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Lu Johnston, top row, left, of Wilmington, Del., was one of 13 pilgrims Ministry of Money took to Haiti in August 2000.

'Reverse missions' help travelers learn how the rest of the world lives

By JAMES THRALL for Episcopal Life

AS A MOTTO of the Ministry of Money suggests, local thoughts about money and faith often evolve into global questions of economic inequality.
     "Because what we do with our hearts affects the whole universe" states the organization's Web page, as it presents a variety of programs designed to help people consider their everyday relationships to money.
     In the 1980s, Ministry of Money started its "immersion pilgrimages" or "reverse mission" trips to bring North Americans to other parts of the world, where they confront the economic disparity that separates the United States from many other countries. At Women's Perspective, a spin-off from Ministry of Money, executive director Rosemary Williams calls their similar excursions for women "transformational trips." As at Ministry of Money, they are "trips that change your point of view, widen your horizons, break your heart," she said. "They are life-changing."
     Describing the trips as "seed-planting time," Williams said they may take years to bear fruit in terms of lifestyle changes. And even then, said Jan Sullivan Dockter, Ministry of Money program director, "Some people take big steps, some people take small steps. We try very hard not to stuff anything down their throats. Our role is opening up questions and letting people take their own steps."
     While the trips are definitively not billed as "mission" trips, participants almost always engage in some kind of service work, such as helping with Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity program in Haiti, or assisting a ministry to street people in South Africa.
     The work is considered "less 'we're going to do something noble,' and more spending time with people in need," Dockter said.
     On reverse-mission trips, "The idea is you're not going to give something to whomever or wherever you're going; you're going to receive," said Jay Silver of St. Mark's Church in Raleigh, N.C. "You're not ministering to other folks. You're engaging in ministry with them."
     Lorraine Antieau's first trip to Haiti with Ministry of Money initiated her serious engagement with issues of faith and money. It was "an eye-opener at such a deep level," she said. "I had always been aware that poverty existed," but giving up "part of my privilege as a white, educated American" for the duration of the trip was an education.
     "Even as I was experiencing life at a much less affluent level than I ever had before, I still had more luxury than the people we met," she said. "A word that I didn't even know before is 'entitlement.'" Now secretary of the board for Women's Perspective and a veteran of five trips, Antieau, a social worker and psychotherapist from Chicago, said she has been forced to consider how much she assumed that everyone lived the way she does.
     She was particularly humbled by the gift of a coconut, she said, given by a woman who could barely feed her own family. "She walked an hour to meet me, then waited an hour because I was late, and then gave me a coconut," Antieau said. "I had nothing to give her."
     At the same time, the cross-cultural trips have underscored the similarities in some experiences around money. Women in particular "share a lot of the same pain of being disempowered financially, sexually and within [the institutions of] their faith."
While Ministry of Money trips have focused on Haiti, South Africa, the Middle East and Central America, this coming year the schedule will include a visit to Baltimore's inner city.
     The Baltimore trip has an economic rationale: It offers a more affordable alternative to the overseas trips, which can cost several thousand dollars. But it also presents its own challenges to the comfortable assumptions of participants, Dockter said. "In some ways, it's almost easier for us in North America to deal with poverty elsewhere rather than just next door," she said.

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