Monday, October 14, 2013

Short Term Missions: Guatemala 1997

Should a teen, or family, or anyone go on a short term mission?  Wouldn't the cost of the travel be better spent in a large donation to a mission that is already doing the work?

These are questions I've heard and wrestled with. I can't speak for anyone but my own experience. Last week, after the Armstrong family left our home, I took a  moment and read my journal from my one and only missions trip. I was 17. Feel free to do the math. It was a long time ago.

I remember when I was getting ready to go to Guatemala, I only chose to go because it was the opportunity that came up. We knew a family that served there frequently. They said they needed someone to fly down with a water purifier system checked in their baggage. My friend and I decided to go together. We wouldn't be alone that way.

We raised the support, and bought the tickets. When the other family brought the water purifier to my house, I remember their daughter asked me why I had Central America on my heart. I'm sure I gave her a very spiritual sounding answer.

Truthfully, in my mind I was thinking, "because this was a cheap and easy opportunity to do this missions trip my mom wanted me to do before I graduated."

Ugh. When I read my first journal entries I feel sick. Probably the same way God describes it:

"‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked." -Rev. 3:15-17
I thought the orphans where were the poor, naked, the blind. But actually, it was me.

My mom was awesome. She packed me a journal, and asked that I please write in it every night. She wrote me a letter for nearly every day of my trip, and tucked them, sealed and dated, into the front pocket of the journal. It became my lifeline:

May 30th, 1997: Got here about 4:30pm yesterday. Guatemala is nothing like what I'd expected... Sarah and I were SO TIRED we were in bed by 8pm.... Today for lunch we had "I have no idea what's in it soup"

I was staying with a family of 11 (12 by the time I left) who were the directors of an orphanage outside of Guatemala City. Not an institution, but a place where abandoned and often abused children are assigned to houseparents and live in large family units. Those families were AMAZING in the sacrificial love they shared for those children. Half of the children in the director's family were also adopted.

May 31st.  Went with the director to the city to pick up the new baby [who had been abandoned]. They don't have carseats, so I rode along to hold the baby. His real name is very long and I can't pronounce it, so I call him Charlie.

June 1, Sarah will be staying at the orphanage, and I at the director's house. I must admit I'm a bit disappointed though. I thought the while idea of this trip was being together, not 1.5 hours apart...

My grumbling went on for half a page, about the mosquitoes, the food, the lack of sleep since the new baby was in my room... I was a self-centered mess. The typical American teen actually. And I got sick, a lot. And I had hormonal issues. And I was homesick, and the phones didn't work well. I had to pay to get an email at a cafe. And I was such a grouchy mess that the director actually offered to fly me home (just to be rid of me). It was that bad. Those poor people! I am ashamed of myself when I look back.

As the time goes on I write about loneliness. About the only English speaking people in my environment being gone all the time, and me taking care of the children alone, with the housekeeper. I did laundry and bathed all the kids each day. I took the bigger kids to lessons on the public bus, where I was a foot taller than everyone. I wrote about looking forward to Sarah coming up on the weekends (since Sundays were my "day off") so we could eat out and go shopping together. I wrote about nighttime bottles with Charlie, and burning myself while sterilizing his bottles, and I even started keeping a count of my mosquito bites in my journal. (In hindsight they were probably bed bugs, eek!) Still nothing but complaining.

The second weekend I was there I attended a wedding at my host family's church. It ran late and caused me to miss out on my lunch plans/shopping, but I didn't seem to mind. My perspective shift had begun. I began seeing people as relationships, not projects, and situations as opportunities, not sacrifices.

June 8,  The evening service at [the orphanage] was fun. We're starting to make friends here. I met this cute little boy named Henry who speaks English. He is so funny! He has a gift of facial expression and a sense of humor to match. 

June 9th, Today I was happy. I can't explain it, but God sent me His joy and contentment. 

June 11th, [I found out] there are people who want to adopt Charlie, but that it will take at least 2 years for him to just get through the legal system. The Holy Spirit was heavy on my heart for Charlie and I agreed to sponsor him until he gets a home.... I've learned so much, I love you Charlie! 

June 12th was a the halfway point. I began to write about how I was SO glad the director family could utilize me to get a bit of a break while I was there. There was just so much work to do and they were so very worn out, physically and emotionally. In my journal I see that this is the point where I stopped complaining, and started praising. Is this the same Laura?

From that point on in my journal, my only complaints were about a group of kids from Michigan who came on a group mission trip to "help" and they ate like kings and queens while the other staff went without. I had packed the children's lunches, I knew they often shared a single slice of bologna between two sandwiches. These missions trip kids were rowdy and ungrateful and I referred to them as "the gringos" . I no longed identified myself with them. Never-mind that I had been them just 2 weeks before.

I grew so lonely for someone who understood where I was (heart-wise), but my friend was still not posted anywhere near me. In the night times, when I was up with Charlie, I felt the most lost and alone, as the rain beat down on our tin roof. It was then that I realized that I wasn't alone after all. I clung to the words of the Psalms:
Psalm 139
1 O Lord, You have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and [b]when I rise up;
You understand my thought from afar.
3 You scrutinize my path and my lying down,
And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before there is a word on my tongue,
Behold, O Lord, You know it all.
5 You have enclosed me behind and before,
And laid Your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is too high, I cannot attain to it.
7 Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.
9 If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
10 Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,”
12 Even the darkness is not dark to You,
And the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike to You.
June 13th, I'm so glad no one can take Him [Christ] away!

June 16th, When I first got here I was counting the days until I could go home. Now I wonder if I could stay longer. There's SO much I was want to do!

The next two weeks are a log of laundry, diapers, chores, and baths. The work was no less, and I continued to be sick for weeks after returning home, losing 20 lbs in all. But my tone in my journal changed. I was feeling comfortable with getting around in this country. Thankful for meals of hot dogs or half-a-slice of bologna sandwiches. I began taking detailed notes about the individual children and their needs and personalities.

They weren't just some people, some place... they were my heart and soul. I LOVED them. I loved serving them. When it was time to pack I found I was missing a couple pairs of socks, and found them on the little boys' feet. :) I was part of their family too.By the time I left Mr. Director was joking he wished I would "marriage with" one of his sons. It was a tearful parting for all of us. I was just sure I'd be back soon.

I'm certain of it, I'm the one who benefited the most from that trip. David Armstrong, a missionary friend of ours called it: "being stripped of our perspective." How true that is. I had to lose my familiar view of the world to gain a fresh one. The one where the world doesn't revolve around me, and God has a purpose and plan for everything.

The last of the "pre-sent" notes from my mom, June 26th, 1997
"You are probably really busy today. Is today sort of bittersweet? Hard to leave; anxious to come home? Wel, I probably didn't sleep well last night because I am excited to get you back - and a little worried about you and Sarah getting through customs by yourselves.
What did you think? Was this worth doing? Would you recommend this type of trip to other teens you know? I'll love to hear your thoughts.
James 2:14-20 'In as much as you have done it unto the least of these... you have done it unto me.'
Hug those babies for me one last time, O.K.? I will be praying for you all the way home. I love you, Laura.
I'm so glad my parents required this of me. This week our church commissioned a young high school senior to go to Haiti for a short term trip. I hugged her and told her I'd be praying. She has no idea what her Father wants to show her there. But I think I might know. A new perspective on life.

For more about how you can become involved in short term missions, visit Mission Data International. 


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  1. I just re-read again your story Laura. I chuckle and smile and am amazed again that God so often uses us in spite of ourselves, and in the middle of it all He changes us.

    1. Thank you David! I really appreciate your comment!


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