The summer after I was in 7th grade, my church youth group joined forces with another local church group and made the trip to Mobile, Alabama for what would be my first mission trip. We stayed in a church activity center building. The girls slept on the floor of a racquetball court. There were about 50 girls & women in this room, so every sneeze, every snore and every alarm clock going off in the morning, every whisper & shhhhhhh echoed. Once the lights were out, it was completely pitch black so getting up to go potty meant navigating your way through a maze of suitcases & bodies and half-inflated air mattresses. (Remember, this was before the day of portable air compressors, so everyone had to blow them up the old fashioned way on the first night we arrived. It only took about an hour to determine that I was too exhausted to forcefully exhale any longer.)
During the day, we traveled to another church in Mobile to work on the physical building until lunchtime. There was power washing, painting & cleaning up trash to be done. But I should be honest. I didn't do a whole lot of physical labor. My girlfriends & I went inside the building to an upstairs classroom most of the morning to prep for the afternoon VBS program we would lead at the local Boys & Girls club. I spent at least a portion of those mornings passed out in the floor because I was sleeping so little in the racquetball room. In the afternoons, we'd travel over to the Boys & Girls Club across town (read: in the ghetto) to tell the kids about Jesus. I had learned the lessons & crafts ahead of time, but nothing really prepared me for what I was walking into until the time came. It was shocking. Not because the kids looked different from me but because of the difference in their lives. I came from a home where there was always enough food, I always had clothes to wear, my parents were there for me any time, no one was in & out of jail. That was not the case for these kids.
The summer after 8th grade, my church youth group went on a different kind of mission trip. We spent the greater part of 4-5 months perfecting a musical that we traveled across the southern states of the US performing at different places. (The video above is NOT my group, but the theme song to the same musical we performed.) We went to Lousiana, Mississippi, Alabama (where we stopped at the previous summer's Boys & Girls club to perform the play!!) and Florida. We ended the trip at Disneyworld before heading home. It was a very different sort of mission trip, but a mission just the same. We saw kids and adults alike come to know the Lord because of our performance.
The summer after 9th grade, I went with a group of girls to Harlem (NYC). We stayed at the Baptist Association's office in downtown Manhattan, but each day traveled by subway into Harlem to work at the Greater Universal Baptist Church. (You can see this church's current website here: http://greateruniversal.org/) Located in the middle of the toughest part of New York, it was such a cool experience to walk into a part of town that was definitely scary and work with kids who were living some really tough stuff at home. We used the basement of their building to do a VBS program with the kids. I still have a big scrapbook of pictures from that trip. I've often wondered what became of those kids when they grew up.
But then my world got turned upside down. In a good way. In a powerful, life changing, mind-boggling, heartbreaking, I-will-never-be-the-same sort of way.
The summers after 10th, 11th and 12th grades, I went to the same place. Our youth group traveled to Laredo, TX and just across the border into Mexico, to minister to the poorest of the poor. My life was totally altered on those trips.
We spent the mornings at an orphanage that would give me a heart for the fatherless for life! The Mexican government does not regulate this orphanage the way orphanages in America would be, so the kids got less than adequate care. The reality for most of these kids meant growing up (birth through 14 or 15) inside the tall concrete walls of the orphanage. Then in their mid-teens, they would open the compound doors & tell them "Good luck, have a nice life." and kick them out. There were so many orphans coming into the place that they couldn't care for all of the kids and they felt that mid-teens were old enough to go out & make a life on their own. Many of the boys turned to a life of drugs and girls to prostitution because they didn't know anything else. Unfortunately, that meant that just a couple of years later, these orphans on the street would have babies of their own that they brought back to the orphanage, continuing the cycle, the same way many of them found their way into the doors of the orphanage as newborns.
The infants there laid in rooms lined with beds that were covered in urine & feces, with diapers that hadn't been changed in days, crying and begging for love. The toddlers & preschoolers ran around in diapers (or naked from the waist down) and whatever donated clothes that were near their size. One day, upon walking into the kitchen, I saw a pantry lined with cans & cans & cans of whole kernel corn. At lunchtime that day I realized that corn is all the kids were eating. The older kids stayed outside on the back porch or the yard of the building, playing together in the dirt or swinging on the swing set. It broke my heart to spend my morning holding babies, changing diapers, playing with kids who soaked up the attention like a sponge...and then to have to get in the van & leave in the early afternoon. One of my last days there, one particular little girl called me "mama". Oh how I wanted to tuck her into my bag & take her out of that orphanage. I still wonder where my sweet Lilliana is today. (Larry & I were already dating by that time. I called him from Mexico that night & asked if we could hurry up & get married and adopt this little girl. Like, immediately.)
