Mission Trip Tips.

On this day a few years ago, I was gearing up to go on my first international mission trip.
We were given the opportunity to participate in a mission trip with our church to Barahona, Dominican Republic. The trip so surpassed my expectations, that I had a pretty hard time articulating to friends and family just what it meant to me.

The "mission" of the trip was two-fold. Practically, we were there to pour floors in a new medical clinic and in some homes in the batey, a neighborhood of Haitian immigrants transplanted in the DR after the 2009 earthquake. Ultimately however, we were there to grow and build upon a foundation of relationships with the children and families there. Our motto was "if it's not eternal, it's not important"; the most important thing was to share the unconditional love of Jesus. Thinking upon that, along with the principles of "Helping without Hurting", we hit the ground running in one of the most beautiful places I have ever set foot. I'm not going to lie. When I heard "we are going to do some concrete work, but also spend a lot of time with the school children," I walked straight past the cement being mixed and joined a group of girls playing games. I had found my spot. 

We were welcomed with open arms by the locals and the missionaries we were working alongside. The week before was so stressful, attempting to finish work and get everything ready for a week away. I had placed a lot of pressure on myself considering this was my first overseas mission trip. I spent a lot of time worried about how effective I would be, as I didn't want the locals to look at me and think, "Oh, here's that white girl that just showed up to take her pictures and leave". So, when we arrived and they ran to us with hugs and questions and giggles and this happy-love with no conditions, it was like "ok I'm supposed to be here!" and sigh, a breath of fresh air. We could not have had a more fun and rewarding time. The fact that it was 80 degrees and sunny with a constant breeze didn't hurt either.

 The whole trip was somewhat paradoxical in nature. I was so nervous, yet so excited. I was absolutely heart-broken by the circumstances, but so incredibly uplifted by the spirit of the people. I cried harder than I have in a while, but I laughed bigger than I had in an even longer while. I felt so rich by material standards, all while realizing how poor I am in contentment and true joy. I wasn't comfortable in my surroundings, yet I felt like a queen given the hospitality of our amazing host family. Our Spanish was less than mediocre, yet love, respect, and admiration could not have been communicated more loudly. I'm so happy to be at home with my American comforts, yet (and at the risk of sounding corny Christian) I'm pretty sure a piece of my heart is somewhere in the Dominican, mixed in with the rocks, the dirt, and the ocean air.

I learned so much about Jesus and His church. Church isn't a building. It isn't organs or man-made routines and traditions or projector screens or fancy prayer rooms. It's a body of people ALL around the world! I can now say that one of the most powerful church experiences I've had was in a concrete, open-air school building with about thirty people...with "Hosanna" in Spanish playing over one speaker plugged up to an ipod. ;)

I learned so much about my team. Watching my husband, our friends, and the others we served with taught me that there are still people who gladly put others before themselves, who are willing to put in the dirty work (quiet literally) to see others' lives enriched.

I learned so much about myself. There's still a lot of heart-work to be done. There are still things left to be wrestled with and prayed about- specifically the deep pull in my heart to advocate for children and education in SOME capacity. I'm still unsure what that looks like exactly, though I do know it won't be that glamorous nor easy (hence the running). A friend once posed a wonderful question to me, "When do you feel that you are at your best self?"  Well, this trip provided some much-needed space for my best self to appear- surrounded by community, serving children and families, learning new things, and being encouraged from others working towards a common goal.

All that being said, I have a few tips for those of you considering or getting ready for a short-term mission overseas. 

NUMBER ONE AND MOST IMPORTANT: Be sensitive to and respectful of the culture in which you are a guest. THIS MEANS: Put down your phone, (truly consider leaving your phone in your room and kissing it byebye 'til bed), leave your brand-name goods at home, and honestly, forget about your comforts. Do not ask for wifi. Pack light and use the rest of your suitcase for needed goods. Tell your family/boyfriend/squad you will check in when you can. Consider proper dress. Consider proper language and behavior. Do not attempt to fix another culture by American-izing it. You are a guest.

Ask the full-time missionary families as many questions as you can (our family was so transparent and honest and we learned a LOT!) and also LOVE on them! Their lives are neither glamorous nor easy, even if everything seems happy. Many are sacrificing much to serve. They have so much to teach, and deserve to be listened to and invested in by the rest of us. The family we worked with were so joyful and fun, yet we know that everyone is human and we all struggle. Feel free to ask about their needs and yes, wants!

Experience the culture. We loved eating new foods, drinking ice-cold cokes made with (gasp) real sugar, playing what seemed like thousands of  games of baseball with the kids, and walking around in the village to say hello to neighbors. This was one of the biggest takeaways for me, learning to love simplicity and apply it to my life back in the states.

Make a point to have some quiet, distraction-free time to pray and reflect. There were many busy moments in our trip. And yes, the main goal was to build relationships with others and work hard. Yet I think these trips also serve to help you "work" on yourself. It was a special gift to me to be away from every day distractions in order to participate in self-reflection and prayer. Naps on the porch in the sun help, too! ;)

Continue to give after you leave. At night we would sit on the porch and talk with locals. We asked them what they thought of American missionaries. Many were receptive and thankful to those long-term missionaries living in the community, but had a distaste for those visiting for short missions. One kind young man even said, "When I see an American, I expect them to go to the beach, take a picture with us on their camera, leave, and never be seen again." This broke my heart and made me realize that sometimes short-term missions can do more harm than good. We weren't going to stop the relationship after we left. Although we may not be able to visit as much as we like, we are fortunate to partner with churches who do send missionaries every few weeks. Through these efforts, we are able to send letters to "our" children, and donate to help with school materials and meals. It's important for us to continue pouring into this community even without a physical presence.

Am I saying that mission trips are absolutely perfect and everyone should become a missionary? No. There will be moments of stress, not every moment is instagram worthy, and these trips can open some things in your heart that you're just not quite ready to deal with. We came back exhausted and with knock-ya-down colds. It was hard to transition back to work. We missed out on some fun happenings at home while we were gone. My heart ached for days after hugging "my kids" goodbye. Yet I'm so glad we took that step of faith and took this trip. I miss it like crazy and pray for the opportunity to return one day.

Full-time missions may not be for us, yet I now have a deeper appreciation for those who are in it. So if you're wanting to take a trip, yet are worried about costs or timing or your abilities, I couldn't encourage you  more to pursue the opportunity! These are all things that worried us, but God came through and we experienced an amazing time and trip. And we know we will still be learning from this trip for years to come. Jesus is so good, y'all. He truly meets us in the places of our doubt. He shows us how following the uncomfortable leads to great joy.

What are your mission trip tips? :)