Dear Younger Me: First Mission Trip

This is a letter to my almost 15-year-old self on that very first exhilarating mission trip to Honduras in February 2004. Note: mission trip (STM) refers to evangelical Christian humanitarian work typically in another country. My teenage self would probably roll her eyes at this letter, but… Little Idealist, these are lessons you will eventually learn.

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In a medical clinic during one of my first trips. El Jardín, Copán, HN.

Dear Younger Me,

Finally! You’ve been waiting and praying about the chance to go on a mission trip and it’s finally here. So much expectation and anticipation (and let’s face it… drama, because well, you’re 14.) It really will prove to be more life-changing than you can even understand in this phase of life. I know you have done so much preparation and feel like everything in life has been leading up to this big, glorious moment. It will actually prove to be just one of many gloriously small moments that will ultimately string together in a beautiful way that only God can orchestrate. Just wait.

Journal this experience. I know you do this anyway because you’ve always been the weirdo kid who documents EVERY. THING. Good for you. One day, you’ll be 27 and a more experienced, slightly wiser version of yourself and you’ll be going through your old things and come across your old mission trip journal and you will sit in your room and cry over the pages because of how faithful God has been. And you’ll laugh at how cute and naive you once were.

LEARN. That is your first responsibility as a team member on a mission trip: to learn. Learn the language. Learn the culture. If you are serious about opening your mind and heart up to this new part of the world and want to effectively serve in some capacity with these people then there is only one option that makes sense… LEARN TO COMMUNICATE WITH THEM. You can’t build a ministry in another country through hand gestures and handouts while thinking like an American (read: United States-ean). Relationships are key and the foundation is communication and understanding. Do the hard work: learn the language.

Being a learner means you realize that you actually don’t know best. Do you know who does know best? The natives, and usually, the missionaries. The ones who live there day-in and day-out. They know what is appropriate and what is not. They know which situations are dangerous and which are not. As a team member, an outsider (no matter your age), it is not your place to question their leadership or decisions. Like, if they tell you to stop laughing obnoxiously loud in a public restaurant because you are being disrespectful of the country’s social norms don’t roll your eyes because “ugh, what a party pooper.” (Other than already attracting probably more unwanted attention than necessary, you are reinforcing a negative stereotype of North Americans – being disrespectfully loud and dominating of public spaces). You are also part of a team of people who is representing a local ministry or organization. LIVE BY THEIR RULES. It might seem super stuffy or strict compared to your church back home but… you are not at home. Respect the hosts’ rules.

Once you get to truly know the people and the culture you’ll find that they aren’t that different from you. You’ll get past the point of identifying all the differences and will start to celebrate and relish in the similarities of your common humanity. You’ll see dignity in each person and will be less likely to make blanket statements about their culture or race. As time goes on and you start having more conversations with the natives you’ll realize you stop talking so much about the natives. You’ll probably start out quoting faulty statistics about the country to friends back home or making wild generalizations about the local people as a whole… (Yeah, you’re gonna think you’re an expert on the entire Honduran population within your first trip or two. You’re kind of annoying.) Then you will get to know their hearts and will feel silly for making all those ethnocentric assumptions. (Thankfully, your Honduran friends are gracious people. Most will forgive you.) 😉

You’ll undoubtedly come home from this first trip with excitement and tears and pictures, sharing stories of what you saw and felt. Who wouldn’t? You might encourage a couple other friends or family members to join you on following trips. Some will listen intently, some will get bored from your stories pretty quickly because they didn’t experience it with you. They’re not going to understand. They don’t get why you cry because you have such a nice house and so many don’t, and why suddenly you are borderline taking a vow of poverty. You just went though a real emotional journey over the last seven days and those who didn’t experience it can’t exactly relate.

Speaking of poverty… YOU ARE NOT A POVERTY TOURIST. You did not pay $1,200 to travel all the way to Central America so you could “experience poverty.” (Which you never actually did. Seeing poverty is not experiencing poverty.) The thousands of people who live in rural Honduras and are trying to survive off a dollar a day are not staged for your entertainment or learning exploit. This is their real life. I know you’re excited about all the pictures you get to show to everyone back home but count the cost of that photo you just snapped with your iPhone* in that family’s private space while gawking at their extreme lack. Be sensitive and consider each person’s dignity before doing anything.

