By Roy Goble
Twice a year I lead people on a whirlwind trip to Belize. They are meant to teach others about the mission ofPathLight, but they teach me as well. I knew I would learn a lot on my trip last week because I was going to be surrounded by so many people who could teach me! I would be there during PathLight’s Teacher Training Conference, so there would be a dozen or more North American teachers and dozens more Belizean teachers (turns out there were 89). Plus I had four great traveling companions.
And I did learn. Of the many things that I’ll remember from this trip, one stands out. Curiously, I didn’t really “learn” this … I just blurted it out and realized it made a lot of sense. It took a conversation with two very different people to pull it out of me.
It was the last morning of our trip and we were staying at Chaa Creek Resort. I went to breakfast and sat down by myself because the others in the group hadn’t shown up yet. Within a few minutes, the owner of Chaa Creek joined me for coffee. Mick Fleming is a big man with a British background and a worldly viewpoint. He’s lived in Belize for decades and in Africa before that. He has that quintessential look of an explorer. He has a gentle kindness to accompany his British accent and wavy blonde hair. He can tell stories as well as anybody I know. It’s hard not to like Mick.
Shortly after that, one of my traveling companions joined me. Brenda Salter-McNeil is an African-American from Chicago. She leads a consulting firm that offers racial reconciliation advice and spends a good deal of her time speaking and writing. Brenda can jump from serious academic to peaceful counselor to street-smart-take-no-crap city girl in the blink of an eye. The funny thing is, she’s so smooth about the transition and has a big smile on her face all the time … so you hardly even notice when the switch has happened. It is impossible not to love Brenda.
So here I am with an ex-pat Brit sitting on my right and a Chicago city girl sitting across from me. The conversation weaves for a while as Mick and I bemoan the economy or talk about maintenance issues in the jungle. Eventually, the conversation turns to racial tensions in Belize, and Mick is offering solid insights into what makes the various sub-cultures of Belize tick. Brenda is sorting through all of this and asking fantastic questions. I’d chip in with a few comments now and then.
One of my (almost flippant) comments had something to do with the idea that an adolescent — from any culture — is going to have a hard time learning if they feel racial tension. In fact, I said, it freezes their educational progress.
Brenda looked at me. “Break that down for me”, she said. “Tell me what you mean by that.”
“Well…”, I said, stalling for time as I thought it through, “…it means that when a 15-year old kid does not understand her own racial identity, when she’s embarrassed by her culture or doesn’t understand her culture, and when she feels discriminated against by her peers who come from a different racial group, she’s going to freeze. She’s going to live in fear. She’s going to have unanswered questions and not understand who she is. And when you live like that, it’s extremely hard to learn. You can’t grow spiritually or emotionally in that environment. Oh, you might score okay on your tests and find a way to persevere through the academic ritual of school, but you aren’t really going to learn. Look at the PathLight kids in our program. They are often Mayan, which is considered the lowest rung of the Belizean ladder. As adolescents, they are sorting through their identity and taking stock of who they are … and they aren’t always liking what they find. They know others look down on them, even their teachers, so they feel it constantly, and it impacts them. PathLight can (and does) offer tutors and special classes and summer programs, but it won’t make much difference if a kid can’t come to terms with who she is.”
Mick sat quietly and stared at me. I could see a light bulb go off over Brenda’s head. I can’t remember exactly what Brenda said, but it was something like, “That’s it. That’s the connection between what PathLight does and what Salter-McNeil Associates does. That’s where we can help, Roy.”
And just like that, I had a spiritual and emotional partner in the ministry. Now, it doesn’t mean Brenda takes this on as a project. But it does mean that I have somebody I can turn to, who understands our situation, and who can provide insight and wisdom on how to proceed. That’s gold. I couldn’t ask for more.
And, I learned something. Which ultimately is the main reason why I go on these trips.
Want to go with me sometime?