Knabb: Service trips serve as important reminders

Justin Runquist

Habitat for Humanity and mission trip programs should consider headlining their applications with a great big caveat: “Warning! Plenty of awkward conversations waiting upon return.”

When I served in Oaxaca, Mexico last spring, I had more grandiose visions of my homecoming. I pictured my parents and brother being so inspired they’d reserve plane tickets to third-world countries. I pictured members of my church pleading to sign up. I imagined the amazement on my friends’ faces as I’d show them pictures.

Truth was, I could just have easily returned from Mars.

The poverty I witnessed in southern Mexico was too foreign for my friends and family to understand. They looked at my pictures and heard my stories, but seemed more puzzled than interested. Some people didn’t even care. And I can imagine that Villanovans who returned from trips last week may have already encountered similar frustrations.

You just can’t articulate to others your takeaways from a service trip. It’s a tough reality because they are some of the most fulfilling experiences out there. So fulfilling, entire books could be written about them. So fulfilling, entire lives could be devoted to them.

But the vast majority just isn’t inspired when you proudly describe how you conversed with a lonely, blind girl all week. They’re not very interested in images of you wiping lumber dust and sweat from your head while helping someone build a home. They can’t relate to the feelings of strolling down dirt streets lined with trash and stray dogs and rusted tin homes.

Nor do they really want to.

Again and again I ask myself, why this is so. Why don’t all Villanovans have these same curiosities? Why do so many students respond with the token line, “Wow! Your trip sounded incredible,” and then never try it themselves? How can Americans – especially those driving BMWs and sporting Gucci handbags – not have an intense desire to understand why they are lucky to have these riches and others can cook only rice and beans? Why aren’t more people curious to uncover truths behind the poverty and injustice in third-world countries?

Maybe I’m nuts. Maybe ignorance really is bliss. Maybe I should just accept that I’m not the next Gandhi or Mother Teresa and continue life by putting on my handmade leather shoes and driving to work in my Acura RSX each morning.

Among my pile of questions and doubts I do have some conclusions. First unfortunate fact: Cancun and Coronas are sexy. Tijuana and sweatshops are not. Second unfortunate fact: many people are all talk and not open to change. As our fellow Villanovans – 389 of them, to be exact – woke up each morning to create positive change last week, the rest of us were often content sleeping right through lunch.

These people now have an awesome responsibility, which is to never forget what they witnessed. After living for a week in Nicaraguan communities without water, that happened to my friend Katie Metcalf.

“You just can’t plead ignorance anymore,” she said. “You return and you have this challenge before you. You want so badly to tell people about your experience. You want so badly to work for justice.”

For missioners and Habitat homebuilders, the curiosity never dies. You question the poverty when you peer out your office window on the 32nd floor. You question the injustice when you hear friends fight over trivial things. You question your own life more often, too.

And in the process, you enrich yourself by reflecting on all you’re thankful for. You reflect on what you learned during your trip: the stunning revelation of what it’s like to be so poor, yet so rich at the same time.

You know, I hear the forecast in Cancun is clouds and rain during spring break 2004. Good thing you can make other travel arrangements in St. Rita’s Hall.