*I went through 3 entire disposable cameras on my first trip 12 years ago

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Apparently all I did on my first trip was hold other people’s babies.

Now, let’s talk about your clothes for a second. This isn’t a pertinent issue necessarily but it reflects your attitude toward those you are serving. If you show up uncharacteristically dressed like a bum in cut-off capris and cut-off ratty t-shirts, the message you are conveying is: you aren’t worth my best… or at least, you aren’t worth my average. I’m telling you now, there is no need to raid the thrift store for the nastiest items before your trip because “you don’t want to ruin your good clothes.” This is a fine excuse if you are helping with hard labor or a messy job like painting but consider your activity… washing hair for lice? Giving worm medicine at the entrance of the pop-up clinic? Dress appropriately and show respect in that.

Ok, I know you most likely will not receive this well right now because you are high on enthusiasm and naive idealism but you will come to learn this with time and it needs to be said… you are not the hero. Like, it is not about you at all. Take your piece of humble pie and swallow it well because no one likes an arrogant team member. You are one of many team members and unity is key. First of all, you are doing the humbling job of serving other human beings, so esteem them higher than yourself. Secondly, you are working with other volunteers as a unit and any individualism on the job has to go. Thirdly, you nor your team are the first nor the only ones to do this kind of work. It is valuable and needed! But it is not exclusive to your group. You don’t have a monopoly on “free medical clinics in Honduras”and you certainly didn’t invent the idea. Celebrate the fact that you are joining so many others in the effort to share Christ’s love in a tangible way!

It all feels glamorous right now but it won’t always be. You will experience more fear and pain than you even imagined but you will find more love than you even imagined also.

Let this experience move you to inward and outward change. You will slowly start to see the world completely differently. You’ll probably have a slightly different perspective on success, faith, politics, and current events than others. Let it move you to make a difference at home as you dream about going abroad again. You didn’t have this awakening inside your soul just to apathetically return to abundance and self-indulgence. Your eyes will be open to hurting people all around you. DO SOMETHING. Don’t sit casually waiting on your annual mission trip to come around again. You have a bigger purpose and there is too much at stake for you to put on your missionary hat for only one week out of the year.

So, in conclusion, little 14-year-old going on 15, your years ahead have so much in store. Don’t worry about learning all these lessons at once. It will happen in its time. Just you wait,

27-year-old You

(who still anticipates more lessons in the future)

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Then in college I wrote this poem in an attempt to express the love affair I have with the country & people to which I don’t belong.

A Call to Love

Broken streets and broken souls call
I am compelled to answer, answer them all
Your small hands have taught me more than textbooks could contain
Your selfless joy is like my heart’s refrain
I’d choose you over a city of gold – all of you, every inch
I’d choose you first and I’d choose you again
I am a jealous lover, it’s my heart you win
You’re more than a memory, more than a friend
More than beauty and dirt and land
More than a good story to tell, more than I can stand
I am who I am because of you
It’s taken years to express, but for years it’s been true
My commitment to you runs deeper than a flutter in my chest
You have all of me, my worst and my best
I love you longer than seven days
Beyond borders and languages, my love stays
I love you stronger than a smile or a tear
Because I choose to love in the face of pain and fear
I’ve felt welcomed, accepted, rejected and betrayed
I was close to giving in and letting apprehension have its way
But I am led to you by a greater Hand
And my trivial emotions are irrelevant to His plan
I haven’t forgotten you, I never could
You are my first love, and my love is for good

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Oh yeah, 27-year-old me still likes holding other people’s babies. 🙂 Nueva Alianza, Copán, HN.

 

Nueva Alianza village update [PHOTOS] and Mission teams recap

It’s been a busy summer in Honduras! And that is just the couple of groups with which I was able to be present. Praise God for all the volunteer work that goes on in all parts of the country due to foreign teams. The San Pedro Sula (and I would imagine Tegucigalpa as well) airport is always buzzing with English speaking groups coming and going during the summer months.

