Growing up as a Christian, I knew a lot of kids that went on “mission trips” to far off places to help the less fortunate. My friends would gush about how life-changing the experience was to go to such and such poor country. They would tell me how the people, while poor, were so much richer in spirit than us here in North America. I always found this idea to be a little bit ridiculous. It seemed to me as if my friends going on these pricy trips to help “poor people” created this communal lie about the local people being so joyful, so full of life, so rich in love. It seemed like a convenient untruth that rich, white, Christians could tell themselves in order not to feel guilty about their personal wealth. It was hard for me to believe that all poor people in the developing world were happy and better off than us here, despite not being able to feed their children, not having electricity or adequate access to water. It all seemed like a pile of crap.
I studied international development in university. There I was taught to horrors of missionary work. I was shown how short term “service” trips can actually harm struggling communities in the developing world. I piously felt like the people who went on these trips, went for themselves, to add meaning to their own lives. I used the argument that the money spend to send down a team of x number of Canadians would be much more effective if it was used to hire local people to do the same work. I came to see these vacationing missionaries as modern day colonizers, taking with them a sense of superiority and advanced civility.
When I was 23 I took a job working for a church as a youth assistant. Part of my job was planning and helping lead a trip to Ecuador for a small group of youth. I stepped off of my soapbox (mostly in light of my desire to travel) and took up the job rather excitedly.
In Ecuador, in a small jungle village, I had one of my first “a-ha’ moments about class, race and privilege. We were building a community building in the village so that there would be a place for people to gather when it rained. The village had gotten running water only weeks before we arrived. I met a woman who I immediately liked. She was kind- her eyes were kind. She smiled at me and let me hold her baby. After some hand gesture charades due to the language barrier she took one of the students and myself to explore the forest where they got their food. She had her daughter shimmy up papaya trees to pick us fruit and taught us how to machete banana trees. She cooked us jungle potatoes and watched, with tangible joy on her face, as we ate them. What I learned in that moment is that classism and class division dissect our humanity. In an instant it became clear to me that while we were officially there to “help” her and her community, she had, through example, just given me so much more.
Class divisions create a world where we only want to associate and interact with those in our particular class. Sometimes, if we’re feeling ambitious, it is socially acceptable to converse with those in the class above you if you are looking to climb the social ladder. That day, in the Ecuadorian jungle, I learned that by only living within your societal class, one essentially negates all possibility of being fully human. The rich are not meant to be givers. They are not meant to be the “sugar daddies and mamas” who simply write checks to appease their consciences and the poor. The Poor are not meant to be receivers, constantly taking, giving nothing back. The middle class is not meant to sequester themselves off from both the rich and poor, protected by their picket fences and PTA meetings. Rather, each person, regardless of their socio-economic class is meant to be both a giver and a receiver. That is what it means to be human. We all have something to offer the world and we all have something we need from the world. We were not created to be self-maintaining organisms.
My friend in the jungle showed me that I needed her. That day, I needed her kindness, her generosity and papayas. By accepting her gift of fruit, I was not only thankfulness, but the false notion of giver and receiver, rich and poor- that dichotomy was broken in me.
When I came home from Ecuador, I had a much better understanding of why friends in the past had come back and said that the people were so joyful, so happy, and free. I still would not fully agree with that analysis, or the singular story it tries tell of an entire country’s population. Instead, I’d like to suggest, that my friends, like me, had realized that they were receivers, not only givers. Perhaps what my friends were seeing was their own joy reflected back. This is the most real truth I know about class- It divides us. We cannot experience wholeness existing in human-made class groups. We need the poor and the rich. They need each other. Furthermore, we cannot care for the poor or the rich unless we know their names, their stories and their hearts. Ending class division will take a lot more than writing big checks; it will take more than philanthropy and charitable foundations. Ending class division will only happen when we create space for us to get to know each other. A place to have coffee, to talk about the weather and our kids and reality tv. Class division will not end until we accept that “they” are just like “us”.