I’ll never forget the rush of excitement when a plane touches down in a different country than where it takes off. I hope it’s a rush I won’t have to forget, but instead one I will feel again and again, my stomach full of butterflies, my mind full of ideas.
I remember the first time I felt it. After a seventeen hour long plane ride, an accented voice came over the intercom, “Welcome to South Africa.” I knew it was the start of something big, but I had no way of understanding the true impact the next two weeks would have on my life. As I exchanged my dollars for the South African Rand, as I saw a part of the world I had known little about a few months before, as I met people from a completely different world than my own, I didn’t realize those few weeks were starting a new chapter in my life.
This chapter has changed my perspective on the world. Before traveling to South Africa and Zambia, I grew up in Colorado in a Christian, middle-class family. Only seventeen, I didn’t know the meaning of need. Going to these countries on the southern tip of the African continent opened my eyes. Of course I had heard about poverty, seen movies about AIDS, and read about the church’s work in other countries, but now I got to experience these things firsthand. And the people – nothing could have prepared me for these amazing people – smiling and singing in the face of adversity in all forms.
The next summer, I traveled to the Marshall Islands, a relatively unknown group of islands in Micronesia. Although my family and I had never been wealthy by our country’s terms, I realized how foolish the materialism of my world was next to the simplicity of the Marshallese. These people were truly happy. Their smiles were contagious, and yet they had little to their name.
I think many people see these same things after visiting ‘less fortunate’ countries than our own. A man once asked what good it would be for one to gain the whole world if he lost his soul. Perhaps America and other industrialized countries have gained the whole world – the earth’s natural resources at our fingertips, poorer countries dependent on our charity, three fourths of the world’s income coming to our top twenty percent. And perhaps while we have gained all these things, we have lost our soul – lost our joy, our compassion, our family unit, our dependence on one another, our spirituality.
I believe traveling to other countries, especially ones that are vastly different, is the first step to gaining back our soul. I believe that as the realities of the Africans, the Marshallese, and others, become our realities, we are gripping onto the humanity that is slipping away from us. I believe that these experiences that open our eyes will also open our hearts.
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