When we'd leave the orphanage, most of us in tears, we'd make the 20 minute drive to the church where we'd minister in the afternoons. We held an outdoor VBS program for the neighbhorhood children. And by neighborhood, I mean a group of houses made from stacked cinderblocks and whatever scrap metal or plywood could be found. (The picture above is not mine, I found it online but it gives you a vague idea of what we saw.) No electricity, no bathrooms, just shelter from the sun. The children showed up in droves, anxious to listen to a story, color a picture, get a hug and maybe leave with a sticker or a sucker at the end of the day. Watching these children arrive without shoes, with hair so dirty flies were circling their heads, again broke my heart for the lives they lived.
But somehow, for the week I got to be there holding hands, hugging children, speaking to them about the love of Christ in my very broken Spanish, I learned far more than those kids ever learned from me. You just can't go to a place like that and not be changed from the inside out. You can't see things like that and not remember it for the rest of your life.
The summer after 12th grade, I also went to Mexico City to stay with a missionary family for 10 days while we ministered to the street children there. The homes were slightly better than what I had seen in the other part of Mexico, but they were still very, very poor people. (The picture above was found online, but gives you an idea of the homes in the part of Mexico City where we stayed.) We welcomed them to the rooftop tent area of the missionaries' home where we served them a traditionally made Mexican snack (made by some wonderful local ladies), told them Bible stories and played games with them before we closed the day with puppet shows.
As an adult, I look back on all those trips with such amazing memories. Not so much because I went into some poverty-stricken places and did some great thing, but because of the great things God did in me through those poverty-stricken places.
Sure, I learned to tell Bible stories and how to share my faith but I learned so much more. God taught me so much more on those trips. He taught me about crossing cultural lines and loving people. He taught me about serving incredibly poor children and loving them. He taught me about flexibility and grace in difficult situations. He taught me to open my eyes and see that the world is much, much bigger than the community where I live---and that He made all of those people in His image. He taught me how to serve graciously, even in situations where it is very hard and very uncomfortable. He taught me about selflessness and realizing how much I have to be grateful for. He taught me about hard, hard work and about catching head lice from children who want nothing more than to brush my hair and touch me. He taught me about holding hands and snuggling children who look drastically different from me without hesitation or fear. He taught me about having a heart broken for people whose needs I couldn't possibly fill because they were so great. He taught me about giving my life to serving Him and, in some tiny way, helping 'the least of these' as often and as fully as possible. He taught me about love--His love.
All of this is why I am so excited to get to be a part of a local mission trip this summer. Our church youth group does an annual 5 day club with Child Evangelism Fellowship at a local park on the "other side of town". It's a park that my children would probably never otherwise go to. In our town, there is a program for kids put on by the parks & recreation dept. Every week day, there are several adults hired by the city to supervise the kids at the parks. Parents in the area can drop their child off at the park around 8:00 am and leave them for the day. Some of the kids just wander up from the surrounding neighborhoods. Unsupervised children as young as 3-4 years old come to the park to spend the day. While I think the idea is good, the truth is there is no way for the handful of adults to possibly supervise the 50-70 kids who show up to play. They provide games, crafts and a free lunch for the kids. The kids run and play and make friends in the park, where they spend most of the days of their summers.
That's where the 5 day club comes in. Our group goes to the park and spends 1 week getting to know the kids. We set up some tables with crafts and snacks. We come alongside the city-hired adults to play with the kids and build relationships with them. We hang out, we tell them a Bible story & sing some songs with them. We offer them a chance to learn more about Jesus if they want to and then we eat lunch with them. I have been going with my kids the last couple of summers to watch the program, help supervise all the kids and play. I've met children an adults with some handicaps, others who have no father at home (and others with no mother). I've had my hair done by little girls from the neighborhood. I've slid down a big slide and pushed kids on swings.
But the best part is watching my children get to experience some of the same things I experienced in Mobile, Harlem, Laredo and in Mexico. Crossing the cultural boundaries, forming relationships, meeting physical needs of kids, telling a Bible story & talking to kids about Jesus, learning flexibility and grace, learning about selflessness and loving on children who need a hug and a hand to hold. It almost makes my heart explode just thinking ahead to what we will be doing next month....and to what God will be doing in us!
Gosh I love mission trips!