I’ll never forget the first time I witnessed real life poverty. Our group was driving through an old trailer park, deep in the mountains of Kentucky, during a mission trip. The ground was barren with nothing but dirt and garbage covering the road. Our group leader, Katie, dodged a stack of old tires as she pulled up to one of the abandoned homes. I was shocked when a chunky second grade boy with a thick southern drawl swung open the door, screaming “Ms. Katie! Ms. Katie’s here, Momma!” As complete strangers, we were hesitant to follow, but Katie waved us in.
Inside, the little boy sat playing Xbox on a shabby couch, and his parents shared a bottle of Mountain Dew as if it were a fine wine. There was no place for us to sit, so we stood there, eyes fixated on the video game. The house reeked of urine and cigarettes. I was focused on not saying something stupid, so I leaned against the wall in silence. Katie talked with the parents like they were old friends of hers. It seemed so easy … like she didn’t notice she was standing on a patched hole in the floor as she handed them the meal we had brought.
Katie hugged the family good-bye as we headed out the door. As we pulled out, she asked, “So, what did you think?” The group sat quietly for a minute until someone stammered, “I never realized how good I had it until now.”
This encounter lasted only about 10 minutes, yet it left a lasting impression on me. You see, many of us go on mission trips thinking we are going to change the world. We think we’re going to strap on our backpacks, grab a hammer or a piece of chalk, and walk around villages and schools like we have the definitive answers to their problems. But the truth is, mission trips are not always what we expect them to be because we go in with the mindset of “How can I change others?” rather than “What can I learn?”
I thought back to the many spring breaks I spent in the backwoods of Kentucky, pondering what I’d go back and tell myself. Here’s a few things I would say:
1. You’ll probably learn more from the people you serve than they will from you.
Remember, you are entering their space, culture, and way of life. Err on the side of humility and learn to listen. As you serve, you will form a greater understanding of others as well as yourself. You may even start to reflect on areas of your life where you can make some positive changes as a result of the lessons you learned.
2. You are part of a team.
It’s okay if everyone on the team doesn’t become best friends with each other, but know you will connect with a few people who will help you process everything. You will see things that will humble your heart to the point where it physically aches; don’t be afraid to talk to someone about it. That’s what a team is for. Also, be aware that some group members will bond better, or quicker, with people in the community … and maybe that will be you! Just remember comparison is the thief of joy.
3. Put the camera down.
For the love of Pete, stop worrying about looking like you had a good time and start having a good time! Be present. There is a good chance that your team leader or other members of your group will snap a couple photos of you.
4. Travel with the intention of making friends.
One mission trip isn’t going to solve all of the problems the community is facing, no matter how much you wish it could. The important thing to focus on is what you can do for someone today. How can you reach out to someone in friendship, in love? How can you make a connection that will affect you both for a lifetime? Out of all the souvenirs I’ve ever collected, I’ve found that friendships are my favorite.
Side note: Bring a journal so people can sign it or write down their address. This way, you can keep in contact and leave with plenty of pen pals.
5. Most people aren’t going to “get it.”
It didn’t occur to me that my parents and friends back home wouldn’t be able to relate because they hadn’t shared my experiences. For weeks, I would show them pictures and tell them stories, but they never seemed to get it. It was frustrating and emotionally draining. But in the end, you’ll learn that you can’t force your passion on other people.
Mission trips will change your life if you let them. You will come back with fresh perspectives and a full heart, hoping to change the world in any way you can. You can’t drag people along for the ride, but your passion will become contagious. Eventually, you’ll meet like-minded people whose lives have been changed too.
It’s a big world. Get out there!