Yesenia and I just spent a wonderful week with a short-term mission team from Northeastern University in Boston. Nineteen future physician assistants and one doctor made the trek to San Lucas Toliman to work alongside the Tierra Prometida team.
Soon, they will all be graduated and board-certified and working in the awesome, but brutal field of medicine. But first, they decided to put their scant “extra” time into this mission trip.
I can’t say enough about them. They were enthusiastic. They were motivated. They had a palpable love for each other and their fellow man that spilled out into the streets to touch the people of the San Lucas area.
There were some great conversations between our visitors and the Guatemalan team members. I heard conversations about differences between Christian denominations, our individual journeys and what we do when there are no visiting teams.
One experienced missionary in the group shared her need to find similarities and not differences between the people of different countries. We spoke about life in Guatemala and Boston and working in medicine and mission fields and about the lives and challenges of the local people.
Then there was THE question. The same thing I hear from every mission team, every time. Sometimes it is just one or two people who mention it. Sometimes, a whole team will discuss it. Invariably though, it will come up.
The question is, “How can I incorporate what I am feeling now, what I am understanding now, what I am appreciating now…into my “real life” back home?”
Short term mission trips do not just benefit the people we come to assist. Mission work is a two-way experience. While everybody on a STM team can believe that their efforts impacted lives where ever they worked; the team member would have to be in complete denial to say their lives were not impacted right back.
When I made my first trip to Guatemala, I believed there were millions of lives to be saved, changed, and improved and I was just the guy to do it! I had no idea that the life to be saved, changed and improved the most was my own.
We see people living at a different level here. People with virtually nothing smile and bless us at every opportunity. They appreciate that we are here! Clothing we would never wear at home is accepted with a gracious and heartfelt “thank you!” A bottle of off-brand acetaminophen is treated like a gold watch.
Handing an old woman a piece of fruit brings a tear to her eye. Playing catch with a local child elicits squeals of joy.
But the thing that touches me most is the other people; the ones we are not sharing or treating or playing with; the ones who go about their daily life. When they pass us on the streets, they smile and bless us too!
How can we not wonder how they can smile? How can we not wonder if we should be more like them? How can we not think about how we allow really unimportant things to “ruin” our day? How can we not yearn for what they have; to simplify our own lives?
Sometimes, the first mission experience can turn someone’s life upside down. College students have changed their majors to prepare for a career of missions. People have started charities or missions groups at home. Quite a few people have returned every year since their first trip.
One guy even retired and moved here to be closer to where he felt God called him to be!
Usually though, the changes are less dramatic. We realize something about ourselves while we are here. We’re more patient, relaxed, at peace with everything around us. We vow to be more like that at home. Then we battle the daily assault on our peace that comes from our hectic culture. It’s all we can do to draw on our mission experience to find moments of tranquility here and there.
Soon, this group from Northeastern will be working long hours and dealing with as many horrific as happy moments in the medical field. They will see suffering and pain every day. They will be called at all hours of the night for minor and major issues with their patients.
They will have to deal with healthcare conglomerates that don’t value their personal lives. Their hospital will buy a million-dollar pimple-removing device and then demand to know why their average patient cost is two cents over budget. Someone marginally ill will complain that they are not getting fresh pillows while the PA tries to console the parent of a dying child.
Their chosen profession puts the NU group at a higher risk for alcohol and drug abuse, divorce and major health issues. They will be surrounded by peers in the same situations who will offer bad, even if well-intended, advice.
It will be easy for any of these people to forget about the laid-back, low-need, overly-appreciative patients they cared for this week. But my prayer is that the memories of this week will persevere and save them from getting trapped in the fast-paced, goal-driven, high-expectation life many of us encounter every day.
Please pray with me for the Northeastern group and for all our brothers and sisters with overly-demanding careers and expectations. I pray that God gives us all the strength and ability to easily remember what is really important; to help us realize that doing the best isn’t always being our best; and to keep love and faith and hope foremost in our lives every day.
I pray that the NU team always remembers what missionaries see every week: that simple is often better; that love and faith can work miracles in our lives; that we don’t usually need the best, the biggest, or the most expensive thing to do our job; and that a smile and a hug is often the best medicine- for a patient or for ourselves.
And finally, I pray that all these great future physician assistants find dream jobs that are nothing like what I described above. God, bless them all. Thank you for sending them here this week.