The school year is wrapping up across America and that means it’s time for everyone to head to ...Guatemala? Africa? Haiti? Well, if you have missionary ambitions, these are the places that might make you forget the beach and pool for a while.
Since Yesenia and I met, we’ve participated in twenty-six weeks of short-term missions together. This doesn’t make us experts so much as experienced co-workers. We offer this blog to this year’s missionaries and hope you will consider it for what it is: heartfelt advice we hope you will remember when you visit your host country.
#1. FORGET ABOUT GOALS. Remember those pre-mission meetings? Your team probably set targets to hit. If this is your first trip, you may plan to save entire communities before you leave.
Forget all that. A little known secret is that your host country has quite a few people capable of finishing your project for you, and they are planning on it. It’s a wonderful feeling to take photos of a family in front of their new home, or the first bucket of clean water from the well; but if you don’t complete a project on time, that’s okay. Someone will finish it soon enough.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but the truth is that the work is not the most important part of your trip; and agendas are guidelines; not gospel. Read on and see if this makes more sense later.
#2. LOOK. LISTEN. (AND FEEL!) Keeping the first concept in mind, there is no reason to tunnel-vision on your “job”. Look around the work area. Look for clues as to how the people live. Make note of what they have... or don’t have. Look at who is watching you. Make eye contact and acknowledge them. If you don’t know the language, listen anyway. Listen for the feelings when they speak to each other or to you. Do not make them feel like an outcast in their own neighborhood. And don’t make yourself feel like a foreigner. Imagine what it would be like to live there. Blow off the agenda and interact with locals whenever you can. Show more interest in the people than the work.
#3. FIND COMMON GROUND. It is so easy to focus on what makes us different from our local hosts. They dress differently. They don’t have cars. They don’t have the same toys. These are the things that make us realize we are different.
But it's more important to realize how similar you are to the people you are with. This is what draws us together.
Our city mission neighborhood reminds me of days in 1970s New York. Missionaries are often surprised to see young indigenous girls with cell phones. Throw a soccer ball in the middle of a group of boys and every one of them will start kicking it.
Remember that you are the visitor, the outsider, the foreigner. It is up to you to show your hosts how similar you both are. Look for things you know how to do or discuss. Take that opportunity to interact and humanize yourself to locals who think you can not relate to them. This is how lasting connections are built.
#4. PLAY. Playing isn’t just the job of the children’s’ ministry people. Become a child. In many countries, children have very limited “fun” contact with adults. Parents work long hours either away from home or keeping the household running.
Carry a yo-yo. Bring balloons. Wiggle your ears. Take a minute or ten to kneel down for a photo with kids (and show it to them). Be goofy. This is the type of thing the children will remember for years. It may help mold their attitude toward foreigners or Christians in the future. It will definitely make them feel loved and special for quite a while.
#5. PRAY. To pray in the open is to advertise. Let people know we are Christians. Pray at the work site before you get started. Pray before meals. Pray with and for the people you are helping.
All this prayer may prompt someone to step forward and join you. You may meet someone or see a situation that needs prayer. Don’t wait. Pray right then and there with the person. And if you see someone else praying over someone, join them.
Spontaneous prayer moments create wonderful connections and memories that will last long after the stories about how you hit your thumb with a hammer finally get old.
#6. EAT. When half your country is under-nourished and/or living in poverty, nothing edible gets thrown out. At the work site, people may offer you some bread or a sweet to show their thanks. Assuming there is no concern about allergies or preparation (ask your local contact for help), try to eat it. Definitely do not decline it. If you are concerned, accept it graciously and explain that you will save it for later. Don’t waste it! Surely there is someone who can eat it who won’t tell the host that you shared it with them. If they offer you a bottle of soda, drink it. They spent precious resources to buy that for you. The diet can start again when you get home.
Back at your mission kitchen, the same rule applies. Many visiting missionaries think that local mission workers “have a job”; therefore they must be okay financially. This is usually not the case. Mission work does not pay well; and it is seasonal at best. Sometimes, it is only a handful of weeks during the year. The woman who gets up at 4 am and leaves after 10 pm to assure that there are three wonderful meals for you may very well struggle to get enough food for her own children the rest of the year. If you really don’t think you can eat something, try to not put it on your plate in the first place.
#7. SHARE. Talk to your fellow missionaries. If you do not have a scheduled daily debriefing time, make time. Talk about what you are seeing, especially if it is particularly uplifting or particularly deflating.
Supporting each other is essential to a good experience. Someone who has been on a lot of trips may have valuable insight. Someone on their first trip may bring a whole new perspective. Compare what you are seeing to your life back home. Could you live here? All of this will help you appreciate their life… and your own life, too.
#8. SHARE AGAIN. Don't just report back to your church or sending organization; but also tell your family, friends, coworkers, kids you see on the street, the mailman, everyone you see. I have no doubt that your mission trip will be an awesome, enlightening and faith-enhancing journey. It can change your life. Put together a collection of memories and post them in your church. Make a visual presentation to show at schools or services. Let the local newspapers do a story about you or your team. Tell everyone how great an experience it was. Get them excited about missions, about helping the host country or just about you. This is how your trip can make a bigger difference than you may ever know.
Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! –Psalms 96:3