What does living for a year outside your own culture–eating, sleeping, working, and playing in another language–teach you about your own cultural assumptions? Last Saturday I found out, as three participants in the ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission program met me for coffee in Cuernavaca, Mexico.


“I’m learning the difference between needs and wants,” said Katherine, who tutors children in a very low-income area. “At home I would be saying ‘I need shoes,’ but in my job, I think ‘I need duct tape!” All three young people agreed that Mexico is teaching them how to save and re-use things. “There is no Salvation Army here, where people take their excess goods.” But, notes Peter, as consumerism creeps in, “there are more disposable products and more garbage, and the trucks pick up more often.” Peter is working with a group that is trying to close a municipal landfill that does not meet environmental standards and is contaminating water downstream. Katie, meanwhile, has been working with an indigenous group in Guerrero that uses plastic bags as a weaving material.

Energy and natural resources

Living in homes where water is received only 2 or 3 days a week (it gets pumped from city pipes up to a storage tank on the roof, where it is dispensed through a home’s plumbing), all three young people (and me, too!)  learned to take “dry showers.” You turn on the water to get wet, turn it off to soap up, and turn it back on to rinse. Pete, who lives in a rural area, builds a fire in order to heat his water. “You see the energy it takes to get hot water if you have to make a fire! I hadn’t really thought, before, that the energy it takes to heat water has to come from somewhere.”  All three will take their awareness of finite water supply back to the states.

Community and hospitality

“The hospitality shown to strangers in Mexico is amazing,” Katherine told me. “You are offered food, drink, and a seat at the table even when they don’t know you! In the US we are more guarded. You need an invitation first.¨ In the indigenous community of Tlalma where Katie has been working, Katie is learning about the importance of touch, of connecting with others, of sharing the day, of learning from others.  Experiencing this depth of community makes returning to the U.S. difficult, I learned while participating in nine years of ELCA Summer Missionary Conferences. One day you’re immersed in a community where everything is shared–and the next day you’re in a place where doors are closed. “I’m lonely,” one returning missionary told me. “People don’t invite us home for dinner. All they do is ask us out for coffee.”

What is development?

Acknowledging that their host families faced real economic difficulties and that water can be scarce, the YAGM youth reflected on what “authentic development” might look like. “Does everything in Mexico have to look like our touristy idea of it before people will consider it developed? Can we measure relationship, and how authentically people are growing in community?” asked one. “The U.S. and Canada are not the standard for measuring others,” said Katie, who has seen how judgmental visitors can be about garbage  in her indigenous community. “Our garbage is just better hidden!” she said.

“The owners of the problem are the people affected by it, not us,” Katie concluded. “But Americans and Canadians can’t put themselves in a place where we see what it is like to be told ‘this is what you lack, this is what you need.'”  

These three young people work in supporting roles alongside Mexican colleagues who are owners of the problem. They share their lives with Mexican host families, and meet monthly to reflect on their experiences. In July, they will return to the States, taking with them their new perspectives on the world and how to live in it as a Christian. Give thanks for their valor, their integrity, their enthusiasm, and their commitment to carving out alternatives!

Anne Basye, “Sustaining Simplicity