I’ve heard it said that short-term mission trips can be damaging, that they are little more than easy ways for people to pacify an itch to be Santa Claus. In fact, I’ve had more than one person tell me that seven days have little true value in impacting real change in the lives of the poor and discarded, and that short-term mission trips should be abandoned for more “meaningful ministry.”
And to those people, I say “You may have a point. But – you’re wrong.”
Now, to be sure, I’ve been on teams that have been more about the “what we can do” than the “how might we be useful.” My precious friend Courtney says it best when she says those trips are actually a blessing – because they taught us what is best and what is worst and what is truly good. But I’ve seen the miracle of mission trips – what happens when the discarded meet willing hearts, and those willing hearts hold hands over time.
It was 2009. A team of ten stepped onto the beautiful rocky slopes of Mi Pequeno Refugio, a place on the outskirts of Quetzaltenango that was home to children rescued from abuse and neglect. Our two-day visit was chock-full of big plans. We had everything needed to make a difference in the lives of the orphans there. We had color-coordinated bandanas and bags full of VBS object lessons, and our duffels were filled with school supplies and Neosporin (things we were told were always needed at orphanages).
We welcomed ourselves into the little cinder block structure and complained about the rain that was getting in the way of our activity time with the kids. We sang and told stories and laughed uncomfortably when the children already knew the scriptures we were prepared to teach them. And then, after clamoring our way into that sweet orphanage with our agenda and our duffels and our perfect plan, one simple statement changed everything.
“What a great day! We’ll be back tomorrow. So – uh – is there anything you all need?”
The answer shook us to the core. The two sisters who ran the orphanage, Lourdes and Teresa, looked at each other and then looked at us.
“We have no milk.”
We had traveled almost 2000 miles to find out our agenda didn’t really matter at all. We looked at our school supplies, stacked next to the school supplies donated by the mission team sent before us. We looked at the kids, smiling back at us as they held their scripture cards – the scripture they already knew so well.
“Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine.” ~Isaiah 43:4
We wept. And in those tears, the agenda changed. The next morning we returned with milk, incamparina, and meat – and hearts set on listening. The sisters then began to share their hearts about what they desired for the children living at Pequeno. They longed for the day the main hallway of the two-story structure would be sheltered from the weather, and they longed for the day when there would be paint to protect the cinder block from mold. Parts of their building needed electricity. They hoped for a washer and dryer.
They wished for a playground for the kids. They prayed to one day have livestock and a garden. They wanted a school with computers and a sewing room and a place where the girls could learn to bake. They understood that caring for a child meant so much more than food and shelter, and they wanted to help the orphans in their care thrive physically, emotionally, and spiritually – so they could succeed as adults.
We prayed for our new friends, and promised to tell others about the little orphanage. Later that year, friends from Orphan Outreach traveled to Pequeno to hear the story. They listened to history and they listened to present. And they listened as Lourdes and Teresa shared the dreams of a future.
That was four years ago.
We’ve not stopped returning.
And we’ve not stopped listening.
There’s now a school, with a computer room and a sewing room. There’s a bakery. Goats and pigs and chickens roam the hills. A moisture-proof pantry has been built in the kitchen, and electricity is stable.
There is a playground and a place for the boys to play soccer. A workshop has been updated so the older kids can learn how to do woodwork. Our hands join with other hands to do what Teresa and Lourdes need – moving rocks or painting walls or teaching ESL classes.
Through Orphan Outreach, our hearts have now been joined with other hearts across the country to care for the children well – every child is now sponsored, and our visits to Quetzaltenango focus on simply investing time.
We’ve played, flown kites and drawn pictures.
We’ve made huge messes in that bakery, and bigger messes with sidewalk chalk. We’ve laughed until we’ve cried. And we’ve held each other and wept and wept.
And we’ve talked a lot about life – about big dreams and big fears and the fact that we’re really not that different at all. We all long to be accepted, we all long to be loved, we’re all pretty clumsy at this life, and we’re all in desperate need of a Savior.
Two things. Returning and listening. Things that, when I think about it, I need in my own life. I need others, need community, need at least one person who is going to show up and keep showing up no matter what. And I need to be heard. I don’t need to be famous – I just don’t want to be anonymous. Knowing someone finds my voice beautiful gives me courage to use it more. The scripture – the one the orphans already knew so many years ago – is the reminder of what happens when we know we are truly loved. We are not afraid. Lourdes and Teresa and the children of Pequeno Refugio have taught me what it means to be unafraid.
So to those people – the ones who say there is no value. To you, I say “listen – and return.” To you, I say “be not afraid.”
And I’ve not stopped telling the story.
I’d love for you to meet my friends at Pequeno. We’re journeying there again soon. Here are the details.