For our writer, the challenges of a Honduran mission trip began before touchdown.
By Stephanie Hunt
"Return your seat backs and tray tables to their full upright and locked positions." The monotone orders jar me from my high altitude doze. Our 757 jostles and bumps as we begin the final descent through clouds hovering over Tegucigalpa. Honduras' mountains, bare and crumbling from decades of deforestation and mining, come into view as the plane's landing gear belches out from below. The engine does that "vroom" then silent thing that always scares the hell out of me, and as I strain for a view from my aisle seat, I notice that the treetops below seem awfully close for the plane to still be banking left. Sharply left. My grip tightens, my breathing gets gulpy, my bargains with God more earnest. This feels more like an amusement park ride than typical landing, only I’m not amused.
The descent continues, as does the 70-degree tilt, and finally the wings level, only seconds, it seems, before the wheels bump down and the brakes clamp. Joining in with other relieved passengers, I cheer and clap, getting the blood flowing back into my white knuckles. "Take nothing for granted," the applause seems to say—appropriate, I suppose, for a Central American welcome.
It turns out that the Tegucigalpa airport is legendary for dicey landings. Good thing I didn't know that before I blithely boarded with my 15 year-old daughter, cheerfully on our way for a feel-good spring break service trip. According to an American Airlines pilot who enlightened us on our return layover in Miami, it's the most difficult runway in the Southern hemisphere—only 1.5 kilometers long and surrounded by mountains. Pilots have to be specially trained and certified to land there, and must fly in every 90 days in order to stay on the Tegucigalpa flight rotation. "Those guys really have to like that sort of thing," the pilot said, shaking his head.
Unlike the elite daredevil pilots, I wasn't so sure I'd "like that sort of thing" when I signed up for our church's mission trip to Honduras. Near death experiences aside, I was uncomfortable with being the privileged American swooping in on the big jet (however shakily) to help those less fortunate. Angelina Jolie has that covered, doesn't she? I was wary of the pretension of it all, especially under the guise of the church. "Mission trip" sounds so loaded, so “Poisonwood Bible.” Hammering and hard labor—no problem; I've got a strong back and plenty of pent-up frustration to unleash on a building project or two, but the reluctant Christian in me shied away from loud proclaiming of anything, much less the Gospel. As two other church groups boarded our plane, one with matching maroon "Mission Trip 2008" t-shirts and another swarm all wearing wooden nametags complete with stigmata, I squirmed. When filling out the customs paperwork, I quickly checked "tourism" for "Purpose of Trip."
Honduras, however, had its own proclaiming to do. "Here mute pain gesticulates / on every hill, and over every bridge / the people trudge toward nothing," writes Roberto Sosa, Honduras's literary laureate, in his poem, "Tegucigalpa." It's a land of rugged beauty and roaming despair. Tegucigalpa, the capitol, is a barbed city, with ubiquitous razor wire strung like the Griswold's Christmas lights. Shantytowns are carved, impossibly, into steep mountainsides; cinderblock, tin and ruffled terracotta roof tiles are backdrop for blazing purple bougainvillea. Diesel fumes and dust hang heavy in the air, trash and skinny dogs are everywhere, and yet the children, the children. Their smiles and eager, tender hugs belie the reality of their poverty and limited options for their future. These children were the missionaries; theirs is the face of God.
Our little band of volunteers, 11 teenagers and nine adults, sans matching t-shirts or nametags, painted metal security bars, hung barbed wire on make-shift fence posts (or tried to), dug a sewer, and even, miracle of miracles, sang happy Jesus songs complete with cornball hand motions. The singing actually pushed our crew beyond our comfort zone more than hours of heave-hoeing a pickaxe did. Our church leans toward a progressive open-minded theology, tolerant of most everything but evangelical overtones and contemporary praise music. No electric guitars or karaoke church for us; we cling to creaky old hymns and keep our hands holding the hymnal, not waving about or clapping, heaven forbid. Nonetheless, gathered in an open-air soccer court overlooking the mountains and the oddly alluring urban blight, we let loose in off-key melody and fumbled over unfamiliar verses, lifted by the voices of Honduran school children. "Open the eyes of my heart," we sang together, a bunch of gringos with sore backs and misty eyes.
Widened eyes, a blistered thumb and an opened, humbled heart is part of what I carried home from Honduras, along with two pounds of coffee and a kitschy ceramic rooster. My intentionally unpolished unholier-than-thou veneer that I've carefully crafted over the years may have lost a little of its lackluster during all that sanding, painting, and inhaling of stiff mineral spirits. My churchy cynicism doesn't help build schools or feed hungry children. Working alongside well-meaning unabashed believers made me realize that God may not play favorites after all. Maybe a will to serve matters more than the songs one sings, goofy hand motions or not.
Our take off from Tegucigalpa was swift and smooth, and landing back in the states was boringly routine, but I made bargains with God anyway. Open the eyes of my heart, I asked. Remove my barbed judgments, my smug self-importance—just please, don't make me relinquish all those old somber hymns just yet.
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Contributing editor Stephanie Hunt's last essay for SoMA was Eggs Benedict.
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