I realize that people go on missions for reasons they don’t always acknowledge or are aware of. It is true that sometimes, the motive or aftereffect is one of misplaced pride or smugness that one has done a good deed.
This is what I know, based on my experiences on short term missions. I’m aware that out there, anything less than a month is considered merely a visit, but we do what we can in the time that we have.
Fact #1: Mission trips are not about you.
The first thing I learned in preparing to go on missions was this: That I had to lay down all my rights. This meant that whatever agenda, motive, entitlement, idea of what and how I was going to help, any presupposition about who I was and how I could contribute, had to be entirely submitted to God.
If I was to go, I had to let go.
Everyone on the team was to be at the disposal of the missionary/pastor who was on the ground doing the work of church planting. This made a lot of sense because missionaries are the ones who know the lie of the land, they dig the trenches, do the backbreaking work of organizing campus outreaches, soup kitchens, children’s events, food distribution, making connections, befriending campus youth, the list can be dauntingly endless.
So we are there to help. Whatever the missionary or organization is doing, we are merely coming alongside with hearts abandoned and sleeves rolled up. It could be bathing ghetto kids who don’t have running water, it could be washing their clothes, it could be starting English classes, bringing them to church, feeding them.
Fact #2: Do only one thing: Draw close to God.
In the spring of 1992, I remember sitting in the Hotel Ismailova, a hotel built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. It was March with a bite in the air, and I was feeling overwhelmed. We all were. Sure, we knew we were there to handout Russian abridged bibles to school children. This was during Gorbachev’s glasnost, when the window of opportunity for Westerners was opening to do this kind of thing. But I didn’t speak Russian, I was inexperienced, and I felt inadequate. This was when I learned a key truth about missions which I’ve never forgotten: Do only one thing on this trip: Draw close to God. Everything else will flow out of that.
So every morning, before our school and hospital visits, we gathered for worship and prayer. Gosh, those were good times. It was worship with a sense of awe and thankfulness that we were in legendary gigantic Moscow, worship laced with desperation, for we were turning to God for guidance in stepping into the unknown, it was worship in full surrender. Thus liberated, we extended ourselves fully, connecting with children, adults, we spoke testimonies and the words just rolled out; it felt like the Holy Spirit was doing the work for us.
Fact #3: Things happen which you cannot take credit for.
Phnom Penh in 1993 was a small war-torn city getting onto its knees after more than a decade of instability, trying to heal itself of the aftereffects of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge genocidal regime. The nation’s collective scars were just starting to stop hurting. The healing was going to take a while. A small team of us from Singapore visited my then-Senior Pastor to help his family settle in. We arrived and said, “What can we do?” And so we bought barbed wire, helped to unroll it to get on top of the walls, photocopied flyers, painted walls, babysat his four children, all under 8 years old.
I was tasked to get the food for a tea party we were having for campus students, of which we were expecting 30 to turn up. As we sat eating dinner a few nights before the event in a cafe owned by a Singaporean, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps the cafe could cater for the event. And so I asked and the thing was done. No need for multiple trips to bakeries or grocery stores to get pastries, snacks, drinks, paper plates. In case you think the solution was pretty obvious, it wasn’t. Not when you’re in a developing country amid heartbreaking squalor and begging children. The idea came from somewhere outside of my thought box.
The highlight of that first mission trip to Phnom Penh and subsequent ones, was making friends with the Cambodian university students. Eating cup noodles with our translator friends in our hotel room, teaching them how to play Uno, laughing, sharing the reality of a God who is real and personal. These are the stuff of memories.
The best part is that, after a decade or more of relationship-building with our new friends, I saw New Life Foundation, from a distance, grow from a mustard seed of an idea to a tree where “the birds of the air perched in its branches.” The Christian walk is not easy, not here, not in a place like Cambodia, and over the years, people have come and gone. Yet, by God’s grace, a handful of the pioneering batch have remained, and today, I am amazed that I have lifelong friends, Christian brothers and sisters, in Phnom Penh. This is not something for which I can pat myself on the back.
Last year, we met up with old friend Mara, who married Leah, an American who is with New Life Foundation. As we chatted in his four-wheel drive rumbling over the potholed streets of the dusty city, I looked at him, and saw in his face the university student from the old days. Now he is an evangelist and father of three, overseeing evangelism in the provinces of Kampong Cham, Kampong Thom, and even as far north as Siem Reap.
I don’t remember that it was my “compassion”, or my wanting to tick off the right boxes, or my desire to score brownie points, or wanting to go slumming in Cambodia that made me go on mission trips.
Fact #4: You realize you never had “compassion.”
It took a trip to Uruguay in 2008, 30 hours of flight and airport transfers away, to make me realize how shallow my compassion was. Friends Kari and June had spent a decade in South America, building a church from scratch, doing soup kitchens on Saturdays, street ministries (befriending prostitutes, drug addicts, the jobless and homeless with HIV), running a halfway house to rehabilitate young men, and generally ministering to this strata of society spiritually and physically.
One evening, Kari took out a small photo album filled with pictures of people in his church over the years. He would point out the first disciples, the first lay leaders, the children who brought their parents through the children’s ministry. Every few pages, he would point to a smiling face, a member of a cell group he had led, and say matter-of-factly: “This guy died of Aids a year after he got saved”; or “This lady died of cancer a few years ago; she had three young children,” or “This man was shot in a gang fight” and so it goes.
I think back on my cell groups over the years and wonder that I had found things to complain about.
Fact #5: Go not because you want to help, but because the missionaries need you there. For as short or as long as you can give.
My dear friends, Song and Barbara, have spent the last six years in Yangon, Myanmar, with their four children. They’ve also planted a church from scratch, learnt the language, and are working with the Burmese youth, and are busy with reparation work in the villages hit by Cyclone Nargis. In the early years, every time they came back home to Singapore, they would ask church members to come visit. It didn’t matter how long, they just needed us to be there with them. Fieldwork is lonely and reinforcements were crucial to what they were doing. It was only after I visited them, saw them separated from the old and familiar structure of family, close friends, and church family, did I get a glimpse of how much they needed our friendships, our stories, our shared memories.
So you see, it isn’t really about you. A mission trip is probably one of few things in the world you truly do for someone other than yourself. And in this kind of giving, you receive the thing that you never could have earned: Grace.