Many years ago, I was speaking with a physician friend who had just returned from a mission trip in El Salvador. One of his medical team’s main concerns in remote villages was musculoskeletal pain, something which he felt unprepared to address as any medicine left with them would soon be gone, with no chance of replenishment. I suggested the possibility of teaching volunteers in the village how to do simple hands-on techniques. At that point, I also realized I had just volunteered.
While I was both excited and nervous to embark on this trip, I was surprised at the reaction from many of my friends and colleagues about the purpose of the endeavor.
“Why do you need to go to El Salvador to help the poor? There are people here in the USA who are poor and need help as well.”
I didn’t really have an answer for this, just that someone asked me to help and I’m going to see if I can contribute.
My wife Janet and I had only been married for a few months and the area where I was going was not without danger. There was some nervousness about the wisdom of going and it was our first lengthy separation. The day before I left, Janet wanted to spend some quality time together. In her family, some of the best memories of family time revolved around mushroom hunting. Always one for a walk in the woods, I was ready and willing.
First, I have to preface (this is the really weak defense part of the story) that if we are in search of “prey” in the woods, I am a male and grew up on a farm. Therefore, if anyone is going to find hidden treasure in the woods. . . (Oh brother…)
While my wonderful wife was happily strolling through the forest and enjoying the day, I was a crazy person, intently scanning the landscape like I was in search of dangerous landmines or priceless truffles. Relaxed, I was not.
Soon, I heard the voice of my beloved. “Found some!”
I’m not proud to admit I wasn’t thrilled at her success. Walking over to observe her examining a cluster of morel mushrooms, I was stunned to see what they actually looked like. Yes, you read that correctly. I was in search of a mushroom that I have never actually seen and did not know what it looked like. How pathetic is that? I just assumed that they would look different from the mushrooms I had seen in the store, therefore I’d know one when I saw one. Right. Looking at the cluster of morels, I had the sinking feeling that I probably stepped on many of them already, not knowing what I was looking for. The rest of the day was a lot more fun, and a lot more productive.
My trip to El Salvador was one of the most physically and emotionally difficult trips I have ever done. I have never seen that level of poverty and it was gut-wrenching. Women who walked over an hour one way to get a bit of water from a glorified mud puddle. (My mom always used to say that even if you are poor, at least you can be clean. How is that possible when water is so scarce?) Families lived in adobe houses, where pigs and chickens also slept in the house at night. I grew up on a farm with pigs and chickens but sleeping in the same house with them is a different matter! After two weeks, I have a very different understanding of what poverty was and the effect it can have on every aspect of the human existence.
Also, during this time my own cleanliness and hygiene were a bit more difficult. I had not shaved or had a decent shower in two weeks. Arriving at O’Hare airport on the flight home, I was taken aback by how I was treated by the airport staff and authorities. When I needed to make a change in my flight and pulled out my preferred flyer status information, the airline people looked at me like I must have stolen it. Arriving in Champaign, I had to wait a bit for my wife to pick me up. Twice, the policemen assigned to the airport reminded me that loitering at the airport is not permitted. These are the same people who would normally do everything possible to help me.
Sitting on that curb at the airport while waiting for my wife, I finally had the answer to that question about why I needed to go to another country to help with poverty. Just like hunting for those morel mushrooms, I thought that I would surely know poverty when I saw it. On further review, until I saw what egregious poverty looks like, I had no capacity to recognize more subtle presentations. Just like those morels, I had the sickening feeling I had unwittingly stepped on poverty because I did not know the signs. It was a humbling epiphany, a lesson in “morelity”.