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.

 

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?

That time my camera and I angered a woman carrying a machete (Short-term missions Pt. 2)

I didn’t ask permission. I didn’t have any foundation of friendship with her; I hadn’t even met her before. She didn’t know my story and I didn’t know hers. I was passing her on the trail on my way out of her Honduran village and she was coming home after a tiresome day of work in the fields, machete in hand.

*read Part 1 from Short-term missions series here*

I had spent the afternoon with a couple local pastors getting to know some of her neighbors in the village and hearing their stories. After talking with them a bit, they agreed to let me take photos and video. They got comfortable with my camera and I got “in the zone.” I didn’t really think twice about snapping photos on my way back down the mountain.

The set up was perfect for a photo – she and another lady from the tribe trudging up the hill in their skirts, hauling farming tools, framed by mountains and tropical plants. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

NO! No pictures!” she yelled at me in Spanish after the shutter of my camera had already clicked twice. My eyes went straight to the machete she gripped in her right hand. I put my lens cap on as fast as I could and slung my camera around my back out of view. I had no idea what to say. Do I offer an apology? Introduce myself? Offer to delete the pictures? …and then explain exactly what deleting a picture even meant?aladdin7

My boyfriend, Natán, who was next to me, stepped in as a mediator. He began to explain to her that I was not from here, I didn’t speak Spanish (a lie), and I didn’t understand… she should excuse my mistake. It reminded me of the market scene from Disney’s Aladdin where he saves Jasmine from getting her hand cut off for committing a social faux pas. “She’s a little crazy.”

The lady calmed down and we continued on our separate ways. I still have her photo but I will never post it online out of respect for her. She has most likely never seen a computer in her life, much less ever gotten on the internet, and will never know if I ever used her photo for anything.

In the moment, tensions were a little high and I was embarrassed. I am usually careful about pulling my camera out and I always try to engage in some kind of interaction before taking someone’s photo. But in retrospect, I admire that woman. Good for her for telling the strange foreigner visiting her neighborhood that she did not appreciate being objectified on the other end of the lens. If someone I didn’t know started snapping pics of me one day on my way home from work I would be ticked off too!

One of my favorite bloggers wrote a hilarious (and sadly true) blog post about what it would be like if the tables were turned and we were the ones visited and pitied by the super rich.

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There have been a lot of blogs and articles in Christian missions circles written recently about the negative effects of “poverty tourism” (or slum tourism) – how we should avoid reducing our short-term service trips to an event that the affluent should experience at least once in their life in order to put everything into perspective. Yes, these trips usually do this. We go back home a little more appreciative of our country and comforts and material things. We keep the photos of the poor in their lean-to homes to remind us that we are blessed. But see how the focus is still… US?

What must the family of six living in a one-room mud house be thinking when a van full of foreign missionaries pile out with their cameras and phones snapping away… documenting intimate parts of their everyday lives…

If we approach these beautiful human beings and we first think, “I can’t wait until everyone back home sees this!” before we think “I wonder what this family’s story is…” we are in the wrong. There is certainly a time and place for photography during missions trips but this should be discussed and carefully considered before getting on the plane. Some cultures have superstitions about photography and some have deep fears for safety reasons – it is always best to check before taking a picture.

For someone who loves photography and documenting moments, this is especially hard for me! (as in the above example) In almost every situation I am thinking about what might make good photography. There are times when that is my role and my main objective. If I have been assigned as the photographer or videographer, I do my job… while still wrestling with the awareness to be respectful of those I photograph.

Photographer Jimmy Nelson who has captured beautiful photographs of tribal cultures all over the world warns against patronizing the subjects of one’s photography. He shares that in humanitarian photography we often see “foreign cultures represented as exotic and inferior – curiosities to amuse and bewilder more civilized eyes.”

I think that when our focus is restoring broken relationships (which is the eradication of poverty in it’s truest form) it will come as second nature to protect the dignity of those we serve, and all of our interactions will follow accordingly.

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