Message of love acquired in outreach program to Belize
by Michael Gilmore
May 10, 2006
As we stepped off the plane, a rush of warm, tropical air hit our faces and clung to our skin. The humidity, bright sun and noisy tarmac of Belize International Airport acted as our portal from American comfort to Belizean reality. Excitement and anxiety about the experience was particularly overwhelming, as over a year of planning was about to bear fruit – our group, Belize International Outreach, had finally arrived.
Each year the campus ministers review the many applicants for the trip and choose thirteen or fourteen students to travel to the small nation of Belize during Spring Break. The Belize immersion experience is sponsored by Campus Ministry and also receives support from ASSU. While in Belize, an English-speaking former British colony, students work at different locations in Belize City in smaller groups. Our group was fortunate enough to work, like many before us, at a variety of places: a home for abused and abandoned children; a care center for the elderly; a soup kitchen for elderly poor; an elementary school and the local YWCA.
After a weekend of getting to know one another more thoroughly by visiting the Mayan archeological site of Xunantunich, floating down the Mopan river, and enjoying several meals of rice, beans and chicken, the first day of work at our placements started on a warm Monday morning.
We experienced the extreme piety, humility and warmth of the Belizean people were encountered repeatedly during our time in Belize. Traveling to Belize, I expected to be changed. I knew that I would face the ugly, unfortunate and unpleasant – what I didn’t expect was to see how much beauty is also present. Like my fellow traveler Lizzy McKernan showed me, there is beauty in everything; we are conditioned to see the negative and consequently miss out on so much else.
The trip ended with a trip to the Cayes – beautiful islands off the coast of Belize – where we snorkeled, swam, reflected and talked. It was there that we began to process the experience. Leaving the relationships we formed, placements we worked at and the city we had just gotten to know, was almost as difficult as leaving one another after returning to the States.
Sometimes I imagine myself back on the island, on that dock, where the night was black and the water lapping beneath us. The ocean and sky fused with one another at the horizon, and only the faint island lights illuminated our faces. Where we were vulnerable, young, afraid, hopeful, where we were everything to each other and nothing compared to the stars above. I think of that night and what was said and shared. I think of the love I have for the people surrounding me, and I miss that circle. For a year I sat and looked at those faces not knowing what lay inside their hearts and minds. It was revealed, layer by layer, every time we shared a meal, a laugh, a hug, or some tears.
Our Sunday prayer service on the beach, where we sang and reflected and told each other what we really thought of one another – with our well-earned sunburns, we sat beside the ocean and I dug in the sand with my hands. The shells sit by my desk, near the framed group photo, fragmented journal, airplane ticket stubs and even the “what to pack” list.
I try to imagine myself back there, again, in the future, without the members of our group, and it fills me with loneliness immediately. To be there, on the island, where we savored every moment knowing it was ending. We sat there, raw from our experiences, the faces of those we had met fresh in our mind, their voices still resonating in our sun burnt ears. AIDS, hunger, poverty, homelessness, abandonment, and always the underlying love of God and certainty that His work will be done – these issues characterize the experience of Belizeans that we came to know. Gratitude, humility, kindness and generosity, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, much less practiced, are what I will remember most. We were there on that beach – singing, dancing, laughing – in the light of God.