A reflection by a former delegate from First Lutheran Church of Duluth, partnered with San Antonio Los Ranchos in El Salvador.
During my senior year of high school, I went on my second trip to visit our sister congregation in Los Ranchos, El Salvador. This trip, like the first one, was much different than what I expected of a so-called “mission trip”. When one thinks of a mission trip, most envision building a home and following the general format of a Habitat for Humanity volunteer experience. While those endeavors are necessary and beneficial, the Los Ranchos trip is unique in its approach, making it all the more valuable and important.
While in Los Ranchos, we each stayed with a host family, often in only one or sometimes two room homes where the whole family slept together. Instead of going there to “do” something, we went there first and foremost to learn: to exchange ideas, cultures, and dreams. Rather than simply implementing a project, this process of exchange enabled us to find our shared humanity. Even though I stayed with people with whom, by my initial impression, I had nothing in common, we ended up finding that we were all more similar than we thought. Like me, other kids my age wanted to go to college or find jobs that would enable them to support themselves and perhaps start a family. However, unlike me, they encountered much higher barriers to these things that many Americans take for granted. Every family had a relative directly affected by the drawn out civil war during the 1980s and into the 1990s. Every family had a family member who was in the U.S…., working just so that they could support their families back in Los Ranchos. Most had left not wanting to work illegally in the U.S., but had felt they had no other option. Kids my age remaining in the community wanted to go to college, but most lacked the financial means to do so. From all of this, we learned that many of the biggest problems the community faced were economic barriers to education and resulting barriers to employment. Rather than going in to fix something in the community without proper knowledge of the key problems beforehand, we were able to find out directly from the community what they needed most. As a result, First Lutheran established a scholarship fund to support bright college students from Los Ranchos who are committed to staying in El Salvador and investing in making the future of Los Ranchos more vibrant.
I most recently worked on an international development project implemented in Southern Syria. Our project assesses and repairs essential infrastructure in war torn communities. Damaged infrastructure includes damaged municipal water supply, shelled schools and hospitals, and destroyed electrical infrastructure. Before even designing or implementing a project, our Syrian engineers go to a community to speak with the community members in order to get an accurate view of the community’s most needed projects. The Los Ranchos trip first opened my eyes to the importance of directly engaging with people, finding our shared humanity, and then working to improve each other’s lives from there. While I like to think that we were able to make an impact on people’s lives in Los Ranchos, what I know for sure is that my experience with them deeply affected my life, enriched it, and set me on the path where I am now.
– Leah R., April 22, 2015