I was able to spend 6 weeks total in the country. Needless to say, my summer flew by! (And I like it that way. 😉 Now fall can hurry up an get here please.)

But I wanted to follow up on the project in the currently sponsored village in Copan and share a bit from our 2 weeks of medical clinics.

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Natán and Walter in Nueva Alianza

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Laundry mat! Where some of the families wash their clothes. Most don’t have the typical pila. (large concrete wash basin)

I posted a picture and caption on Facebook from our preliminary trip up to the village about a little girl named Mariela:

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|| The best view. ||  My new friend, Mariela, showed me her house and her family’s garden yesterday. They were proud of their new water filter they received about a week ago. Two families live together in the tiny home so she calls the little room that she shares with other family members her “house.” Their outhouse style toilet has stopped working so they have to use the bathroom in the woods. They wash clothes in the nearby creek.

From the post a sweet friend messaged me wanting to send money for this family to have a new bathroom! So on the following trip we were able to sit down with the pastor of the village and write out the materials needed to construct a new outhouse for this family with a toilet that could be “flushed” with (a bucket of) water instead of what they had before – a hole in the ground that would fill up. Then we went to the hardware store…

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…and just a few weeks later we went back for a visit and got to see the completed and functioning outhouse!

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The donation we received was enough for two entire outhouses so on this follow-up trip we bought another load of materials to construct a second outhouse for another family who mentioned this need and whom the pastor knows personally. Also, we DO NOT build or hire anyone to build these for them. Part of maintaining dignity and pride in work and your possessions is taking ownership of them from the beginning. We do not endorse handouts but we work with them and listen to what the needs are. We do the basic things that they are not able to do on their own and come alongside them as they work to make it happen. Our goal is to develop communities and individuals, not be their vending machine, which is why the church’s consistent presence with them in their village is so important. I wish I was there to be able to visit monthly or even more often.

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me, Natán, Pastor Joaquin, Jonathan, Yanela – overlooking Nueva Alianza in the background

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* JOY *

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Mission Teams!

So, this year was pretty exciting as far as teams go. We had a lot of people and each year a lot of my family go, which I love, but this year it was even more exciting because my little (giant) sister came for the first time! And I was about her age the first time I traveled to Honduras and fell in love with the country.

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Family! me, little bro Carson, little sis Tori

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Lovely cousin Kate! What would I do without her?

Our first week of medical clinics was in the area of La Esperanza, Intibucá. Such wonderful weather and beautiful people! Our second week was in Copán as usual, which will forever have my heart. ❤ I actually didn’t take any pictures these two weeks because my main role was interpreter and I can get easily burned out wearing too many hats. Let’s face it, missions is not always smiles and giggles and I can get cranky by the end of these trips! But to be honest, even though it is a lot of work, this time was refreshing and reenergizing for me. Exhausting and sometimes emotionally taxing, but the Lord taught me new things and I treasure the moments shared with family and friends, new and old, on the 2015 Honduras medical mission trips.

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Village: Nueva Alianza visit in photos

*PREFACE* This was the blog entry that I was working on when my computer was stolen Sunday afternoon. The saved draft was open along with my photo editing software and the couple hundred pictures that I took during our visit to the village of Nueva Alianza. One of the purposes of this trip was to document living conditions and to have a picture of each family with their last names in order to correspond with the data we had on each child. This was part of Natan’s internship. The photos saved in this blog are the only ones we have from the trip.

A couple days before my trip down here I got an unexpected large donation from a close family member that surprised me to tears. I was overwhelmed and so thankful to God. I wasn’t worried about paying for our rental truck to get up to the mountains or the even bigger issue of how I would continue to pay on my school loans for these couple of months that I’m not in the states. I had a purpose, a mission, and God was my provider. Then because of a small issue out of our control with the rental truck we almost had to pay an outrageous fee on top of the rental price. I was upset and didn’t understand. We returned to the rental place to sort out the issue the next day and it was taken care of. They didn’t mention the issue and we weren’t charged. Just in time! God is good.

