Letting Immersion Mean Immersion

When I traveled to Guatemala with an immersion group of teachers over the summer, we met at the Houston the airport. One of the first things that I noticed in our terminal was that a number of youth groups were also waiting to board planes, with members of each group identifiable by their matching t-shirts. One group, members of a local Christian church, was going to board the same flight as us. They, along with their adult chaperons, wore bright green t-shirts with the name of their church printed in the shape of Guatemala. I was interested in why this group was visiting the country, so I struck up a conversation with one of the adult chaperons. He explained to me that, every year, youth from their church traveled to Guatemala to act out Bible stories to the local people.

I was definitely taken aback by this. I had been prepared for a host of responses to my question: "We are going to build houses," or, "We are going to hand out food." Acting out Bible verses had not entered into this equation. Perhaps it is because, at least in my Catholic faith, it seems like an old fashioned notion. Catholics tend to be uncomfortable with the idea of "mission," especially direct attempts to convert. Seeing mission instead in terms of "good works" is much more comfortable for many Catholics in the 21st Century, and even then they tend to prefer words like "service."

But I began to wonder what the difference was between the sense of mission felt by this youth group and the notions that I described as more "modern." Both, it seems, are based on an idea that we from the US are entering into someone else's world to offer some sort of salvation to a foreign people - they have problems; we have the solutions. Some of us may define those solutions differently: Christian faith, housing, food, vocational training, etc. But whatever our definitions, they come from a similar place - a place that, while well-intentioned, seems to place ourselves above our neighbors beyond our borders.

We use the word "immersion" a lot to describe these encounters. I think that reflecting on that word and what it really means, though, can help us get back in touch with why we go on these experiences. If we go fist to build, or to preach, or to teach, what are we immersing ourselves in? If we truly seek an immersion experience, we should first try to simply live among people, interact with them, and enter into their lives. Instead of seeing them as having a problem that we can fix, maybe we can see ourselves as having a problem that they can help address. Our problem is that we have brothers and sisters all over the world that we do not know very well. Our problem is that we need to better know Christ, and Christ is present in those who are poor, those who are suffering, those who are marginalized.

The group that I was leading was going for this reason. We wanted to broaden our understanding of who our brothers and sisters are, and to get to know some of them on an authentic level. While there, we were tempted to jump first to assessing the situation and prescribing a solution, and needed to remind ourselves and each other of why we were going: to be present.

This is a continuous tension and struggle. I am working now with a parish group embarking on a sister parish relationship in Haiti. We are traveling soon to make our first visit, and members of the group have expressed some struggles in conveying the purpose of this journey to their fellow parishioners. We know that we are going to meet, to learn, and to build relationships, but others are eager to send supplies with us, or to give us advice about clean water projects that we should start. Maybe, at some point, we will bring supplies or fund a water project, but only if that is what makes sense in our relationship with our sister parishioners. In any case, that is not where we start. We are going to build friendships; to immerse ourselves in the world of the friends that we hope to make.

Someone helping us with our travel to Haiti made a point to tell us not to wear matching t-shirts. This notion of immersion struck me again: how can we immerse ourselves in another culture while so clearly indicating that we stand separate from it? These are tough questions, tough notions for us to let go of, especially since, as I said, they do come from a good place. But the teachers that traveled with us to Guatemala were grateful for the experience, and felt blessed to be able to be among the people that they met. We grew in faith, experienced great joy in relationship with others, and came to understand something more of the world, of the lives of our brothers and sisters, and our calling as children of God.