Over spring break I went on a mission trip to Peru with my school, Christendom College. It was an amazing and unique experience, even in the realm of mission trips. I went into it expecting to do dramatic things and change people’s lives and come away with warm, fuzzy feelings. But the blessings God had in store for me were of a slightly different nature, and He taught me some important lessons I’d never encountered before.
For example, before we left, our group leader told us something we would be reminded of all week. She told us that we would experience our poverty before God. It’s odd, because the first observation that blew me away when we arrived was the material and spiritual poverty of the people of Cuzco. But as the week went along, I was humbled to discover how little I have to offer anyone. In fact, the people of Peru gave me way more than I was ever able to give them.
Our first day, we visited the mountain village of Cucibamba. There, we met a family whose father had cancer. He, along with his wife and 5 children lived in a tiny two-room house made of mud. Surrounding where they lived was fields of mud, grass, rocks and more shacks. They have no resources, nowhere to work, no way to make a living. The sisters introduced us so we could visit them, see the way they live, pray briefly with them, and continue to keep them in our prayers even after we left Peru. It was hard for us to visit them empty-handed. I felt the need to do something for them or give them something. But we had nothing to give them.
We also met an elderly man whose wife and daughter had died. He spent his days tending a beautiful garden and hiking up and down the mountain on foot to Cuzco to sell his herbs to be able to live. Again, I felt helpless that we could do nothing to improve his quality of life. But I began to realize that it’s not always about fixing people’s problems. Our Lady stood at the foot of the cross, just to unite her prayers to His work and redemptive sufferings. In a similar way, even though we sometimes felt useless, we were there to witness the suffering, to learn and meditate on the value of life, and to allow God to use us to accomplish his mission. Because that is what it means to be a missionary, more than anything else.
For the next five days, we went to the school for the poorest children of Cuzco, run by missionaries who volunteer to teach. They run a smooth and well-working operation, and they didn’t always have a lot for us to do. We did odd jobs and interacted with the girls, who were very excited to be with us, but we kept asking if we could do more. The teachers told us that they didn’t care that we weren’t always busily occupied with work. The students were thrilled to have us there! They didn’t need us, but they wanted us. The witness of Christ we provided, the love we showed them was enough. Our presence showed them that they are important to the rest of the world, they are not forgotten, and there are people out there who care enough to pay for a plane ticket, travel for 24 hours, fly 3000 miles, just to see the way they live. Many of the children do not know what it is to have relatives visit, and they never go on vacation or travel anywhere. It is easy to imagine how much our visit meant to them.
We fed the disabled children at the orphanage dinner every day. We had no idea what we were doing. Sometimes we were scared that we weren’t feeding them properly. Every time a child coughed, I worried that they would choke. When it took me an hour to feed one little girl who could barely remember how to swallow, I feared that I was doing it wrong.
I did not always feel like a hero. But I was honored to be there. The first day we saw the rooms with the bed-ridden children lining the walls, being pushed around in wheelchairs, one of the sisters moved us all to tears with her words. She explained to us that, “It is a privilege to serve these children. For these children spend their whole lives suffering with Christ on the cross.”
Whenever the sisters have a prayer intention, they pray with the children, because they know they are holy, and innocent, and Christ hears their prayers. As one of my fellow missionaries pointed out to me one day when I was struggling finding the energy to do our work in the orphanage, “think about it – this is the closest you’ll ever be to a saint.” It’s true. When one of them happens to focus their roaming eyes on you and smile at you, you will learn firsthand the most powerful lesson you can imagine about the value of life, and the truly humbling honor that serving others really is.
The same sister moved us with her words later in the week as well, when she told us her vocation story. She said that her family had been well off. She would walk around the city and be indifferent to the poor. Then, when she was in high school, she went on a retreat run by the missionary sisters and it changed her whole life. The next time she was walking the streets of Cuzco she could no longer look the other way. At fourteen, she told us that she asked God what she could do to help the poor. She told God, “I have nothing to give them!” Then she told us, “And then I realized that all I could give them was my whole life.”
Each of the sisters was a testament to the reward that comes from giving to others. They were peaceful, joyful, and completely themselves, with unique personalities and senses of humor. The blessing of being with them and the opportunity to live their daily lives with them reminded us that the most fulfillment you can ever find in your own life, is when you are not living it for yourself.
It’s funny how we are tempted to think of mission trips. Often we go on them because we want to do something dramatic, to change things, help people, and to give. If you go on a mission trip, some of these things will happen. Hopefully you will try to give 100% of yourself, every minute. And hopefully you can help them in at least some small way. But I guarantee, you will gain so much more from those you help, than you can possibly give them. The thing is, God is taking care of them, and He is perfectly capable of doing that on His own; He doesn’t “need” us. We don’t have anything to offer Him that He didn’t first gift to us. However, He desperately wants us to offer him our helplessness and allow Him to work through us. He wants us to give Him a week of our lives, and not have any expectations. He wants us to abandon our American attitude that we can fix everyone’s problems. He wants to take our uselessness, and our pride, and turn us into His instruments, for whatever humble purpose He asks of us.
I thank God that He sent me on this mission trip, and I encourage you all to go on one if you ever get the opportunity.