International Service — A Personal Outlook

Malawi Camp GLOW

My girls and I at Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) in Malawi

From the age of nine through my senior year in high school, I had the opportunity to go on six short-term mission trips. In my junior year of college, I studied abroad for a few months. After college I lived in Malawi for a year and a half as a Peace Corps volunteer. I am here to share with you my experiences.

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A Sabbath afternoon hike to a cave in Honduras

I always had a burning desire to travel. I thought it was a glorious thing! Travel is still wonderful, but I’ve learned the value of the closeness of family and friends, and that I don’t need to go far, far away to be “valuable” or “successful.” I’ve proven my independence and have learned a great deal about myself in the process.

An article by Tarja Parssinen, entitled “We’re not meant to do this alone: American individualism is destroying our families,” had a quote to which I related: “It’s as if Americans must always be Lewis and Clark on a brave embarkation, and if we’re not, we are provincial, frightened, and uneducated. Unlike our ancestors, young people today are not concerned with America’s place in the world. Instead, we ask ourselves, ‘What is my place in the world?’”

I definitely started out being a stereotypical American individualist, but now value and respect the collectivist culture of other countries. Probably I still have individualist qualities, but I think I have achieved a balance, and that is always the preferred state with most things.

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Buying greens at the local market in Malawi

If you ask, “Should I send my kid on an overseas mission trip?” I would 99 percent of the time say “Yes!” But, it may not be for the reasons you would expect. Yes, it is for an honorable cause, to help the less fortunate, but that isn’t the only reason, nor is it the most significant thing that will happen. There is no way that a person can go into this type of service without coming out changed. The opportunity to see a new way of life, have a new cultural experience, make lots of new friends, and learn to love the unpredictable…is priceless.

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There were so many incredible experiences and learning experiences:

  • Not ever being sure of how things would work out, but they always would
  • Having faith in my fellow man while hitchhiking in Africa
  • Driving, seemingly aimlessly, around the savannas of Guyana in the middle of the night
  • Sleeping on a very narrow wooden church pew on a hot night with mosquitoes buzzing around
  • Washing girls’ hair with a water hose, treating for lice, and giving them pretty new hair clips and combs
  • Being put under house arrest while under the investigation of Hugo Chavez’s government
  • Backpacking, just able to put one foot in front of the other

Things didn’t always go according to plan, but those were some of the most memorable experiences.

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Hiking Mt. Roraima on the Venezuela side

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I made it to the top!

Sometimes I look back and wonder what it was that I accomplished? Well the truth is this — maybe not much. But, that’s okay. Sometimes we have to lower our expectations. That’s not something you typically tell your children. Usually parents say, “You can be whatever you want, you can reach the stars,” which is an awesome, positive message and should be encouraged. The thing is…you can’t expect to always achieve whatever it is you set out to do. It may be that you started out with unrealistic expectations, not through any fault of your own, just that you didn’t have the whole picture. It could be cultural differences, not taking into account the other “human” factors in the equation, or that God had a different plan. I may never be able to measure my impact on others, but I know that my life was changed, in a big way, by the gracious people who befriended me.

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Waiting for a ride to my village in Malawi

I look back on all the mistakes I’ve made, and one specific incident sticks out in my mind. I was a speaker for an evangelistic series in the Ukraine when I was 16. I was so nervous at one point that I skipped an entire page of slides of essential information on the topic “Who is the Beast?” I can only pray that God blessed this talk in His own way. Maybe it did have an impact on someone, but I won’t find out until heaven, and it will certainly not be to any “glory” of my own.

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Teaching a health lesson in Malawi

Some trips were very adrenaline filling, especially the short term trips where we rushed in to “save the world.” At one point on a trip, we had kids lining up for our autographs! And, we obliged. Looking back on that, was that really the message we were there to send? Probably not. But, it’s easy to get caught up in the glory of being a “famous American.” And yet, the job isn’t always glorious. On one trip I remember being stuck on the clean-up crew after meals instead of being at the job site. In naivete I complained that I should be able to help with the “real work.”

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Hanging out and eating sugar cane in Malawi

Additionally, there was often a layer of hidden danger that, as a naive traveler, I was unaware of. There were forces at work to stop the job we were there to do. In a way this goes to show that God was using us to do His good work.

  • Priests from other churches working to shut us down
  • Being accused of spying for the U.S. Government
  • Kids chasing us with rocks because they wanted more candy (because they were hungry, and the only way to cut that hunger was by sniffing airplane glue)

There was even more danger to workers who lived in the countries we visited. Soon after a trip to the Ukraine, we found out that the pastor we had worked with was shot and killed by one of the teenage boys we had come in contact while there. The struggles are real: drugs, spiritual war, poverty, poor hygiene, lack of water, and on and on. We take many things for granted in everyday life. Once in a while a reality check can be very grounding.

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A village girl in Venezuela

Preparing for experiences like these are impossible. Even if I knew then what I know now, I doubt it would have changed any of my decisions. That is a blessing. I value all the friends I made, all of the “unknowns,” the tough adventures.

My message to you is this: Find a purpose in whatever it is you are tasked to do, and relish the experience.

Lessons From Ethiopia

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My husband, three children, and I just returned from a two-week mission trip to the village of Shashemane in Ethiopia.

It was my hope that this would be a rich educational experience for my children. I had visions of us having great discussions about culture and geography, and experiencing “aha!” moments of gratitude. The thing is, I’m pretty sure I learned more from them than they did from me on this trip.

  • As I watch my son seamlessly fold into a group of non-English-speaking Ethiopian children for a game of soccer, I learn that the language barrier is not nearly as big as I thought.
  • As 3-year-old Fortu holds tightly to my daughter’s hand and follows her everywhere, I realize that a warm smile and loving touch are needed by children from every continent.
  • As our driver tries to make my youngest son laugh through the bus window, I notice that funny faces and laughter are the same in Ethiopia as they are in the United States.

It was I who experienced an “aha!” moment by witnessing how much we have in common, and how much love can be shared regardless of generational gaps, contrasts in skin tone, language barriers, and cultural idiosyncrasies. It is my hope that these lessons will be remembered deeply. And, even if we forget the capital of Ethiopia, if we will remember that love and friendship are possible wherever we are, it will have been the richest of educational experiences.