One of the most difficult questions that I've ever been asked regarding our sister parish in El Salvador came from a friend who was aware that I had just returned from a visit. She was running on the treadmill at the Y and saw me, took out her ear buds and said, "Welcome back! What did you get done?"
What did we get done?
I don't want to read too much into a question that was meant kindly, but the assumptions behind that question simply do not correspond with the purpose and disposition of our delegations. The question assumes an approach to missions that is project-oriented, which is how missions has been practiced for so many years. We have the truth/know-how/ability; they don't, so missions happens when we go there and do things for them. Again, I'm not trying to be too harsh, but I don't know how else to understand a question like "What did you get done?" and others like it.
What did we get done?
Here is the short answer: Nothing. We did not go down there and build a school, because they are as good or better at building a school than we are. We did not go down there and teach them about Jesus, because they are as good or better at living the gospel than we are. If the assumption of the question is that we've got it going on and they don't, so God wants us to go down there and show them how to be like us, then our delegation was an abysmal failure.
What did we get done?
Here is the long answer: Everything. Our primary goal in El Salvador is to experience the redemptive presence of Christ in the world. Our primary method of achieving this goal is to build, nurture, and sustain a relationship with our brothers and sisters there. Our primary practices of this method are to listen, to "walk with the people," to practice "solidarity," and to open our eyes to "the reality of the situation." For that reason, we go to a massacre site- like El Mozote or Cinquera- where innocent children, women, and men were brutally murdered during the war and cry with the dead. We go to Archbishop Oscar Romero's small apartment and the chapel at the Cancer Hospital (called Divina Providencia) and listen as one of the Carmelite nuns describes Romero's life, death, and meaning for the people of El Salvador. We go to the University of Central America, where six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter were assassinated for their outspoken work on human rights during the war. We go to Perquin, where the poor have erected a museum that describes with photographs and index card captions the origins of the war (poverty), the situation of the war (the poor organizing for their rights), and the breakout of the war (the army being used by the wealthy and powerful to attack the poor.) We go to Berlin and worship in Spanish- as incomprehensible as parts of that service might be to us. We go to El Tablon and listen as the "directiva" (town council) talks of why they need electrification for their health clinic. We meet with the "ACE" (school board) as they describe the number of 9th graders that they need in order to receive government funding for another teacher. We go to El Tablon Cerna and help peel potatoes and carrots, as we prepare for a celebration of a brand new school that will enable K-3rd graders to be educated without having to walk uphill a couple of miles first. We dig holes (imitating our hosts badly), we haul bricks with the children to build temporary ovens, we make fools out of ourselves as we try to 'help' or try to 'talk'. We put ourselves out there, not as experts, but as vulnerable people who have developed enough of a trust-building relationship with them that we don't mind looking foolish. We celebrate with them, we mourn with them, we grit our teeth at the ravages of poverty with them, we dream about tomorrow with them, we celebrate the small steps ("poco a poco") with them, we sleep in their mud and stick houses and recieve their gracious hospitality. Most of all, we try not to be difficult guests.
I guess you could say that's what we got done. But, in phrasing it that way, we would rob this trip of its real value. The real value lies in how our own lives and our friends' lives were mutually enriched by laying aside our cultural arrogance and opening our hearts to one another. God is present among the poor in ways that those of us who are not poor can never quite understand. But, by laying aside the assumption that we can go and "get 'er done" for them, we can be transformed by a respectful, listening relationship. And that is what our delegations are all about.