US Catholic Faith in Real Life

No trip to Disneyland

By Gregory Maher | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Mosquito netting and malaria medication aren’t usually on the packing list for a family vacation. But seeing the developing world firsthand can be the first step for young Catholics to realize that “it’s a small world, after all.”

Megan Lavery was 4 when she and her family left Missouri in 1977 to serve as Maryknoll lay missionaries for three years in the hardscrabble village of Chiantla, Guatemala. It was only years later, while in college, that Lavery began to understand the impact of her experience, as she encountered students in upstate New York who hadn’t traveled outside their small towns. “They didn’t know there was a world much different than theirs,” she says. “It meant something to me that I did, and I traced that knowledge to my time in Guatemala.”

Lavery’s comments evoke the words of a great educator, Maria Montessori, who stressed the importance of “social education at a young age.” Should a “social education” with an eye to the developing world be a priority for young American Catholics in a global church? Do Catholics have a duty to strive to imbue justice into economic and political systems that affect billions living in the developing world?

Pope Benedict XVI addressed the last question in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, where he wrote that the church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.” A world where people and their cultures are less distant than ever before “challenges us to share their situation and their difficulties.”

For some young Catholics, sharing those difficulties bumps up against subtle yet powerful forces. Today’s public square often highlights struggles for personal holiness and acceptance of Christ. A close relationship with God is indeed crucial to faith, but for Catholics especially, it also begs a question: How does a successful personal struggle result in a more just world?

Our income-stratified suburbs—places often far removed geographically and psychologically from the troubles plaguing the world’s poor—compound the problem, causing many young Americans to live in a bubble, unexposed to the spectrum of economic conditions both in their own country and throughout the world. Developing an expansive, social holiness in this setting can be difficult.

Yet the gospel unquestionably requires us to comprehend and seek to reduce the inequities in our world. In my view visiting a poverty-stricken land and seeing how the real people there live is a vital ingredient in that journey, one for which there simply is no substitute.

While none of us wants our children subjected to physical danger or psychological trauma, we should be gently encouraging them to consider on-the-ground experiences in safer parts of the developing world. Unhomogenized moments among the poor will likely make them better equipped to empathize with the destitution many face. Whether mission work, student backpacking as a teenager, a domestic service project in the post-hurricane Gulf region, or even an excursion during a Latin American, African, or Asian vacation, travels like these can be transformative.

Typically the shorter the stay, the less a visit can accomplish, particularly if a work project is involved. Plus the nature of the experience is crucial. Passing by street poverty for two weeks near a Caribbean resort is unlikely to be as powerful as living in the midst of it for a week. Six months or more of mission work offers the most complete exposure, but is difficult for many Americans to do.

Turning a child’s or teenager’s heart toward the poor, even during a shorter, perhaps shallower experience, is much harder to measure. Janine Boucher-Colbert, youth programs director for Catholic Relief Services West, recalls her family’s frustration during her first week in Brazil. “A wise Maryknoll priest adviser told me that not knowing the language ‘is a great gift for us who are wealthy, as it is the only time we are really poor, dependent, and not in charge.’”

Even a brief visit can plant potent seeds. Two years ago my wife and I and our children—then ages 10, 8, and 4—spent a week in Tecolote, Mexico, a village about an hour over the Mexican border from San Diego. Two Sisters of Charity arranged for us to live in an apartment above a community center. Each afternoon we put on a program of activities for the 30 children at the center using supplies we brought for painting shirts, drawing puzzles, creating paper art, and playing card and board games. Our kids witnessed the hardship of life in Tecolote firsthand, something our words could never have explained.

Because these kinds of experiences are so diverse, often occur outside structured programs, and are not tracked in any central database, it’s difficult to know how trips to developing countries change the lives of young U.S. Catholics. But anecdotal evidence suggests that parents should be prepared for the experience to have a lasting impact.

Monica Gagnon, who lived in Sierra Leone until she was 2, is a good example. When she was 10 her father’s job again brought the family to Africa for two more years. She saw plenty of poverty in Ghana’s villages and says it “had a huge impact.” Recently she spent one of her semesters as a student at Ohio’s Oberlin College studying gender and development in Mali, the third poorest country in the world.

“I always knew I would want to study in West Africa,” she says, “as a connection to my family’s time there.” Gagnon went inland to live with a Muslim family as part of a homestay program because she wanted to “do the hardest thing.” Although she was miserable in the unrelenting heat and never felt fully welcomed by her host family, she said being there taught her an important lesson about simplicity. She now works for Heifer International, which raises money to provide farm animals to poor families internationally.

Gagnon’s experience might imply that every kid visiting the developing world cares about it. That’s not true of course. But how does your average kid who’s seen that world take in a story about a community ravaged by a preventable disease? Is it likely to bring only a shudder of thankfulness he doesn’t live there? Or might that experience cause a desire to understand the problem more deeply and to push for a solution?

As far as the best economic and political approaches, international travel doesn’t automatically push a young person into one political camp. I have two Catholic friends who lived in impoverished countries as young men. Today one is conservative and believes the jobs created by mostly unrestrained growth are the best route out of poverty. The other acknowledges the critical role of commerce but believes that sound governmental interventions are needed to make results more equitable.

Like Monica Gagnon, Megan Lavery’s career after school led her to work for a charity, a student exchange program in New York. There she met a young man from Togo, whom she dated and eventually married. Together they now operate a small nonprofit that helps more children attend public school in Togo, Benin, and Senegal. Lavery’s life is an outgrowth of what she’s learned—that “everyone is the same, that we all need to look beyond skin color, and that there is a world beyond our own where people live differently.”

Just like faith, social holiness can only be caught, not taught. Which reminds me of another saying, one from Pope Paul VI that I recently saw on a car bumper: “If you want peace, work for justice.” Not a bad slogan to remember as you make travel plans.