The first mission trip I ever led was an international trip with thirty young adults to a third-world country. We left our hometown at 1 a.m. and made it to customs in the Dominican Republic by lunchtime. It was my first time traveling out of the country—which was probably quite obvious by the lost look on my face, as I had no idea how the process worked.
We made it through customs and only lost one person. Seriously. The border patrol sent home one of the seminarians traveling with us because he did not have an American passport. I feared the mission trip of my nightmares was upon me rather than the one I had dreamed about for so long.
Thankfully, and solely by the grace of God, the rest of the trip was a great success. There were no injuries, major sicknesses, or unfortunate circumstances … OK, the bus driver did forget to pick us up from the airport when we arrived back in the U.S. But, the trip was over by that point, right? Regardless, I learned so much from that trip and treasured the experience. I’ve led several international and local mission trips since then and continue to be surprised and delighted by the experiences. I share with you three valuable tips I have learned from these trips.
1. It’s About the People
When I think of mission trips I think of service. Many people sign up for mission trips because they want to make a difference, serve the poor, or contribute in a tangible way to the community they are visiting. That is certainly a noble endeavor and one that I cherish. However, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the doing aspect of the trip and the desire to serve can quickly become the desire to produce and accomplish. To produce and achieve is culturally ingrained in us and it takes conscious effort to resist that desire. Take time during preparation meetings before the trip to talk to the group about the necessity to be with the people they seek to serve. Similarly, make it a point as the group leader to get to know the people in your group. Before and during the trip, spend time with each person, listening and sharing, and helping that person reflect on their experiences during the trip. While the work is important, it’s the people that matter. Praying with the Gospel passage about Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) is always a good way to reorient the purpose of service.
2. Make Time for Prayer
I’ve found mission trips to be “gateways” to deeper relationships with Jesus if that relationship is cultivated during the trip. As stated before, many people are attracted to mission trips out of a desire to serve or make a difference, but they might not have a relationship with Jesus or one that is firmly established. Because these trips remove people from their normal world, the bird’s eye view of their usual routines or lifestyles is the perfect launching pad for reflection and prayer.
Schedule time in the day for silent and group prayer, and provide prompts or Scripture passages to pray with. I typically schedule a mini half-day silent retreat during trips to give people ample time for personal reflection. Many times I have been anxious about suggested Eucharistic Adoration, holy hours, daily Mass, or these silent retreats because I knew these were not usual practices by some or all of the group members. Despite my anxiety, not once has anyone remarked that they regretted the time for prayer—just the opposite! Over and over again, I am told that the time in Eucharistic Adoration or silence was exactly what they needed or even their favorite part of the trip. Time spent in prayer is never wasted.
3. Challenge People
This brings me to my third point. Be OK with challenging people. I don’t mean get into a lot of debates with your group members, although I’m sure the group will do that naturally by day three. Challenge people by inviting them to do things that are foreign or difficult for them, like not complaining, eating everything that is given to them (however strange it looks), working or spending time with people on the trip they do not know, and others. The group will naturally bond because they are experiencing something extraordinary—out of the ordinary—collectively. Because of this bond, you will find that, as the trip progresses, people will feel freer to open up and share personal struggles or more intimate details about themselves.
It is at this time that you can challenge the group as a whole to encourage each other on their journeys of faith. The relationships they form on this trip can become lasting bonds, true spiritual friendships, if nurtured properly while they are still together. For reasons unbeknownst to us, God wanted that group to be together for that particular trip, and that group will never be together like that again. So, make the most of it and allow God to do the rest. He always has a way of teaching us far more than we expected when we simply open our hearts, even just a little, to him. Happy travels!
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Caroline Harvey is the associate communication director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Prior to working at the archdiocese, Caroline worked in various ministry positions throughout southeast Wisconsin, focusing on teaching and discipleship. She is currently pursuing a doctor of ministry degree in liturgical catechesis from the Catholic University of America. She has a master of arts degree in biblical theology and a bachelor of arts in communications media from John Paul the Great Catholic University.