What I Wish I'd Known Before Going on a Mission Trip
Thinking about going on a mission trip? Here is the truth about short-term missions!
Today we're talking about 10 things I wish I would have known before I went on a mission trip. It is with great honor that I wrote this post. This is a post for the girl like me. The girl and boy and man and woman who has questions they’re afraid to ask because we all know it’s all about the details.
1. EVERYTHING IS A SURPRISE!
If you go on mission with Mission 108, we will tell you up front before you even apply that trips can be planned and executed perfectly, but there will always be a surprise or seven. Surprises are just a part of what happens when you go to a country you’ve never been to. Travel offers you experiences you can’t plan for, and it is often most shocking to the control freaks that like things to go exactly right and keep their map and itinerary in hand.
Surprises when traveling on mission include, but are not limited to:
Surprise! We are leaving three hours later than planned!
Surprise! We are not eating lunch today! Grab your granola bars!
Surprise! Our four-hour bus ride is now eight hours. (But the Taj was totally worth it!)
Surprise! There’s a lizard sleeping inside your mosquito net WITH YOU!
Surprise! There’s a dog-sized rat next to your head which nibbles itself through the lid of your Jif peanut butter!
Surprise! Not everyone on a mission team is nice. Actually, some missionaries are jerks!
Surprise! You’ve got a parasite, and you just shit the bed!
Surprise! You have no WiFi for a week, but somehow the one text message you receive is from your husband at the Texas fair eating fried Oreos when all you’ve eaten in six days is stale bread and questionable peanut butter.
Okay. So all of that might sound like a nightmare, but there is a reason I keep going back. Which leads me to number 2
2. ITS OKAY TO LAUGH AND HAVE FUN.
I am not a laugh-until-I-cry type of girl. But every time I’m on mission this happens to me. It’s like a sweet and gentle reminder that life is not that serious. Even in the midst of everything serious, like spending hours with freed slaves learning their stories, we always find a way to laugh and play and return to our child-like nature. I am most at home when my feet are on foreign soil. So I shed all the layers of all the crap that I put on when I’m back at home, and it’s like I subconsciously allow myself to laugh. Not only laugh, but belly laugh. Laugh until I cry and can’t even remember why we’re laughing.
Everyone on our team experiences this, too, and it is so earth-shakingly beautiful. You will make memories with locals that are irreplaceable and many of those memories are laughing over meals with your new family. Which leads to number 3.
3. You become a family.
I don’t mean this in a cheesy way; I mean this in the most profound way possible. Mission trips allow you to experience something that so few have, or could even imagine, and it creates a bond like nothing I’ve ever seen. About 9-10 strangers become your brothers and sisters when you’re on mission with Mission 108. We start every day the way I believe it should be started: together, talking, and over a meal. We talk about deep love, big questions, shed some tears, sometimes we just hold onto each other and we say no words. I promise you one thing for sure, you will leave a trip with Mission 108 with a new family. And you will need each other. On the trip and after returning home. Re-entry is hard. You’ll form a new-found family not only the fellow Americans that you travel with, but also with the staff we’ll introduce you to—they’ll become a part of your new definition of soul family.
Because I’ve done this many times in many different ways, I truly feel like I’ve perfected the art of gathering and encouraging community. In all our trips, not a single person has walked away without a handful of brothers and sisters whose bond is never ending. From the inside jokes and belly laughs to the infinite amount of grace, love, and compassion that is learned and shared in ten days in a foreign country, you will leave knowing what family truly means.
4. Don’t be scared...
...to shout out loud when you’ve got diarrhea. There is just no pretty way to put this. I’ve been on upwards of ten trips and I’ve gotten it two times in six years. It doesn’t happen to everyone and it doesn’t happen every time, but when it does you need to tell people. My first trip ever was to Ethiopia. They told me not to eat the vegetables and I just didn’t listen very well. I did not think I’d live to see another day on God’s green Earth because if you’ve ever had food poisoning you know that your entire body betrays you. It has turned its back on you, and you have no control. Food poisoning, and hosting a parasite inside your gut, is ultimate surrender. You are worthless. On the bathroom floor praying for a miracle in between bouts of expelling the demon that has inhabited your soul. The violence coming from within is enough to make the entire hotel believe someone is performing an exorcism. All because you had to have some greens.
If this happens to you, the worst thing you can do is try to pretend like it didn’t. Because just when you think it’s over, it’s not. Your team leaders need to know if your belly is feeling wonky because we have the tools, medications, and knowledge to help you. God forbid this happens, but if it does...don’t be scared to tell someone. Don’t be a hero. Use the buddy system on this one, folks. And chances are someone else is feeling the same way.
