Originally published in the Bluffton Packet:
It’s that time of year again. It’s getting warmer, school’s almost out and it looks as though the fifth season of the “The Office” will keep me in suspense about whether Jim and Pam will ever tie the knot. But I digress.
Like graduations and white pants, another telltale sign of summer is news of youth groups and individuals taking domestic and international mission trips. You probably know at least one teen or young adult who is packing her Bible, unbreakable water bottle, malaria pills, and wrinkle-resistant knee-length skirts in a backpack and heading to a little-known corner of some foreign country to build a church, dig a well, or lead bilingual sing-alongs for children at a Bible camp.
I used to hear about such trips and think, “Gee, that’s great. Spend hundreds of dollars to travel to another part of the world because no one in your hometown needs help? Why don’t you people do something good locally? There’s plenty of need right here in your own backyard.”
Then I went.
During my senior year of college I took a mission trip to Belize, Central America. A typical Hilton Head girl, my idea of adventure was a Black-Friday shoe sale, not overcrowded, un-air-conditioned classrooms and spiders scurrying across my pillow at night. However, I was graduating and wanted something to mention at job interviews; and though I was broke, a stranger generously donated the trip. Plus, I was living in Ohio and it was March. I was starting to forget what sun looked like. This was a no-brainer.
Packed five across in the back seat of a minivan, Bibles under my feet and three guitars across my lap, careening through villages that had yet to catch up with technology, I felt the direction of my life coming to a screeching halt. Suddenly, all that had been very important to me—friends and family, getting a good job, and sales at The Gap—was overshadowed by the revelation that there were people in the world who didn’t have enough to eat, kids who didn’t have shoes, and schools that could not afford to pay teachers. I had always known this on an intellectual level, but seeing it first hand forced me either to ignore reality or do something about it.
I had been interviewing for teaching jobs in the U.S., weighing different benefits and locations. The principal of the local high school in Belize offered me twelve dollars a week and a bed in a house with a cement floor to teach at a school for students whose behavior or grades were so bad they couldn’t get in anywhere else. I served as a missionary in Belize for two formative years that changed the way I viewed not only developing countries but the U.S. as well. I learned that when you serve others and share Christ with them, what is gained—a greater understanding of oneself and one’s beliefs-- is greater than what is received.
Therefore, service and mission trips are a priority for the teens I work with at my church. This summer we’ll take our third domestic trip to a city where they’ll work with children, paint and do minor repairs for those in need. These are certainly projects that can be done on Hilton Head, but removing teens from the hometown distractions and allowing them to see another part of the U.S. (or world, for ambitious youth ministers) opens the kid’s eyes. Last year, our group worked at a homeless shelter in Tampa, Florida where the teens learned to care for people who can’t afford a place to live or food to eat. Not only did they spend a week in service, they also acquired an interest in serving their own community and have since painted houses, organized food pantries and cared for children locally. The lessons they learned in Tampa have benefited Hilton Head.
2 Kings 5 tells the story of King Naaman, a leper who traveled to Samaria to be healed by the prophet Elisha. Elisha instructed him to bathe in the Jordan River, at which point the King became slightly annoyed and asked why he would travel so far when he had rivers in his hometown which were just as good. God is not limited by geography, but He chose to have Naaman make this journey in order to receive healing. Does one have to go on a mission trip to be a good Christian? Of course not. But we grow when we remove distractions and allow ourselves to learn from a new place, because God uses these long-distance experiences to open our eyes to what has been right here all along.