2 important things you learn when you hang out with people who are different than you (and the time I swam in a river full of piranhas!)

“You are going!” Said my parents, after a long-winded discussion about forcing me to go on a mission trip with my church’s youth group.

Objective: visit and support a missionary working with an amazonian indian tribe.

Destination: the boonies. francisco_rangel_escobar016

A few days and a full 16-hour bus ride later, I found myself in a region of the Venezuelan plains that borders the Amazon jungle, entering the home of a man of God who had left the comforts of city life to minister to natives. But the worst part wasn’t the area. Nor the conditions. Not even the work ahead. It was the company!

Here’s my confession: I did not like the people in my youth group!

They were all much older than me, and had different interests. Some of them had grown up together. I felt like an outsider.  Like a spoiled kid who had been forced to do something good for once, and that was embarrassing. But this trip changed my life.

Over the next few days I got to know them and learn from them. I got to laugh with them and work alongside them. We were vastly different… I was just 13 or so, and they were in their late teens. But we got to do things we would have never done otherwise, and we did them together! We served this missionary together. We served the tribe together. We served local believers together. We spent uncomfortable nights smelling each other and long days busting each others’ chops. But, it was all good. We were doing it all together!

pir_idxMidway through our trip, the missionary took us to a river called “Caribe” (venezuelan for “Piranha”) and dared us to jump in. “Heck no!” was my thought. But he explained: the water in that part of the river was so shallow that tall vehicles could cross it, and the fish stayed a few meters away from this spot. So we believed him, and went in… together! I actually did it! I swam in a freakin’ river called “piranha” with a bunch of people I did not like nor had anything in common with up until three or four days prior to that moment, but were now my friends!

Here’s what you can glean from those who are different than you:

1) A different kind of perspective: whether in age, race, means or nationality, the worldview of someone who’s had it different than you can teach you how to view things from a different angle and make decisions based on their experience. We tend to run away from “different” in each of those aspects. But “different” can result in “better.”

2) A different kind of courage: the kind that inspires you to do things you would have never done on your own.

20 years later I had the opportunity to spend time teaching at a youth event back in my home country, when I bumped into one of the guys who had joined the trip, and we reminisced. We were never real close. In fact, we were very different at the time. But, if I hadn’t gone on that trip, with people who were so different than me, I wouldn’t have been stretched relationally, physically, mentally and spiritually. I wouldn’t have met these wonderful men of God, many of whom still serve Him today as adults. I wouldn’t have learned from their own walks. And I wouldn’t have had the courage to jump into a river full of piranhas, that one time on a mission trip.

Bottomline is this: when I hang out with people who are different than me, my life can change and my world can grow.

So much so I can swim with piranhas…

and before it was all said and done… …

I ate one!

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