On October of 2016, I signed up with the Maryknoll Fathers for a three-week mission trip to East Africa. Our itinerary included visits to Tanzania, Kenya, and a wild game safari. My knowledge of Africa was limited to what I'd read in National Geographic and seen on TV documentaries. Indeed, I found Africa vast in beauty, culture, and history, but I discovered much more. The purpose of our mission was to visit with people who live in third world conditions in the cities, villages, and bush country, and that experience opened my heart in unexpected ways.
In the large cities, there was political unrest and crime on the streets. Taking appropriate precautions for our safety, we visited first a slum area in Nairobi, Kenya. I was shocked, as I had never seen such poverty and unconceivable living conditions. Suffering obvious malnutrition, the people were especially vulnerable to diseases such AIDS, malaria, and cholera. The lifespan for the slum residents is around forty-seven years.
After visiting and praying with people in their homes, we traveled to visit with the people who live in villages and the bush. I was amazed to see that the people still live in small grass-and-clay huts. Those who live in these places work hard for their food and safety but do not feel they are in poverty. "Poverty" is a term we use to describe their living conditions. No matter how hostile their environment, the people for the most part are courteous, hospitable, and happy. The children were fascinated by my lighter skin and hair on my arms. Some of the children touched my skin and rubbed their face on my arms, a humbling experience.
One evening, I lay in bed thinking about the great strength and faith of the people. I wondered how they could have such faith living in these conditions. A woman who lived in the slums of Nairobi said to me, "Our faith in God is deep because sometimes that's all we have, faith. Sometimes there is no food or medicine, and when we get it, we thank God first because we believe it comes from Him. Then we show gratitude to those who helped us. We believe that God puts things into the hands of some that others may be served." God is their insurance plan, their retirement plan, and their 401(k).
After two weeks of speaking with individuals and families, I went to bed thinking about the hostile environment and challenging social issues faced by these wonderful people. At three o'clock in the morning, I woke up feeling restless and helpless because of my inability to do anything to help. How I wished that I had enough money to help everyone. In the silence of the night, it occurred to me that giving money was not the answer. It seemed that I wanted to ease my pain by writing a check so I could be done with it, my customary way for dealing with my responsibility to the poor. It was clear to me that I needed to embrace the issue of "poverty" and let it resonate within me for my spiritual development. But for how long, I wondered. I heard a soft whisper, "Until it makes you a better person." Another thought came to mind: These people were not asking for help, and how arrogant of me to think that I should rescue them.
Today I realize that I went to East Africa not to change others but to change my heart. I now have an appreciation for the difference between economic poverty and spiritual poverty. I realize that the compassion of Christ is an expression not of feeling sorry or pity but of deep sympathy that moves one to share in the suffering of others. The Lord took me to East Africa and carved his compassion in my heart so deep that I now can see his face in the presence of poverty.
Deacon David Alcorta is the Pastoral Assistant for Outreach Ministry at St. Mary Magdalen Parish/St. John Mission in Everett Washington. He traveled to Africa with Maryknoll on a mission immersion trip last October.