Whenever we see New York in movies or TV shows, the plot winds up in an alley. Drug deals, dead bodies, etc., always wind up in an alley. Law and Order spent a LOT of time in New York alleys. There is just one problem with this: New York doesn’t really have alleys, it was designed in such a way as to not need them. But every director wants an alley to create that dark, dramatic scene. So the ONE alley in New York that works for filming is in everything. From this single alley, most people assume New York is just a weird maze of back alleys of red brick, fire-escapes, and overflowing trashcans. Our assumptions are frequently wrong.
Many beliefs are just assumed to be true. “Smoothies are always healthy.” (not true) “A college degree will guarantee your future.” (not true) “The more money you pay for an item, the higher the quality.” (not always true) There are countless “beliefs” that we pick up every day that are not necessarily true. It’s good to question our assumptions, to confirm or change our beliefs, to learn what reality is. This applies to missions, but also at every level of our lives.
I once hosted an orphanage director from Kenya on a visit to our orphanage in Mexico. Driving through Baja Mexico, he was amazed at the new high-rises, beautiful homes, and modern highways. He was surprised to see Costco, Walmart, McDonald’s and many other major retail chains. From everything he knew to be true, he thought Mexico was all adobe huts and dusty roads like he had seen in The Three Amigos and every other movie cliche about Mexico. He was also pleasantly surprised to find out how safe Mexico is, compared to what he assumed. To be honest, when I visited Africa I was kind of amazed at how modern the capital of Ghana was. “Hey, look, KFC!” “Is that a mall?” We all have assumptions or preconceived ideas about the world. Frequently we’re wrong.
If we’re going to be effective in short-term missions, or any area of life, we need to be working from accurate information. When we travel to foreign countries, we need to do our research, so we know what to expect, what the needs are, and how to make a positive impact. We also need accurate details, so we don’t create unintentional harm.
So how do we learn what reality is when we’re planning a mission trip? We can’t know everything about where we are going, but here are a few tips to be as prepared as possible.
1) Talk to people who’ve been where you’re going. Ask them about surprises they had, changes they had to make mid-trip or things they would do differently. Anyone who goes on a trip learns something, we can learn so much from the mistakes and profound experiences of the countless people who have gone before us. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel.
2) Talk to your host or host organization from your destination, and really listen to them. Odds are, your host has helped facilitate many groups and teams before yours, and has seen the best and worst of what well-meaning people try to do. “Yes, dress appropriately.” “No, you don’t need to worry about translation.” “Yes, you are welcome to attend this church service or outreach, but this is what would be culturally helpful.” If your host is serious about directing you in the right direction, they can be a huge help. It’s also SO important to know what the actual needs are, and how to address them. Whether you’re going to spread the Gospel, help with construction, or something else, you need to know what the real needs are and how you can fit in with goals of the local church.
3) Read about your destination from a wide range of knowledgable sources, but read through everything with a filter of what you’ve heard from actual people with experience. Years ago, I was all set to visit Ghana in West Africa just as an Ebola outbreak spiked. EVERYONE here in the US said I should cancel; all the news media made it sound like the world was ending. I called people in Ghana, and their response was, “What Ebola outbreak? That’s two countries away.” If we had just listened to the accepted wisdom and stayed home, we would have missed out on a life-changing, impactful trip.
So much of what we think we know might be a little “off.” We all view the world through our filters or the filters of those around us. Take a mission trip, but go with as few preconceived ideas as you can. By going with your eyes open to whatever God has to show you, you might be surprised by the people, experiences, and opportunities God might open up for you. Avoid walking down those alleys that don’t exist anyway.
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