By Ryan Juskus, volunteer in San Martín in 2004
There is a joke about a short-term humanitarian volunteer who visited an East African country to spend time serving kids in an orphanage. While there, he took lots of selfies with some of the orphans. When he returned home, he described the experience as “transformative,” so much so that he used one of those photos as his facebook profile picture for a whole two weeks!
The joke, of course, is that if such an encounter were so transformative, then it would have led to a lifestyle and vocational commitment to identify and combat the root causes of human suffering and injustice in our world today. And such a commitment would cause him to ask the hard questions about his own country, privilege, and complicity in unjust systems that create or maintain broken relationships. In other words, transformation would have included more than a transformed facebook profile. It would have included a transformed lifestyle and spiritual life.
Researchers at Notre Dame estimate that an astounding 30% of the adolescent population of the US (ages 13-17) have participated in a religious short-term mission trip overseas (Smith & Denton 2005). A further 1.6 million American adults are estimated to participate in these trips every year (Wuthnow & Offutt 2008). Considering that American youth and adults generally encounter marginal and vulnerable populations during these trips, if it were true that such experiences were “transformative,” then we would expect to see a massive reformation of American faith life, including an increased presence of Christians involved in reforming and re-imagining our life together on this planet. We would expect to see a significant amount of personal and structural change, something akin to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “moral arc” that “bends toward justice.” While deep lifestyle changes are certainly true for some of these participants, the sad reality is that “transformation” usually ends with the facebook profile.
The story, however, does not end there. The good news is that organizations like Paz y Esperanza have reshaped the short-term volunteer experience in such a way that transformation is deep, mutual, redemptive, and long-lasting. As I reflect on these ten years since I volunteered for six months with Paz y Esperanza in Moyobamba, Peru in 2004, a few things have become clear. First, I was inspired by the lifelong commitments of Peruvian Christians to take the biblical call to justice and mercy seriously by connecting their spiritual lives to their lifelong vocations in law, psychology, education, and journalism. As a child of educators, I have since pursued a form of education that seeks to build empathy, replace barriers with bridges, and elicit ethical and creative living in a world full of challenges and opportunities for redemptive living.
Second, I learned about the power of advocacy to shape decision-making processes in order to include the perspectives and considerations of vulnerable and excluded communities, like women, indigenous groups, and children. This was a major influence on my current field of scholarship: the intersection of property rights, theology, and social and environmental justice.
Third, I learned how to engage the world around me with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, never settling for easy answers or cheap grace. The story of how Paz y Esperanza was founded by young evangelicals who felt moved by the Spirit to risk getting involved energized me toward my present commitment to equipping young people to confront social and environmental issues in their own contexts. Having seen broken and restored relationships in Peru, I returned with a new lens to see broken relationships in my own place as well as possibilities for reconciliation.
Lastly, I have never forgotten these things, and neither have they forgotten me. After ten years, when I am personally tempted or encouraged by others to “get over this phase” or “seek a normal and comfortable life,” I return to the people, faces, and stories that became part of my own story while interning with Paz y Esperanza. What was transformed during those months in Peru was my personal narrative. I returned to the US with a calling to be responsible for my own life decisions, for how my life intersects in negative and positive ways with others, and for how my people’s lifestyle and decisions impact others. Abstract concepts like poverty, injustice, development, and human rights became for me actual human beings in concrete situations: children in situations of domestic abuse, Aguaruna women lining up to apply for citizenship after hundreds of years of exclusion, a widow from political violence attending a public hearing to advocate for reparations, a pastor forgiving his torturers after his miraculous release from a military interrogation. Only in the concrete can our hearts learn compassion.
My current position within a Christian university is to equip, send, and guide college students as they participate in similar kinds of initiatives by grassroots and international organizations around the world. Paz y Esperanza remains one of the most engaged and creative organizations that I have encountered. The Andemos program took what could have easily been more failed short-term volunteer trips and transformed them into a kind of pilgrimage and education for people ready to risk not facebook profile transformation, but deep and lifelong spiritual and ethical transformation. This is not “poverty tourism.” It is accompaniment with Peruvian and expat, Christian and non-Christian professionals who are on the same journey toward a more just society. Andemos offered me—and I trust they will continue to offer many others—a hopeful vision of God at work in the world, reconciling all things in and through the person of Jesus. It is true that the barriers are great. But it is even truer that Christ is greater.