By Bob Lupton
Two students sat at a chess board under the portico of our high school in Nicaragua. I stood and watched their moves, curious about their skill level. One of the students was obviously a better player than the other. I could tell from his ability to strategize several moves in advance.
When the game ended, I asked if I could play the winner. He readily agreed. As we began playing, a small group of onlookers gathered. I was fairly sure I would defeat my young opponent, so I restrained some of my stronger moves so as not to overpower him. The game proceeded evenly, but in the end, I edged him out. The rich American won, but it was a good fight. I felt benevolent.
One of the students who had been watching my game asked to play me next. Of course! This was good sport. As we traded several opening moves, I observed my young challenger setting up rather skillful board control. I needed to be cautious, lest I underestimate him and lose a valuable piece of real estate. The best defense is a good offense. (This is chess wisdom I learned years ago in college.)
So I countered him with a bold offensive move. But he saw it coming and blocked my advance. Back and forth we went. The first capture was his – my bishop. I countered, but didn’t see the trap he had set. Another of my men fell to his attack. I would now have to draw upon every bit of my skill to escape his strategy and reverse the course of the battle.
Then he hit me with another tactic that I didn’t see coming. I was losing! Badly. By this time, a crowd of students had gathered to observe the spectacle. They were smiling and chattering in Spanish – trying to hold in their laughter. Three more desperate moves and I was done for – crushed by a kid half my size and not even out of high school.
It was not until my king was fatally in check and my humiliation complete that they revealed to me my opponent was the regional high school chess champion. Only then did I realize I had been set up! Drawn in. Fallen prey to a trap perfectly designed to lure an over-confident, benevolent American. The students exploded in laughter. So did I.
For the students, it was a hilarious experience – the kind great stories are made of. For me, it was an important reminder. There is something in the human psyche that dislikes condescension. There is a certain (unspoken) delight in seeing the proud humbled. These students may not have expressed it in this way, but to see a highly educated American humbled by a Nicaraguan teenager made their delight especially delicious. No malice here. Just good fun. But very human.
So what are the unspoken feelings of peasants when prosperous, educated American mission-trippers come to their villages to conduct daily Vacation Bible Schools (VBS)? Or dig latrines? Or pass out clothes?
Intended or not, the message the visitors subtly communicate is: we know more than you, we have more than you, we can help you. And villagers always seem grateful. On the surface. Of course they do. Because we are their conduit to the vast reservoirs of Western wealth. We couldn’t expect them to reveal private feelings that might alienate their benefactors and threaten future bestowments.
But what if we really wanted to forge genuine, trusting relationships? What if we wanted to engage as peers rather than patrons? Perhaps we would seek out activities providing a level playing field, like a soccer (or chess!) tournament. Or indigenous students teaching us conversational Spanish as we teach them English. Or employing experts in local culture and history – perspectives unlikely to appear in tourist brochures and guide books. Or having village elders impart wisdom borne of scarcity – faith journeys about which Western Christians know very little.
Parity eliminates pity. If we seek out talents and abilities rather than deficits and needs, we might encounter spiritual wealth that largely eludes the materially wealthy American missioner.