Then Sunday happened. My backpack along with my prescription glasses and laptop and a few other things was stolen out of Natan’s car. And I’m almost positive that it happened in the church parking lot… while I was hearing a sermon that would prepare me to deal with the very situation: Paul said in Philippians that he has learned to be content in whatever circumstance, whether in lack or abundance.

I certainly won’t pretend that me minus my laptop equals lack or poverty but I have to admit that it felt like a heavy blow. I use it for most of my jobs and especially for photo/video editing which helps fund my mission trips. Also, I feel really uneasy about all my personal info that was on it. Recent books I have been reading are about ministering in hard places and missionaries who remain in dangerous areas and are friends with those around them even after they have been robbed by the very same ones. When I got back to my room Sunday evening I remembered the book I was reading and decided I would read a little before bed. Then I realized it was in my backpack…

Its pages are most likely being used as toilet paper in someone’s outhouse right now.

Needless to say I am asking God to help me with my attitude. He is still good, He’s my provider and I promise my pity party will be short-lived. I really have been preparing myself for something like this. I am amazed that after 10+ years of traveling/living in Latin America (especially Honduras) that this is the first incident I’ve personally faced. It really is minor compared with other things that happen here. God, help Honduras.

And, now let me introduce Nueva Alianza…

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Last year our missions team spent a day in Nueva Alianza (Copán, Honduras) pouring a cement floor for the pastor’s family. This was for the part of the house that was used as a kitchen, which was where they previously had to walk on dirt/mud.

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Natán, his brother Walter, and I were able to go back for a short visit last week. Here is a view almost a year later of the completed floor with the kitchen walls back up. The pastor’s widowed daughter and grandson stand in the doorway.

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The purpose for this particular visit was for Natán to conduct some interviews and gather research for his social ministry internship he is completing this month for seminary. This village had been chosen by the Christian Social Ministry to receive sponsorship so based on that connection and the friendships already started, we planned our visit. We just happened to get a last minute unexpected donation of children’s literature and workbooks that we were able to deliver to the school.

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Let me give you a glimpse into a day in the life of the students there. The school is only first through sixth grade and they are all grouped into one “class.” They are split into two groups depending on the subject being taught. After sixth grade (if they make it that far) is when they are expected to work and support the family. Typical work includes farming and construction.

One of their classrooms is a cinderblock room and the other is made of wood and metal scraps.

IMG_8354A government sponsored program provides the kids with a snack of beans, rice and tortillas during the school day. When the ladies walked up with the pots and pans of food all the children starting singing in unison a song about “snack time.”

We made a couple home visits and saw several inoperable toilets and some stove ventilation pipes that needed to be fixed. But we also saw some new water filters in the homes and a vegetable garden that the Christian Social Ministry helped start. We are hoping to come alongside them to partner with this beautiful community as well. My heart was especially touched for the children. I hope that one day they will each realize that they are precious and loved and can achieve any dream they put their mind to.

Oh, how He loves us

If I don’t write a new blog post right now I might explode. I have no way to put into words what the past 10 days of my life have been like. Not even a couple of adjectives would cover it.

Before I recap/summarize/struggle with what all to disclose to an undefined cyber audience… I need to start with what all I experienced yesterday. Yes, I am about to post something out of chronological order but guess what – this is my blog. 🙂 I do what I want.

Saturday, Sept 29, 2012

Some friends from the church and I left bright and early Saturday morning for Copán, a beautiful rural mountainous region in west Honduras. The four of us set out on behalf of the church’s Christian Social Ministry to distribute food staples and water filtration systems to more than a dozen families with extreme needs. These selected families live in a village of Copán called El Limón. I have visited El Limón a couple times on medical brigades with missions teams from the states including last year’s trip in July. The Christian Social Ministry distributes food to this region monthly.

