Don’t Hug A Stranger
Important Insights in Short Term Missions Trips
By Alice Bridge
“I am so stinkin’ selfish!” Jennifer exclaimed as she fought back tears. We were in her hotel room in western China. This was her first cross-cultural missions trip, and she was encountering a level of spiritual and physical poverty she had never seen before. I searched for something helpful to say but found myself at a loss. I knew that what she was experiencing, though painful, was part of the reason God had brought her on this trip.
Participating in foreign missions can be challenging, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The good news is that there are things you can do to prepare for these challenges. If you are planning to go on a short-term missions trip, here are some ways to make your time more enjoyable and effective.
Before Your Trip
Research the place and people you will serve. That way, you’ll know what to expect. The Internet and friends who have traveled abroad are excellent sources of information. Some good questions to research are:
– How should I greet people? I usually greet my friends “male and female” with a warm hug. In the Muslim nation I visited recently, this is a big no-no. I had to adopt a more formal approach when interacting with the young men I met.
– How can I demonstrate respect? We may go to third-world countries thinking we have something to give and need nothing in return. However, receiving from others is often a way to show respect. When I was in Nigeria, a young man taught me how to kill and clean a chicken. As he answered my questions, we connected on a new level. I had come to teach, but I also needed to be willing to learn.
– How do they dress? I prefer to wear pants, but women in the countries I visit usually wear long skirts. When I showed up in jeans to work in a medical clinic in El Salvador, I set myself apart in a way that was not helpful. Now I err on the conservative side when I pack clothes for missions tips.
– How do they interpret common gestures? A motion that means one thing in your home country may mean something different elsewhere. During preparations for a worship concert in Nigeria, I waved “hi’ to a child sitting near me. Instead of returning my greeting, the child looked fearful, got up, and came awkwardly toward me. Later I learned that waving means “come here” in
Nigeria. The child thought I wanted him to come to me, and he clearly felt uncomfortable doing so.
Adjust your diet. Find out what most people eat where you are going and adapt to that diet if possible. For example, if you usually eat a lot of meat and you learn that the place you’re going maintains a predominantly rice and vegetables menu, start incorporating those foods into your diet. That way, it will be easier to feel satisfied by what you are served while you’re away.
To help reduce instances of “traveler’s stomach” (diarrhea), try adding yogurt to your diet a couple of weeks prior to your trip. For those who are lactose intolerant. acidophilus tablets (available at most pharmacies) have a similar effect. I also encourage my missions teams to bring multivitamins and vitamin C drops.
Update your shots and papers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides immunization recommendations for nearly every area of the world. View their website (www.cdc.gov/travel/vaccinat.htm) for recommendations specific to your destination. If possible, allow six months for immunizations. Some, such as the shots for hepatitis 13, take that long to complete.
You may also need a passport. If you’re an American citizen, visit the U.S. Department of State website (http://travel.state.gov/passport/passport_1738.html) to learn how to obtain one. If you already have a passport, verify that it will not expire while you are away from home. Before you leave, make a copy of the photo page of your passport, and give the copy to someone at home. That way, if your passport is lost or stolen during your trip that person will have a record, and it will he easier for you to return to your home country.
As you enter a foreign country be specific when the customs agent asks you how long you plan to stay. On one trip, a teammate answered “Two weeks” even though we would be in the country 18 days. The attendant marked this teammate’s passport with a date exactly two weeks from our entry date.
When we exited the country, the customs agent almost refused to let our teammate leave because he had stayed four days past the date on his passport. As a precaution, you may want give yourself a little extra time, just in case your plans change.
Pack early. If you wait to pack until the night before you leave, you will likely forget something important. You will also probably pack more than you need and enter the trip already frazzled from the last-minute stress. A week before your trip, make a packing list (your trip leader should he able to suggest needed items) and start packing, or at least assembling, the things you plan to take.
Leave expensive items at home. Theft is common during international travel, but if you don�t bring it, they can’t steal it.
Expensive items (such as MP3 players, jewelry, and designer clothes) can also make it more difficult for those you are serving to relate to you. When I taught for a summer in western China, I brought my new digital camera. Several students asked me how much it cost. The amount was nearly a year’s wages for many people in that part of the world!
Pray for your team. Ask for safety health, team unity, and spiritual preparedness.
Learn about missions. Look for books that will help prepare your mind and heart for foreign missions, both practically and spiritually. Two of my favorites are Let the Nations Be Glad! by John Piper and Mack and Leannan’s Guide to Short-Term Missions by J. Mack and Leanna Stiles.
During Your Trip
Pace yourself. To counter the stresses of international travel and the heightened spiritual attack that often accompanies foreign missions work, try to get sufficient sleep. It’s tempting to push yourself, especially on shorter trips. But even it your trip lasts only a week, you will be more effective if you are well rested
It’s also important to maintain a reasonable schedule. In China, my team spent a week in orientation before traveling three days by train to the city where we were teaching. Although we had planned a day of rest before our class started, many of our students were so eager to meet us that they were waiting at the hotel when we arrived. It turned out that we did not have any time off for the first three weeks we were in China! In addition to living with our students and teaching Monday through Friday we went on field trips every weekend, diligently planned for by our host. Finally, the other staff and I explained to our host that we were exhausted and needed a day off.
Have morning devotions. Because missions trips require much of you spiritually and physically, it is imperative to remain connected to the Lord and receive nourishment from His Word. The morning devotions I have during a missions trip are precious for another reason–they are usually the only time I spend alone while I’m on the field.
Pray. On a short-term missions trip, you may not feel you are making much of a difference. However, no matter what your limitations (language barriers, cultural differences etc.), you can pray for those you serve.
Praying with your teammates can also have powerful results. During my summer in Asia, I served with several college students who had not been away from home for that length of time before. When they were struggling, the most helpful thing I could do was to pray with them. I experienced several breakthrough moments after those times of prayer.
Watch your life and doctrine closely (1 Tim. 4:16). Actions do speak louder than words, especially across cultures. You will witness more in how you act than in what you say.
Cultivating a “sowing and reaping” mentality. Discipling the nations require many people spread across generations who sow the seeds of the gospel, often without seeing the results of their efforts. Rather than looking for the fruit of your labor while you’re in the field, focus on faithfully sowing God’s Word, and entrust the results to Him.
Journal. What you learn on your missions trips can deeply impact your life and ministry back home. However, after you return, daily distractions and cares often cloud things that God made clear to you on the trip. During your trip, record meaningful Scripture verses, impressions, struggles, and experiences that you have, and goals you want to pursue when you get home.
After Your Trip
Plan for reentry. Don’t assume that returning home will be a breeze simply because you have not been gone long. Give yourself time to recover from jet lag, read through your journal, and plan how you will share your experience with others
It’s normal to experience negative emotions following a missions trip. After my first short-term trip to an orphanage in El Salvador, I felt frustrated and judgmental of American Christians. I grieved the lack of concern some of my friends showed for the poor. It helped to realize that, until my trip, my attitude had been much like theirs.
Share your story. Ask someone – ideally a friend who has participated in foreign missions -to be your “debrief partner.” Plan time together to look at pictures from your trip and discuss and joys and challenges you experienced.
Seek out other opportunities to tell people about is our trip. If your church has a – missions ministry, offer to speak at the next meeting. I have also shared my missions experiences in Sunday school classes, singles’ ministries, and worship services. By relating stories and expressing your enthusiasm for missions, you will help motivate others to be involved.
“Don’t Hug A Stranger”. By Alice Bridge.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”