In February I took my first trip (of hopefully many) to Jamaica. However I did not travel to Montego Bay to frolic in the Caribbean waters or roast my pasty body under the blazing sun or devour large quantities of jerk chicken. Although I am not opposed to such leisure activities as time, pocketbook and life permits, that was not the purpose of my journey. My mission was to meet with Jamaican pastors who are affiliated with our denomination, build relationships, assess their physical and spiritual needs, and explore how our church might strategically partner with them to do God’s work in their country. Of course it does not hurt that IT IS Jamaica: fantastic people, food, climate, and pace of life. But our church is relatively new to sending international short-term mission teams and Jamaica is geographically close, relatively affordable, English is the official language, and our Jamaican churches have a solid infrastructure in place to accommodate the needs of an American church team.
If you have never visited Jamaica, it is a place of great material and spiritual need. The average Jamaican earns 10 American dollars a day. This number is starkly highlighted by the fact that I am writing this article as I sit in Starbucks and consume a $4 coffee beverage (I know, I should feel more guilt than I do!). The Jamaicans I interacted with observed that the unemployment rate was as high as 70-80% (an unofficial number). They asserted that the major problems facing Jamaica is alcohol and drug addiction, violent gang crime, and child abuse. Obviously, most tourists miss this side of Jamaica as they play in the sun and surf at Sandals resort.
Now I am not a neophyte to international travel. I have had the honor and privilege of visiting 15 countries in the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and Europe. I have witnessed worse poverty in India and Nigeria than Jamaica. But the thing that always gets me is that people in other countries seem to have more JOY. They might own less materially and financially speaking, but they appear to value relationships more than we do here in the United States. I know what I am saying is in danger of lapsing into cliché, but here in America we are prosperous in our resources. But I find this to be more of a curse than a blessing. Because we use our resources to mask and avoid our spiritual need. If we have enough things, we don’t need God. Our widgets and gadgets keep us preoccupied and entertained. But they can easily divert our attention from the most important matters in life.
I don’t find people in other countries facing this same challenge. They are less materialistic, more open and transparent. They have time for relationships. They make time for God (evidenced by their three hours plus worship services). They have a vibrant and passionate faith. This is one of the major reasons I love international travel: it reminds me that the way I live is in the minority compared to the rest of the globe. Travel enlarges my horizons, it helps me put THE world and MY world into perspective. There is a dialogical interchange when I leave our borders: I give something of myself and culture, but I learn so much more in return. So the Jamaicans have much to teach me regarding God, people and life.
In spite of all this, I don’t regret the fact that I am an American. I am not ashamed of my heritage. After all it was Jesus who said “To whom much is given, much will be expected.” It is my burden and blessing to use my resources and education to help meet the needs of Jamaicans and the rest of the world. In that process I will be challenged to grow spiritually…and improve my tan.