During my senior year in high school I signed up for a mission trip through my church to the Dominican Republic. The Diocese of Orlando has a sister Diocese in the DR. There are medical trips, habitat for humanity trips, and one trip just for the youth. I had to fill out an application packet and once accepted I had to attend three retreats to prepare for the trip. It was a great experience.
The main activity at one of the weekend retreats was to really learn about how people think in third world countries. What does it really feel like to be poor in one of these countries. As part of that lesson we had an 18 hour fast. At the end of the fast, and the end of the weekend, they brought us all in for dinner. Once we were in the dining room they split us up by a color dot that was on our name tags. Four people sat at a lovely table with lasagna. Six people sat at a picnic table with fried chicken. The rest of us sat on the floor with plain beans and rice.
Sister Bernie explained the rules for the evening. People at the lasagna table represented the upper class, those at the picnic table were the middle class, and the rest were the poor. The people at the upper and middle class tables were allowed, one at a time, to come and give the poor some of their food if they so choose. But the poor were not allowed to go to their tables and eat. This was even more discouraging since I had recently broke my leg and was trying to find a comfortable way to sit on the floor. I was rather depressed about this whole situation. I was hungry and uncomfortable. No special privileges for the injured.
At the end of the meal Sister Bernie asked those in the poor section why we didn't just get up and eat at the other tables. To which we answered, "Because you told us that we weren't allowed to." And her reply, "Exactly, and now you know how the poor feel. They've been told they aren't allowed and so they don't. They feel like they are destined to live their whole lives in this situation and it won't, can't change."
That was probably the best exercise I've ever been apart of in learning about poverty.
When we got to the Dominican, Sister Bernie made it clear that we were not allowed to let people call us Americans. If that happened we were to go introduce ourselves to them. We are all individuals and need to interact on that level, not on some preconceived notion of what an American is in their head or Dominican is in our head.