Cruising with a Mission

Some people think I’m “at sea” most of the time, but as I started to write this I was literally. It was 80 plus degrees on the Western Caribbean on a late February morning, and I was feeling a twinge of guilt when I thought of my friends back home in “snOwHIO” – but only a small twinge. A much bigger guilt pang came from the memory of our brief time in Trujillo, Honduras, the final port of call on our 7-day cruise.

After a brief introduction to the history and culture of this poor Central American country from an amazingly well-informed and friendly tour guide whom we were surprised to learn is a 16-year-old high school student, we enjoyed lunch and time on a lovely private beach before heading back to our ship. The contrast between our ride in an air-conditioned bus to a luxurious cruise ship and the living conditions we saw from the bus were even starker than I expected. We knew from reading and from friends who have been to Honduras on mission trips that it is one of the poorest countries in the world, but seeing women doing their laundry in a river and crowded, dilapidated homes with dirt floors packed together on muddy dirt streets adds a dose of reality that left my wife and I wondering what to do with that experience.

The situation is even more dire because we learned that there is no public education in Honduras. That means poor families who cannot pay to educate their children have no viable means of ever breaking out the cycle of poverty. Little children as young as 5 or 6 trying to sell us sea shells or bananas as we walked by have little hope of a better future and are vulnerable to being seduced by drug dealers and human traffickers.

Is it wrong for those of us who can afford to travel to visit places like Honduras just to escape the discomfort of northern winters? Do our brief stops in places like Trujillo do more harm than good for people who need tourist dollars to improve their economy? Those are complex questions, and Trujillo is a fascinating case study. Cruise ships have only been stopping in Trujillo and its new port called The Banana Coast, since last October. The amenities in Trujillo suffer in comparison to those in well-established cruise stops, but some fellow passengers on our ship who had been on the very first cruise ship to stop there 4 months ago were amazed at how much improvement there had been in such a short time. The residents of this small city on the north coast of Honduras seem genuinely excited and pleased to welcome tourists. In the city and on rural roads children and adults all waved to our bus as we drove by. They need and want tourism to flourish there as it has done in other Caribbean countries.

I had a wide range of feelings in the 7 short hours we were in Trujillo. There were selfish and petty thoughts because of the inconveniences–like being crammed into small tender boats for transport to and from the cruise ship because the port is unable to handle large ships, or delays in our trip to the beach because of narrow streets and bumpy rural roads not ready for prime time vacationers, or simultaneous irritation and compassion for persistent street vendors trying to make a living, and admiration for Denison, our young our guide who works days and attends high school in the evenings–all topped with the aforementioned helping of guilt.

Before leaving on our cruise we were blessed to be able to spend a week with some of our kids and grandkids in Houston. While we were there I was struck by a conversation one evening at the dinner table between our bright 11 year-old granddaughter and her parents. They were talking about a situation she had experienced at school, and her parents asked her if she knew what “integrity” is. She thought for a minute before saying, “I think it’s one of the seven deadly sins.” We got a good laugh at her expense, and a good discussion of what integrity means followed. I am the last person to criticize and in no way mean this to be critical. I doubt that I had any idea what integrity was until I was twice Katilyn’s age. But her response has stuck with me because it sometimes seems like far too many adults in our world fail to grasp the critical meaning and importance of integrity or avoid it like it is indeed a deadly sin.

Asking the integrity question about our experience in Honduras reminded me of a line from one of my favorite movies, “Bull Durham.” There’s a young brash pitcher in that classic baseball movie named Eby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, played by Tim Robbins, and Susan Sarandon’s character, Annie Savoy, describes Nuke at one point by saying that he “isn’t cursed with self-awareness.” Self-awareness, of course, is not a curse but a basic life skill, but at times, like when it spoils your vacation with feelings of guilt, it can feel like a curse.

What does living in integrity mean for disciples of a Lord who tells us that how we treat the least of our brothers and sisters is how we treat him? If I say to Jesus, “But when did I see you in poverty or in need of safe drinking water or adequate education?” (cf. Matt. 25:31-46), will he say, “Remember that vacation in Honduras?” Integrity and self-awareness do not come with on-off switches. We can’t turn them off while we go on vacation.

One of the benefits of travel to other parts of the world is learning more about other cultures. Never in human history has cross-cultural awareness and appreciation for our rich diversity been more needed. For better or worse we are world citizens and our global village is getting smaller and smaller. The information age has wiped out barriers like distance and geographical separation that once made cultural or sectarian and ethnic differences more separate and distinct. Today integrity cannot mean cultural purity and myopic prejudice against beliefs, customs and ideologies other than our own. Different does not equal wrong, and the only way to overcome those attitudes is through understanding. Some of that understanding can come through education and learning critical thinking skills, but it is better learned through direct human interaction.

The good news is that we humans don’t come into the world with innate prejudices. As the great song from Rogers and Hammerstein says “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear” (see my post “Life Lessons I Didn’t Learn in Class,” (Feb. 24, 2014) for more about that song and the musical “South Pacific.” My point is that because cultural biases are attitudes we learn from others they can also be unlearned. Cruise ships are a wonderful place to improve cultural understanding and competence because they are a microcosm of the world. On our ship, the Norwegian Jewel there were over 60 nationalities represented in the 1000 member crew. Add 2400 passengers, all living in close quarters, and you have a captive audience with the potential of being transformed from strangers into a multicultural community.

Having been on several cruises I have learned that passengers can either treat the people who feed us and clean our cabins as servants or get to know them as people. Because the cruise staff works very hard and have many responsibilities there isn’t a great deal of time to talk with them, but my wife and I have learned that taking the opportunity when we can is a great way to learn from servers in the dining room or cabin stewards about their personal lives. On this cruise we were especially touched to hear about the sacrifices and loneliness these people experience from two servers. Nashley (Columbia) and Maricel (Philippines) are both single moms who leave their children at home with grandparents for 8-10 months of the year while working long hours on the ship. Both of them said they enjoy their work, but when we asked if they wanted their children to work on cruise ships when they are adults they immediately said “no.” They want something better for their children.

On one of our final nights on board, Jamie, our cruise director, after introducing many representatives of the crew commented on her desire to create a feeling among crew and guests of being a “family” on board. She said she thought the U.N. could learn from their crew how to live and work together. My desire is to learn from Norwegian Cruise Lines what they do to create that community within their crew and how to share that experience more intentionally with guests. Our impression is that something is being done there that we have not felt on other ships and should be affirmed and expanded.

Coincidentally (or was it a God-incident?) the same evening I was writing about this and the cruise director mentioned it, we stopped by one of the lounges where a musical group was doing a tribute to the Beatles, and one of the most powerful songs they did was “Imagine.” As the audience joined in singing the powerful words to that great old song, they seemed more relevant and needed in our broken world than ever, and in that small sample of our global village much needed and appreciated words of hope.

“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you will join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You, you may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you will join us
And the world will live as one.” – John Lennon

It’s tempting to end on that idealistic note, but just as cruises end and life returns to reality, so must this reflection. On one of the final days of our cruise I overheard a fellow passenger talking about his time in Honduras. He said he enjoyed it, but then added, “I saw too much poverty. Once you’ve seen that don’t want to see it again.” He’s right. Witnessing human suffering is not pleasant and not something we go looking for on vacation. But it’s real and it’s not going away. Jesus told his disciples, “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.” (Mark 14:7). The question is do we want to enough to figure out a way.

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One thought on “Cruising with a Mission

  1. Enjoyed this post, Steve. Sounds like powerful experiences, with rich fodder for future thinking/learning/growing. Thank you for sharing.

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