Hauling bags of cement and 500 cinder blocks down a steep ravine to build a house is not something most prairie kids do, but the youth don’t go on that study tour to stay on an even playing field. In Mexico they are jolted out of their expectations of normal life by experiences that aren’t typical for many Canadians their age.
Brenda Curtis, the diaconal minister at Westminster United Church in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, has been leading this kind of trip since 2007. As a student at the Centre for Christian Studies, her own Global Perspective Experience travelling in Central America convinced her that it could enliven the faith of the youth in her congregation. “All of my own social justice passion started when my eyes were opened during my exposure trip as a student—it changed a lot for me”.
Brenda connected with Quest in Cuernavaca to facilitate arrangements for the group’s 12 day trip and to provide learning experiences that focus on globalizing influences in Mexico. For five days in January, the Grade 11 and 12 participants assisted on a building project to benefit the community. In Canada it provided something to work towards as the youth fundraised to buy the materials and hire local Mexican builders. Once they arrived, it was a tangible project that fostered relationships as the youth worked alongside local people. At the worksite Danielle, one of the youth from Humboldt, met Dulce, a 7 year old girl whose home they were reconstructing. While she appeared to have little, she learned their names, offered water, and drew pictures of the participants—they still keep in touch. But the most significant learning came during next week, when the youth found out for themselves the affects of Canadian free trade agreements on the lives of the people they’d been working with.
Harris, another of the youth, found out the hard way on his trip to the market to buy simple meal ingredients. A day’s wage of $6.00 doesn’t buy much. His group came back with only half the things they were sent for. Later he learned about how the North American Free Trade Agreement has eroded subsistence farming, forcing prices for food to increase while at the same time reducing wages. It opened his eyes to why 70% of the population lives below the poverty line. These experiences showed how precarious life can be for ordinary people, and helped dismantle common Canadian perceptions about those living in poverty.
At the same time, the youth observed hopeful signs in people’s entrepreneurial spirit and the informal economy on the streets. Danielle expected to be bringing charity from Canada to people in Mexico. “But it wasn’t like that. They taught us more than we helped them.” It put what’s important into perspective. One participant, after being offered hospitality by a family of 6 living in a tiny house exclaimed, “Oh my goodness. That whole family has to share one room and I was complaining about having to share a bedroom with my sister!”
The youth on every trip have come home globally aware citizens. They see the advantages that come with their lifestyle in Canada. They are more grateful and live more simply. They become interpreters, sharing their stories with their friends and making presentations in the community. Some get more involved in the church, seeing it as an avenue for social justice. Some are more politically active. Harris returned with an idea about lobbying the government to improve the practices of Canadian mining companies, having seen the way they threaten ancient ruins and culture in Mexico. Other participants are drawn to international studies at university. All of the youth who went this January are aware of how their actions in Canada can have global implications for their new friends in Mexico.
When Brenda first arrived in Humboldt and asked how many people at the church were interested in outreach, only two people put up their hands. Now, because of the large number of youth and adults who have been on these trips, there is a different sense of mission in the whole congregation. People understand they have to be responsible neighbours. Even though Brenda says after each trip: “That’s the last one!”, the changes she has observed in the people of her congregation keep her going back when the next group of youth come along. “I don’t know many people who would take a group of teens to Mexico” Harris observed, “But it’s a great way for us to learn about the world and hear the voices of those we don’t usually listen to.”
It all started with the education Brenda received at the Centre for Christian Studies. It still informs her practice of ministry. More than that, it influences the way youth in this Saskatchewan community are now able to reflect on the impact of their actions on their new friends in Mexico.
– written by Lori Stewart