I sipped the can of root beer he gave me, looking out at one of Oahu’s best beaches on my free trip to Hawai’i. The water was an unbelievable blue. The mountains rose in the sky, the palm trees swayed to the perfect breeze. The sound of happy tourists wasn’t loud enough to be annoying.
Why would he give me a soda?
I turned my back to the beach and stole a last look at his tent. He was hidden behind the others, but I knew he was right where I left him. Probably looking over the fruit and pastries I brought him. He just wanted to give me something back. Somehow, I understood that. The grasping at the assurance you earned something, even as a homeless man accepting food from strangers.
I was on staff for a volunteer trip. I was pretty much in Hawai’i in charge of 30 teenagers for 10 days. Our very last service project was to bring food to the homeless (or, in correct terms, “houseless”) at Waimanalo Beach Park. We handed out sandwiches, chicken, fruits, to the people who lived in tents by the ocean. These people were there illegally, so every once in a while security would do a sweep and they’d all have to pack up and move to another spot, cycling locations like this one.
But we’d been in Waimanalo Beach before, though just to swim in the crystal clear water. How did I not notice the tents when we were there the first time? Why did I just go about my fun, blind to the hurting?
What a thought, to be hungry in paradise.
The irony of living in a tent, unsure of your next meal, right next to one of the most beautiful beaches in one of the world’s biggest vacation spots.
Throughout my time in Hawai’i, I would find myself at a homeless shelter one moment and snorkeling the next. Handing out food on the streets one second and shopping for souvenirs the next. It reminded me of every trip I’ve made to the Philippines, navigating through the slums with orphans clinging to my arms one day and the next being delivered a mango smoothie by the beach at a private resort with my extended family. driving past kids digging through the trash on my way to a nice restaurant.
I used to hate the irony. I hated myself for it. I double and triple checked my motives when Hope worldwide sent me Hawai’i to help run this program. Because not going to lie, it’s nice here. Really, really nice. But I knew I wasn’t coming for a vacation. I was coming to do work.
So how does one explain that? “Yes, I’m going to Hawaii this summer, but it’s for a volunteer program.” How do I talk about it without making my trip sound like something it’s not? If I post too much about the service it’s like I’m hiding that I did fun stuff too. If I post all the fun stuff, everyone will think the whole “service trip” thing was just a facade. If I post both, it seems like I’m two-faced.
But the thing is, there are so many places around the world where poverty and privilege dance around each other in a clash of cultures. Everywhere neighbors the rich and the poor, we just don’t always see it.
A place has just as much depth and complexity as a person. A person can be loud and quiet, shy and confident, happy and sad. A place can be a #1 vacation spot and have families living on the streets.
So what now? If we take time to realize that some of our favorite luxury vacation spots are miles away from starving children, does that mean we can’t enjoy said luxury? Shall we demonize the rich to compensate for ignoring the poor? When would that ever be a solution?
Guilting people into not enjoying their vacations does not seem like the answer to me. To me the only thing that seems helpful is to see the opportunity within the irony. To acknowledge the abundance that I have, whether that be assurance of my next meal or the ability to fly to Hawai’i, to see the needs around us and acknowledge their proximity. To see that our neighbor is hungry and to capitalize on exactly that. That they’re our neighbors, which means they’re right there.
Maybe Jesus was on to something when he said to “love your neighbor.” I’ve grown up taking Jesus’ metaphors as they come no matter how seemingly random or confusing, but maybe his choice of “neighbor” as a metaphor was a reminder and an encouragement. There are so many people in need of love in this world, it can be overwhelming. So what’s the good news? They’re right there. Neighbors.
Seeing the poverty in Hawai’i made me uncomfortable. The thought of thousands of people coming in and out of these islands unaware of the hurting made me uncomfortable. But isn’t this the case anywhere you go? Wherever you live there’s Uptown and there’s the ghetto. So whether I’m flying to Hawai’i or going to school in Dallas, it’s something to keep in mind. People have a different experience in every city I go to. And I think the key is to remember that everywhere you go there’s something beautiful to see, something fun to do, but also someone hurting to help. And I’d hate for that thought to drive guilt, but rather, awareness that there is always something to be done.
I think we should always enjoy our vacations, I think we should rest and soak up the fun and live in the moment and squeeze every bit of happiness out of life that we can. But perhaps we can do better at seeing our neighbors and how their prison might be our paradise.
Oh, am I being a downer?