5. Trust your leader, but ask a million questions.
We know what we’re doing. And we want to know if you don’t understand or if you want to dive deeper into the subject. Sometimes trip leaders have done this so many times, we breeze right over something that doesn’t make sense to a first-timer.
A prime example is this: Don’t give money to poor people on the street. That’s a pretty common rule among short-term missions, at least the ones focused on sustainability. But if you’re on a short-term mission trip with us, it’s pretty certain you’ve got a heart of gold. So it makes sense that you might want to slip a $5 bill to the begging woman with acid burns and a baby in her arms. Who wouldn’t? What you don’t know is that she’s a part of a human trafficking ring. She takes zero percent of that money home and your $5 goes into the pocket of a pimp that’s going to buy himself another girl to force into slavery. I know it’s heavy. But it’s true and it’s common and I wish I would have known ahead of time.
Please ask us any and all of your questions. We will be honest and true. We will say “I don’t have the answer to that” when we don’t know the answers. We will not feed you some religious BS. We will learn and grow and think and stretch together!
6. Child pornography is not allowed.
We don’t take pictures of poor kids, or naked kids, or poor naked kids. Especially not the naked ones. Listen, I know. I see people all of the time posting perfectly manicured pictures of themselves with poor naked black kids pretending like they did something to help someone. We are over it, it is not helpful, and we will not do it. Here’s a newsflash: poor naked kids are children, too. In America, if you take a picture of a random naked child and share it with all your friends, you go to prison for child pornography. If you’re on mission and take a picture of a poor naked child and post it on social media to make yourself feel good...let’s talk about other ways to accomplish self-worth, shall we?
Everyone wants to do it. I get it. I do. I’ve done it, actually. Your heart is in the right place. You’re seeing things you didn’t know existed for the first time, and poor naked children will shock your friends and family back home. But for reasons like fighting to keep sustainable short-term missions alive and not becoming “poverty tourists”, we don’t take pictures of poor people just to have on our camera roll. Oh, and then there’s also the reason we don’t do it because respecting people’s privacy is a thing we do whether we’re in America or in Africa or in India.
7. You’re going to have superhuman strength.
Without fail, almost every time I talk about Mission 108 people ask me how I do it. How do I see so much hurt and pain and poverty and not let it affect me? Here’s the thing, I live my life with a wide open broken heart. Something shreds me to pieces every single day. I am not blissfully unaware of injustice. I do not believe this is a healthy way to live. I believe that letting your heart break daily, yearly, or as much as it needs to is the only way to really feel alive. It is counter-cultural to live this way, but I promise it’s the best. Seeing hard stuff doesn’t make me hard. It makes me soft. When I’m sitting with a girl who’s been trafficked by her parents and doesn’t speak the same language as me, God gives me the words I need to comfort. I don’t force language where language isn’t needed. It is otherworldly what happens in the healing process. Dry bones literally come alive. Dead people get up and walk. Slaves are set free. There are no amount of words I can say that will aid in the process. But I know for sure that when I’m needed I’m equipped with everything I need by the Holy Spirit. I’ve seen it a thousand times. Demons cast out. Miracles performed.
God uses the willing. Not the ready. No one is ever ready to jump on a plane and experience what we do. You will shock yourself by your superhuman strength. You see, the heart is a muscle that knows how to repair itself. You have the ability and the strength to see and do things you once thought not possible. You’ll come back home with a heart that is stronger than before. We don’t allow our hearts to break for the sake of breaking down, but for the sake of breaking open.
8. It’s not about doing, it’s about being.
The age-old question, “What are we going to be doing?” This is why we’re not your typical mission trip. We could give you an itinerary and a list of things to build, accomplish, and teach while we’re there. But I’ve found that this is precisely the wrong way to go about it. Doing is a verb. It suggests you turn on when tasks are required and turn off when they’re not. It suggests that missions are about traveling to far away lands and building schools for underdeveloped countries. And it’s not.
Missions have little to do with location and everything to do with mutual transformation. Mutual transformation is where EVERYONE involved benefits from the process. I’ve seen first hand how Americans coming to a country to build a road does very little good for third world countries. You’ve heard it before, I’ll say it again: “You can give a man a fish and feed him for a day, or you can teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime”. Why should we go to India with a list full of tasks when mutual transformation has nothing to do with checking off tasks on a list?
Our trips are all about BEING. We go to be present. Let the team take care of the rest. We will give you the words you’ll need to describe your trip to friends and family because they too will ask what you will be doing. We will give you an itinerary about a week before we leave (or maybe we won’t). We do this so that you’ll focus on relationships over accomplishments. Choosing to be present is the most challenging part of the entire experience. I’ve learned it over and over every time I go. Now that I’ve stepped into a leadership role, it’s even harder. But the good news is that we can do this together!
