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.

El Jardín

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.

 

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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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3 Factors Contributing to STMs “Done Well” (Short-term missions Pt. 4)

In missions circles “short-term missions” is referred to as STMs. The following is an excerpt of an essay written by missions mobilizer, Roger Peterson.

(Read my Part 1Part 2, Part 3 on short-term missions)

God is on mission today—as He always has been. We’ve seen that millions are setting out each year on countless STM opportunities. What will it take to make sure that our STMs are cooperating with what God has already been doing?

1. STM leaders and participants need to realize we are not “starting” mission. When our churches or youth groups or schools or agencies gather a team and go help someone somewhere, as noble and even measurable as that help may be, we are not “starting” mission. God has always been in active pursuit of every nation and every ethne around the globe. No tribe, tongue or nation has ever been exempt. STM leaders have the job to get acquainted with what God has already been doing in that setting and discover how to join with God in advancing that work. To do that we’ll need to cultivate relationships with seasoned practitioners of short-term and long-range mission. We will do well to keep placing ourselves before God and humbly ask Him how we can join Him on today’s page of history.

2. We need to repent of our independent, I-can-do-it-by-myself attitude. We who are Americans need to challenge that inbred spirit of independence! Let’s subordinate what we would like to try to do on our own in favor of God’s ongoing global plan. Let’s search out the battle-scarred, seasoned mission agency leaders that can help us frame our STMs around the missio Dei. Let’s get our STMs vitally linked with national churches and mission agencies that have been locked in the ongoing work for generations within a particular culture and people.

3. We need to stop creating “short-term mission trips” and instead begin participating in true “short-term mission” that contributes toward fulfillment of God’s global purpose. We do this in part by holding ourselves accountable to excellence. One tool that can help is the U.S. Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission (see last page). By adopting these seven standards, short-term mission leaders can pledge their STM program to a helpful peer review every three years. They can improve their STM efforts through key quality indicators focused on God-centeredness, empowering partnerships, mutual design, comprehensive administration, qualified leadership, appropriate training and thorough follow-up.

If you are interested in missions and especially if you’re a team leader, I encourage you to check out the Standards of Excellence on the last page of the essay.

What are your thoughts about how we can do missions well? Anything to add to this list?

“Who would name their dog ‘Tequila??'”

Who would name their dog Tequila??” Disapproval and disgust were in her voice as she wrinkled up her forehead in a snide expression, studying the little Chihuaha-mix mut on the front steps of my house.

My friend, that’s who, I thought. My neighbor. The mother of these two children who just heard you ask that question.

I wanted to snap back with something equally as snobby like, “who would wear such an ugly hat?” But then I realized that I was the 23-year-old and she was the high school student who apparently didn’t know any better. Still, I reasoned with myself, I ought to do herself a favor and teach her a lesson by bursting that little self-righteous bubble of hers.

Maybe I was more bitter than I should have been, thinking about how I wished that someone had burst my self-righteous bubble when I was that age. I know I would have asked the same question at 15-years-old.

It was day two of a summer “missions trip.” This youth group from out of town was assigned to our neighborhood for their service project as part of a summer camp being held on the campus of my alma mater. For three days in a row the group would come into this neighborhood they had never visited before and spend 3-4 hours ministering to our neighborhood kids by playing games, sharing Bible lessons, eating snacks and making crafts. Great concept. Great group of people with great intentions.

But somewhere in the midst of the lesson, sitting in the grass of our front yard on that sunny summer afternoon, in between the hushes and snaps of fingers and demands for children to pay attention and sit still, (impossible requests given the circumstances) I caught a glimpse of what many missionaries must feel when groups come to “help.” As much as I would have loved for the kids to be enthralled by a lesson given by a middle-aged man they’d never met about how scientists have not yet been able to engineer anything close to what God created such as the single blade of grass he held in his hand, chances were slim that they’d be paying attention.

I did my best to encourage listening and interest in the topic at hand but it was apparent that there was a distinct “us and them” division. Clearly unintentional on the group’s part, they had failed to relate to the kids, build any kid of foundation of friendship, trust or respect and it left the kids feeling talked at rather than talked with. I felt uncomfortable because I didn’t want to choose sides. If it came down to it I know who I’d be with.

My friends and I have been building relationships with these children and their families for over four years. It is kind of strange to see new people come in and start making new rules. We don’t want to be territorial but we do feel a sense of ownership. It takes time to earn trust. It takes time to learn the people and atmosphere around you. I think it is a great disservice to march into a new place with a rigid plan and a disregard for individuals’ needs.

Honestly, the kids probably had a blast. They played with soccer balls and did parachute activities. I’m sure they enjoyed the break from summer vacation monotony. This is in no way a reprimand or diss on the part of this particular group. It is a commentary on all service projects, social ministry and short-term mission trips. I think it would be healthy to reconsider the way we have traditionally done missions.

When that young girl came into my neighborhood and judged my neighbor for naming her dog after alcohol, I felt personally offended. I didn’t feel embarrassed for my neighbor because this church girl found out the controversial name of her dog, I felt embarrassed for this church girl because she had vocalized judgment instead of grace and it was not representative of the heart of my Savior.

What if when we went on “mission trips,” instead of barging in like an army taking territory, we let grace lead the way? What if instead of coming at people we decided to just be with them? What if instead of telling them what they should consider important, we learned about what was important to them? I don’t think we will win those around us to the heart of God by suggesting they change the name of their pets… I think those around us will be drawn to the heart of God when we walk across the street and visit them on their porches; sitting and talking and laughing, accepting them for who they are, Tequila and all.