Venturing into the ‘poverty theme park’

Justin Runquist

For some reason yet to be fully determined, we Americans seem to naturally love this whole “theme park” idea.

They’re real-life fantasy worlds. They’re also fun for the whole family. Thank God for a chance to not only experience something so smashingly different, but to also have the chance to return home again, kick off our boots and find our remote controls.

The kid inside me wishes he was talking about Disneyworld or Six Flags. Instead, I speak of my service break trip to Guatemala: a poverty-themed excursion deep into the Third World. Like so many other Villanovans, my fellow group members gave their hearts, sweat and hands to help make a difference. And after our week was up, it was like watching the Ferris wheel shut down: it was time to head home, shake off our innocence and return to our important lives.

Last week, I wrote about both the miracles and heartbreaks of experiencing a Villanova mission trip. My conclusion remains that service for the poor and marginalized is indeed worth it.

Now my focus turns back to us, towards challenging the security we enjoy. A mission trip like ours – into some of the most difficult poverty imaginable – is the granddaddy of all wake-up calls. And such a Third World encounter just can’t exist in our hearts as a vacuum. A Third World encounter can’t be another trip to the poverty theme park.

Dr. Robert DeFina, professor of economics and sociology, challenges Habitat and mission-goers with the “Service as a Trip to the Poverty Theme Park” reality each semester, before every trip. Students always react to his idea differently. Some scratch heads, some feel frustrated, but we all can’t deny how his analogy makes so much sense.

The next time I return to Guatemala, I promised myself I won’t look for a comfy bed. I’ll sleep on the same stiff, wooden boards that my Guatemalan friends sleep on – every night, every week, everyday of their lives. It’s one thing to help uplift them with my sweat and hard work. It’s another thing to actually live with them, just as they do and uplift ourselves in human solidarity. The former is a temporary fix for injustice; the latter is a victory for mankind and a victory for Christianity.

You know, I often wonder how Jesus of Nazareth would live in our world today. Would he work on Wall Street and trade small-cap stocks? Would he defend national security at the cost of diplomacy and soldiers’ lives? Would he reach out to the poor and marginalized? Would he sacrifice himself again for all our selfish desires?

Sometimes I’d like to see a crew like George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton sleep a night on wooden boards. And to assure it would be a mere trip to the poverty theme park, we could provide them tin roofs. Certainly leaders like them place safety and comfort at the top of their wish list for America. Yet, what if we all set aside the safety and comfort we’ve enjoyed our entire lives, and took trips like this – to Guatemala, to Sudan or Somalia?

These poor and marginalized suffer everyday. There is no rest for them, or clean water, or shelter from the rain, or any guarantee they’ll live to see a day of opportunity. There is no time off from their personal roller coasters. And their world is just as real as ours.

Perhaps one day we’ll all break away from the spectator seats behind our newspapers. Perhaps one day, humanity will follow a new Gandhi, a new Desmond Tutu, and live the egalitarian life that’s possible and that Jesus intended.