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10 Things You Need to Know Before Going on a Mission Trip

Summer is approaching and we’re heading into Mission Trip Season.  I’ve been on some, I’ve lead a few, and if I could sit down with you over a pot of fair trade Ethiopian coffee while you take a break from packing your duffle bag, here’s what I’d tell you.

First, great job rolling your clothes instead of folding them.  You don’t want to be that girl with the hugest bag on the trip.  Pack everything you think you’ll need, then mull it over, ditch half of it, and start over.

Try everything.  Eat everything.  What an amazing opportunity to soak up a piece of another culture.  I force invite everyone on my teams to Uganda to eat the tilapia eyeballs.

Seriously, so excited for you.  If I may share what I’ve learned along the way, here are 10 things you need to know before going on a mission trip.

(1) Avoid poverty tourism.  Search your heart.  If you’re going on this trip to have a “great experience” or to help yourself feel grateful for all that you have back home or to take photos of hurting people, please don’t go.  You are part of a larger story, and it’s not about your week.

(2) Don’t be an elephant.  Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorite books about poverty alleviation, When Helping Hurts.

…mission expert Miriam Adeney relates a story told to her by an African Christian friend:

Elephant and Mouse were best friends.  One day Elephant said, “Mouse, let’s have a party!”  Animals gathered from far and near.  They ate.  They drank.  They sang.  And they danced.  And nobody celebrated more and danced harder than Elephant.  After the party was over, Elephant exclaimed, “Mouse, did you ever go to a better party?  What a blast!”  But Mouse did not answer.  “Mouse, where are you?”  Elephant called.  He looked around for his friend, and then shrank back in horror.  There at Elephant’s feet lay Mouse.  His little body was ground into the dirt.  He had been smashed by the big feet of his exuberant friend, Elephant.  “Sometimes, that is what it’s like to do mission with you Americans,” the African storyteller commented.  “It is like dancing with an Elephant.”

Whether you’re going on a mission trip or serving here at home, I encourage you to read When Helping Hurts, which offers practical guidance for how we can truly help the materially poor and not hurt them.  The book also outlines the different kinds of poverty, and how those of us in the west have our own spiritual and relational poverty. This book is required reading for our teams and helps us get on the same page about why we’re going and what we’re doing.

(3) Look people in the eye.  Learn their names.  Stop and listen to their stories.  Say to them, “You matter to me and to God.  I am invested in your future and I will not abandon you.”  And mean it.

(4) Ask before you click.  On my first trip to Uganda, I was told to take photos when we were passing out care packages to the elderly, sick, and child-headed homes.  At one home, I lifted my camera to snap a photo of an elderly couple sitting in the dirt and felt sick to my soul.  That photo never saw the light of day.  I wanted to fling myself at them and ask their forgiveness for stripping them of their dignity.  If children are smiling and dancing and asking you to take their photo, then bless them with that.  Otherwise, ask first and trust your gut if it’s telling you to stop.  Don’t turn your camera into a weapon.

(5) Take trips that represent an ongoing relationship.  I tell the members of my teams that we represent a larger sponsorship community back home.  We are partners with the people of Adacar who are doing the daily work at the CarePoint.  We are there to support our peers who work tirelessly for the children and to love the kids and let them know that their sponsors love them, pray for them, and root for them.  When the team leaves, the relationship doesn’t end.  We are in this for the long haul.  We are standing in the gap to support them as they heal from generations of violence and disease.  We will be here until they don’t need us anymore, and we are working with them to work ourselves out of a job.  When that happens, when they no longer need our support, we will still have each other, because we are friends.  We’ll still have the relationship.

(6) Multiply yourself.  If you have a particular skill that you’re using while in the field, take the opportunity to equip those who are there long-term, if possible.  For instance, we took a mid-wife last year who performed sixty prenatal exams in one day.  When we found out that she’d be accompanying us, I contacted the leadership there, who organized a midwife training.  Midwives from the entire region came, and our midwife was able to start a dialogue between the traditional midwives and the clinically-trained midwives.  The work done on that day was much more far-reaching than simply one visitor performing some exams.

(7) Receive the incredible blessings they offer.  People around the world are generous.  They are more generous than we’re sometimes used to here in America.  When I lived in the Balkans for a summer, I regularly had college students drop their studies, invite me in, make Turkish coffee on a hot plate in their room, and spend hours talking about everything from what they’re studying to whether or not they believe in God.

On my husband’s last trip to Uganda, one of our sponsor daughters gave him her prized chicken.  Alex is the most generous man on the planet and he could not stand to relieve her of her most valuable possession.  He humbly gestured, “No, you keep it.”  Our Esther was undone.  She was devastated that he refused her generosity.

After many, many tears and many, many translated apologies, Alex came home and told me, “When you go this summer, TAKE THE CHICKEN!”  And we did.  Each sponsor on our team had the privilege of visiting his or her sponsored child at home.  By the end of that day, our bus was filled with clucking, pooping chickens, which may or may not have been dinner later that week.

(8) Be a story-gatherer and a storyteller.  Ask thoughtful questions.  Take notes.  Tell their stories with respect and gentleness.

(9) Give yourself.  Don’t give what they don’t need and don’t ask for.  Listen.  Be a learner.  I’ve brought less on each trip to Uganda.  Give your arms and hugs and your lap and your dancing and singing.  On the first trip, I arrived with duffles stuffed with crafts and candy and toothbrushes.  I didn’t understand the need.  I pictured sitting down with groups of kids, stringing beaded necklaces, coloring pictures.  I was greeted with 500 children who knew they needed to scramble if they didn’t want to be left out.  Desperate children stretching out hands for a few beads.  Unneeded toothbrushes for children with pristine, white teeth.  Brawling, pushing, stealing.  I created that.  It was my fault.

With each trip, we’ve brought less and listened more.  We’ve focused on meeting needs through the CarePoint, not getting off the bus like it’s Santa’s sleigh and we’ve come with our bag of presents.  We give hugs.  We give encouragement.  Through the program, we give food, discipleship, education, and medical care.  We give love.  We give Jesus.  We don’t give the West.  We don’t give America.   

(10) You are not the savior of the world.  On one of my trips to Africa, there was a large group of missionaries all wearing brightly colored teeshirts emblazoned with SAVE AFRICA.  They seemed very sweet, and very sincere, but I couldn’t help wondering what the plane filled with Africans thought about the shirts.  As Westerners, it’s common to get swept up into the mentality that we need to save people.  I’m not the savior of the world. I know only one Savior of the world, and his name is Jesus.  My work in Africa is simply to support the awesome work that they’re already doing on the ground.

The friends that I’ve made in Uganda and Ethiopia, the incredible people who are working daily in their communities to bring hope and healing to their neighbors and children, they have taught me so much about faith, about waiting, about serving, and about community.  They’re the reason I’m learning more about our own foster system here.  Their example to me is leading me to want to do more in my own community, to be more like them.

Short-term missions have been abused.  We have gotten it wrong so many times, but there is a place for short-term missions, especially within the context of a long-term relationship.  I always want to evaluate my trips, listen, and learn how to be a better life-long friend.

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” James 2:5.

“If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?  Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” 1 John 3:17-18.


image from Donna Page Photography

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