On Tuesday at an ungodly hour in the morning, I will get on a plane to go to the Dominican Republic with 11 other people from Burke United Methodist Church. This is my third mission trip to Latin America though I’ve also traveled there for secular reasons both business and pleasure and I’ve worked with Latinos in this country for most of my adult career as a union organizer, high school teacher and Latino student union adviser, and then as a youth pastor to a youth group of mostly Mexicans with a handful of Hondurans and Salvadorans all of whom I miss terribly.
I don’t know what it is about Latin America that makes me feel more at home there than in the suffocating world of suburban northern Virginia. My youth told me that I was like a reverse Oreo — white on the outside and brown on the inside. I can’t explain why. But it’s actually been culture shock to finally be among “my own kind” in northern Virginia, people who share my socioeconomic background, level of education, race, and anxiety about success. The cynic in my brain suspects me of fetishizing Latino culture as a way of being the cool white guy who speaks another language and can look down on other white people for not being as multicultural. It does feel really cool in an unreal way to be invited into the intimacies of another culture’s family traditions. I’m going to be the padrino for the quinceañera of one of my former youth later this summer.
In any case, I’m going back (home perhaps?) to Latin America. I feel like I’m going to be apprenticed, to learn how to be a Christian from people who exude the heart of Christ unassumingly and matter-of-factly. And when I say that, I realize I haven’t met anybody where I’m going. I’m just superimposing my experiences in the church in Peru and El Salvador and romanticizing real people who aren’t perfect just because they’re poor and whose lives aren’t necessarily “simple” just because they don’t have Internet. But I really do feel like they have a lot more to teach me than I have to teach them. Who am I to tell them anything about putting their trust in Jesus Christ?
There is a palpable hope and trust in the kingdom of God in all the Latin American churches I’ve ever visited. Is there a way for a rich white guy to somehow carry that back with me to my land flowing with anxiety and existential “crises”? Is there inherently an inverse relationship between hope and economic security? Can you have plenty of stuff but not be a basket-case? Certainly there are poor people who are basket-cases too. I’ve met and ministered to some. What I pray and hope is that somehow God will reveal a truth to me in the way that the Dominicans do church and I’ll be able to bring back some new insight that is somehow applicable in our completely different suburban context. God, help me to be a faithful apprentice.