For someone like me who likes to travel a lot, the mission trip to St. Lucia meant a shift in perspective. Though being a tourist isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it doesn’t have a lot to do with true submersion in local culture. You go from airport to hotel, shuttling between beaches and landmarks without getting any sense of how people live. In a week’s vacation you may sample the culture, but only from the comfortable perspective of how different it is from the American way of life. You see, you taste, you experience, but you don’t actually learn about local life.
The mission trip to St. Lucia was by necessity completely different. The seventeen of us were not tourists, but new friends seeking to help, to comfort, and to learn. Abandoning our preconceived notions of how we’d usually spend a week in a tropical paradise, we took on the perspective of missionaries and had our lives changed by the experience. We opened our hearts, and had them filled anew.
What changed for me? Where usually I would see beautiful churches and marvel at their architecture and art, now each parish was the sum of its congregation, the warm embraces of strangers during the sign of peace at daily mass. Strip away the glamour and exoticism of shops and markets, and we began to see the poor and hungry that live without shelter. As we got to know people, through visiting nursing homes and interacting with people on the street, we learned about the true lives of St. Lucians. They stopped being strangers and became new friends.
Life changes when you lose the label of ‘tourist’ and assume the vocation of ‘missionary’. People opened up in ways you would never expect when they saw the Franciscan crosses around our necks. My most memorable interaction was with a craftsman named Luke in the market. What started as a simple transaction became a long conversation about his craft, his family, his faith, and his life in St. Lucia. We ended on a prayer and each walked away enriched by the experience. These are interactions you miss as a tourist.
It will be very hard to slip back into the role of tourist now. Can I go back to just seeing a beach, now that I see God in the sand and the sea? Will the poverty of a city ever become all but invisible again, now that I’ve seen the world that exists in the shadow of monuments and towers? I don’t think I can be just a tourist again, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. This mission trip has been a gift in many ways. The people we met will hopefully think fondly of our time in St. Lucia, as I will forever hold in highest regard the people of that island and how they helped change my life forever.