I joined Doctor Yanela, Jonathan and Gabriela on Saturday with the purpose of documenting the trip for a promotional video. Almost 20 gigabytes of footage and photos later, I am feeling the itch to work on a documentary some day soon. 🙂

When we arrived, all the families met us at the truck and received their food. I recognized many families from the year before and chatted a little with them. After food distribution we went house to house to explain the water filtration to each family. In comparison to seeing these families when they come to us at a certain location for the clinics, I really enjoyed being able to step foot in each of their homes. Yanela checked on the health conditions of each family we visited and gave hygiene speeches everywhere we went. The kids were told to bathe daily, wash their hands with soap after using the bathroom and to only drink the filtered water. The families showered us with gifts of bananas, oranges and eggs. I got to see children’s schoolwork proudly displayed on doors made of wood scraps sometimes with hinges made of tire pieces. I saw the single bed or two where a family of six sleeps and the swinging hammocks holding napping babies. I heard stories that many in the village are fearful at night and sleep together in groups.

I recognized one 11-year-old girl, Nohemí, although she had to remind me of her name because I had forgotten. She ran up and said, “Your name is Kristen!” I was stunned… How did she remember my name from over a year ago without any photo of me? I was one member among a large team of Americans. That meant so much to me.

Nohemí and her family with me from last year. Nohemí and her family photographed yesterday in their home with their new water filter. (the mother is not pictured in the first photo)

I was snapping photos and recording video when another sweet little girl came up and told me that she also remembered me from the year before. She asked if I had any photos of her mom so I started going through my camera to see. I asked her what her mom was wearing so that I could identify her but she stopped me and told me that her mom had died seven months ago when her baby brother was born. She was asking if I had any photos of her mother because she remembered I had my camera last year when their family came to our clinic. The only picture the family had of their mother was an old polaroid that a missions group had taken years before. That moment confirmed that my photography, my videography, is my ministry. Documenting people and events and telling stories is how I want to spend my life. Keeping the memory of loved ones alive like this girl’s mother is what I want to do. We take it for granted. We keep stacks of photo albums, slides, polaroids, computer files brimming over with moments that we’ve captured. Imagine how differently we would grieve for someone if we had no image or reminder of them left after they’re gone.

So I am going through my files from last year’s trip searching for anything I might have with the image this precious child’s mother. That got me thinking. One organization that I love, Help Portrait, takes family portraits around Christmas time for needy communities. I would love to organize a trip back to El Limón soon to give these families the gift of their first family portrait. I would have the photos printed and framed in time for Christmas.

One little boy we met, named Elder, rode in the truck with us as we drove around from house to house explaining the water filtration systems. It was his first time in a vehicle and Jonathan let him sit up front and “drive.” He was so excited! Yanela told him that one day he could get a car of his own. 🙂

Elder riding up front with Jonathan and Gaby!

We stopped by El Paraiso, which serves as our base while on medical trips, and I got to see my friend, Maily, and her new baby boy, Carlos José!

Me, Carlos José and proud mama Maily. 🙂

On our last stop before heading home and right before sunset, we visited the last family that needed to receive the water filter and food. I won’t go into detail but a mother living in the house was battling with some strong depression and feelings of hopelessness. I was amazed at how Yanela handled the situation. She told the lady who had been laying in bed for months, not bathing and rarely getting up, that she had plenty of reasons for getting out of bed in the morning and that the desire for her children to have a better life should be one of them. She shared the hope of Christ with her and we prayed. I could not contain the tears. Receiving food or clean water is not enough to give sustainable hope. But the good news of salvation through Christ is enough hope to sustain us and give us joy and peace and strength for the day. I pray that this precious mom grasps hold of that truth. Yanela asked the daughters to promise to pray for their mother each day and speak healing over her. She also encouraged them to hug her often and tell her that they loved her.

My go-to song in moments like this is “How He Loves” by John Mark McMillan.

And all of a sudden, I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory. I realize just how beautiful You are and how great Your affections are for me.

I want the people of Copán, Honduras to understand how great Christ’s affections are for them. Oh, how He loves us.

And then I find it ironic that in the midst of so much desperation and suffering that I feel so much closer to my Savior. Everything else is stripped away and I am left with the simple truth that He alone satisfies. My typical life in the U.S. is so clouded with trivial distractions that I lose perspective. I need to be here to be reminded of what really matters.

And in the midst of prompting others toward their liberation, I am becoming more liberated myself I would have otherwise never realized I was so restricted.