9. You are selfish.
We are human, and almost everything we do is motivated out of selfishness. Even something as beautiful as serving others is often done out of selfishness to alleviate something personal we are going through. It’s weird and it sucks and I’m still working it out gently. A lot of people sign up for missions to “experience something new”, “see what it’s like”, or some other oddly selfish excuse. It isn’t until we get there and we learn this that we realize the depth of who we really are. Our humanity is exposed. It sounds scary, but it’s really just freeing. Americans have struggles just as big or as hard as third world countries and sometimes we learn who is actually poor; poor in spirit.
There is a lot of bashing of short-term missions; however, when done thoughtfully and sustainably, I believe short-term missions serve a purpose. After all, my first one lead us here. If you go and realize that your motivations are a little selfish, don’t beat yourself up. Just do what you can to create positive change and healing after you come back. And try to take part in missions that focus on mutual transformation or sustainability. The worst you can do is go on a mission trip, come back beating yourself up or ignoring all the junk that came up while you were there, and never deal with it or never talk about it with anyone. Take action. Share your experiences. Be an advocate.
10. There are no signs.
I’ve heard this, or something similar, about a zillion times: “I’m just waiting for a sign.”
Here’s the cold hard truth. Mission trips are hard. Often times, you have to take off work, leave your family for the unknown, pay a lot of money, eat food you aren’t familiar with, sometimes awkwardly raise funds for your trip, and spend time with people you’ve never met--all for something you have no idea what it’s going to be like. Your precious human brain is trying to rationalize this because you’ve seen the positive impact it’s had on other people who’ve gone, but you’re waiting for something large to fall out of the sky and give you a reason to go. Sorry, signs don’t fall from the sky and neither do funds. It will never be easy, which is perfect because it weeds out those that aren’t meant to go. But if you are on the edge of your seat waiting for a sign from God to knock you over, this is the best you’re going to get: GO!
There’s your sign. And that is more than the other million people who’ve gone because signs don’t happen. My business partner says this beautifully when she talks about Esther and how God says “for such a time as this” which is this really sweet way of saying, “Listen, I’m doing this work with or without you. You can either go or not go.” While you’re busy waiting for a sign that’s probably not coming, other people are doing the work. You’ll learn this on the trip, but you’ve got to get there to learn it. On the other side of fear, life begins.
Promise. Promise. Promise. There will always be a million reasons why you shouldn’t go.
The kids need you. The husband. The wife. The dogs. The farm. The bills. The expenses. The job. Everyone’s got the same things holding them back. Ask Ashley Kelly who referred to me as “the gnat” that wouldn’t stop bugging her about going because I saw in her a desire to go and she just needed to be gently pushed off the ledge. She now sits on our board, raises over $20,000 a year for Mission 108, and is well on her way to leading teams for us. All because she stopped waiting for a sign and just went. Was it hard? As hell. Was it easy leaving her husband and her son to go with me? NO. But she is a brand new person and she spoke life into girls who’ve never had life spoken over them. She will tell you a thousand times over that every doubt, every fear, every lie that is holding you back is TINY compared to what’s about to happen to your soul on a Mission 108 mission trip.
Here are her words exactly: “I was waiting, waiting, waiting, and waiting some more for God OR someone or something to say, “GO”. Then I would create these reasons of why I shouldn’t go: “I am a mom, and what if something happened to me, what about my son?” or “ I’ve heard that place isn’t safe” BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH. Let’s be real: THESE ARE EXCUSES. AND that was me not trusting my gut. Every time I convinced myself that I wasn’t going to go, I would still think about it constantly. Life is so short, and I knew that if I didn’t pull the trigger and say YES then I would regret it and spend my life having that sitting feeling in the back of my mind. I stopped the fighting and said YES, went through the nervous/excited/what-the-hell-am-I-doing stage for weeks leading up to the trip. Bawled my eyes out the moment my husband and son dropped me off at the airport as all I could think of was how comfortable I’d lived up until getting to the airport. BOOM. We were off to my unknown and I couldn’t have felt more relieved. A huge weight was lifted off my shoulders all from taking a step out of my comfort zone. Little did I know the next ten days would forever change my life. To feel, see and experience every part of a foreign land and connect and love on people who on paper couldn’t be more opposite than me was what my heart had been missing. Just say YES. And everything will take care of itself.”
So here’s the thing, you are special and you are loved. But you are not effing Moses and I can almost guarantee that God’s not gonna appear in your dreams and give you the 411. You just gotta go. If the excuses sound logical in your head but your heart is still whispering, then do something big, do something bold, stop the noise, and fill out the application.
That is it. This is the closest thing to a sign dropping from the Heavens.
P.S. For those of you who have gone on long or short-term missions: what did you learn through your experiences? Tell me in the comments!