Your plane tickets have been purchased, the antimalarials prescribed, and the camera batteries are charging. Your anticipation is high. You’ve seen the pictures of the beautiful African children with the stunning scenery behind them, smiling and hugging their new white friends. You’ve watched the sweet videos them playing football (soccer) with their ball, so full of joy and gratefulness from their new gift. You’ve heard the stories of feeding programs where hundreds of grateful families receive posho flour (corn flour) and beans while also hearing the gospel, or medical clinics where desperate mamas bring sick babies to receive free healthcare for a day. Your expectations grow as you hear from others of how life changing their trips to Africa were and how much closer they felt to God because of their time there. And just as neatly as you pack your bags, you begin to pack into your mind your plans, hopes, and dreams to come back forever changed as a result.
I know this is how it goes because this was me. In October 2009 during my first of 7 short term trips to Uganda, I was so excited and nervous for what I was going to encounter in Africa. I had no idea it would lead to the life I have now- a full time ministry position with an organization in Jinja, Uganda. For the last two years I have had the privilege of working with many short term teams and volunteers who give their time and service to our ministry each year. I also make connections with great people on social media who feel that prompting to experience short term missions in Africa or somewhere else in the world for the first time, and many of them ask me some form of this question as they prepare themselves to leave on their adventure: ” What can I do to have the best experience possible on this trip?” I have thought long and hard about this question, so to those of you whom I didn’t really answer, please forgive me. The Lord has been stirring this up in my heart and it has taken awhile to put it into words.
The first place to start to have the best experience possible in Africa (or anywhere really that you are going) is to give up your “right” to have your best experience possible. Truly make it your goal to have your trip be about the people you are traveling thousands of miles to serve and not having an experience. If that is your focus, you will see the glory of God in such a way that you will just want more! You will be begging to give more, begging to see more. Begging to feel more of Him. Try not to have so many expectations. They will ruin you. Leave your home with open hands and an open heart ready to do whatever it is the Lord has prepared for you.
When we have expectations of how our experience will be based on what we read in blogs or books written by others doing amazing things in the places we are going to serve, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and frustration or the temptation to manufacture an experience that wasn’t made for us. This quenches what the Holy Spirit wants to do in and through you during your time there. God is writing a story for you and He is creative enough to make yours an original. Believe that God is completely sovereign, and that He has called you for a specific reason and season that is special and needed. Don’t miss out on divine opportunities while you are chasing after someone else’s calling.
Do the jobs that no one else wants and the ones that you never saw yourself doing. Realize that no task is beneath you, yet always be willing to do something that seems way bigger than you were prepared for. Meet Jesus in the lowest places of service and be ready for the Holy Spirit to empower, embolden, and equip you in a way that you could never do in your own strength. Stretch yourself to the end of yourself, and let Jesus fill you back up. Welcome interruptions and delays, especially the ones that seem ridiculous. God is probably trying to slow you down and to get your attention. The paradoxical reward in sacrificing yourself to others is that it brings glory to the One who called you to do it, and it gives you a deep indescribable joy that cannot be experienced any other way. We look most like Jesus when we pour ourselves out, throw away our watches and agendas, and humble ourselves enough to serve in ways that best meet the people where they are even if it doesn’t make sense to us in our own cultural context. Be broken by what you see, and be sure to write about what you feel in that moment so you don’t forget it weeks and months down the road. Spend three times as much time learning about where you are than talking about where you come from. Dance when they dance. Sing when they sing. Pray for them. Listen to their stories. Cry for them. Love them until it hurts you. And when you get home, let what happened change the way you do life. Let it change the way you do love. Let it make you fight to see His glory in the same way at home as you did there. He wants you to be mission wherever you are. But more important than the “doing” all kinds of things for Him is the “becoming” like Him. Real Christ -like service naturally flows from a heart that seeks after Him above all else.
At some point you will realize that the decision to not focus on ” having an experience” actually gave you the chance to have something far more valuable. It gave you the chance to experience the heart of Jesus-His pure love for us. And once you have really known that, you can only keep coming back for more!