given this group and has given our church much more than we have given them.  It is my prayer that God will continue to keep this family together and that we will all continue to build up the kingdom of God.