A daughter’s mission trip to a foreign country brings home the same lessons as her father once brought home
By George Valadie
I’ve lost track, but I know it’s been well over 20 summers since I had the opportunity to visit Saltillo, Mexico. Though “visit” might not be the best word.
I had the good fortune to travel with Father Joe of the Jackson, Miss., diocese, two busloads of teenagers, and some chaperones whose companionship helped to make the heat bearable and the bus ride enjoyable.
Needless to say, my memory banks of that excursion have been jostled by the tone of our country’s current discourse about the border, who’s on the other side of it, and all the whatever elses that stir us up. Because Lord, we are indeed stirred up!
That summer, we just went with the hopes of making a few people’s lives a little bit easier.
Before embarking, we had collected a variety of trinkets and toys for the little kids and clothes for their families. We also traveled with a dentist who sacrificed 10 days of his practice to serve the hurting, though he couldn’t speak a lick of the language.
While stopped at the border entrance, their officials went through most all our luggage. Strangely, Father had to bribe them—literally—to allow us to take what was needed to the needy.
Our days involved traveling outside Saltillo to a part of the world I had heretofore seen only on television. Our nights were spent inside the secure confines of a local parish, the walls of which even the local thugs respected.
What prompted me to go was the fact that our youngest daughter, Sarah, had previously agreed to a similar trip to Honduras with some of her classmates.
In both our cases, we signed up and signed on months ahead during one of those unexplained phases in all our lives when things seem like a perfectly good idea at the time.
But as our trips creeped ever closer, we both wondered what exactly we had done.
Before these excursions, the closest either of us had ever come to “roughing it” would have been the time our family stayed at a Holiday Inn with broken cable TV.
But now we faced no air, no Diet Coke, and no toilet that flushed toilet paper … what could we have been thinking?
Today, as I think back to that journey and what I did for the people of Mexico … I mean what I really did for them … I’m embarrassed. Because it wasn’t all that much. Our teenage travelers were the ones who did all the good stuff. At best, my presence allowed them to go.
Sarah, on the other hand, I’m still proud of her. She spent 12 days of her eighth-grade summer with a slew of little orphans climbing all over her. She didn’t build a single home, hospital, or school. She did, however, leave a lot of emotional bridges that will never be seen, only felt.
She discovered that making good grades in Spanish class doesn’t always mean you can speak the language.
And she also discovered that the language of smiles and caring doesn’t always need the spoken word.
Sarah would be hugely embarrassed if I told you about her “mission trip” in some effort to paint her as a saint. That’s not what happened at all.
She never really got adjusted to sleeping with the critters that also live in and among the Honduran children. She seemed particularly distraught to have discovered that her visit coincided with what turned out to be gecko lizard mating season.
She had to wash the few clothes she was allowed to bring in a cold water tub with a washboard. At our house, she’d never even put a load in the machine.
Before she left, Nancy and I worried what she would eat. At that stage of her life, her diet was a mixture of not much more than Quarter Pounders and chicken tenders.
I’m not sure we got the entire story about what she did eat for 12 days, but she tells us that all 36 of her meals were composed of cold scrambled eggs, tortilla shells, and refried beans that had been successively refried until “they” became an “it,” more like just one big refried bean.
She’ll still tell you she was glad she went. She’ll even tell you she might go back some day, but she’ll also tell you that not nearly enough time has passed … not yet.
I know I’m glad she went. She learned the same three lessons I brought home those many years ago.
Lesson 1: When she climbed off the plane, her first words were “God bless the USA”; while upon my return I was suddenly inspired to “say grace” over my daily morning-drive Diet Coke.
Lesson 2: Neither of us could get over how children could be so happy and have so little.
Lesson 3: We had no idea of the depth of how poor a poor person can really be.
Through the years I know I’ve recounted to more than a few people—and proudly I might add—that “well yes, I have done some mission work!”
Not so proudly anymore.
In the big scheme of God’s work, I don’t think either one of us did enough to climb higher on His list. In fact, if anything, we received far more than we gave.
I’m guessing the debate will forever rage on about what should happen at the border and who should get to come and how many and on and on. A debate that thus far seems not to have changed a single mind.
But should you ever get the chance to go, sign up and sign on. There’s an unimaginable need we do agree about. Not to mention you’ll find it to be a great tradeoff.
They’ll appreciate what you can give them, and you’ll forever appreciate the fact that you can.
Dear God—How did we end up here with this and they end up there with that? Is it supposed to stay that way? Should we be watching your plan unfold or be a part of it? Even one answer would be nice.—Amen
George Valadie is president of Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga.