Here & There: Connecting Short-Term Mission Trips Abroad to Life at Home

I hate international mission trips.

Not all, but some.

More specifically, I hate international mission trips that plop teens down in an exotic location far from home and fail to make the connection between what goes on there and what goes on at home. Such mission trips, I believe, miss the boat.

Knowing this, I've tried to be intentional about connecting our international mission trips to our ongoing ministry at home. 

In August 2010, shortly after we returned home from our domestic mission trip, I began wrestling with where to go for the next trip in our three-year trip cycle: Our international mission trip. As I began thinking through this, my husband said, almost jokingly, “Wouldn't it be great if we could get kids into a refugee camp?”

You see, my congregation and, in particular, our youth, is heavily involved in the refugee community. Despite having participated in refugee simulations through Exodus World Service as well as cross-cultural trainings, there is much that we, as white Americans, simply cannot understand about the refugee experience.

I began wondering how that might change if we were able to set foot in a refugee camp; How seeing the other end of the refugee highway might impact our ability to more effectively minister to our refugee neighbors in our own community.

With that in mind, I called Exodus World Service and talked through my idea with them. They referred me to International Teams. During a conversation with their short-term guy, I laid out my vision. We began talking about some of the refugee camps International Teams works with in Austria and Greece.

Soon, a small wrinkle appeared in my plan.

As it turns out, there aren't a lot of places in the world where high school students can visit a refugee camp.

They can't in Austria or Greece. But they can in Rwanda.

The short-term guy told me about Kiziba Refugee Camp in Rwanda and then hesitantly asked me if I'd ever consider a short-term mission trip to Africa.

Ironically, I'd initially ruled a trip to this continent out precisely because of the exotic factor. But I couldn't deny that God seemed to be involved in this – in a very big way. 

As they say, the rest is history.

Twice now, I've traveled with a team of high school students to Rwanda. While there, we learned about forgiveness and reconciliation, AIDs, business entrepreneurship, water scarcity, and of course, refugees. Not only did we learn about refugees, but we spent time in Kiziba Refugee Camp, surrounded by 18,000 Congolese refugees.

Kiziba House

There, we learned first-hand about the refugee experience.

Immediately afterward, we processed this experience and began wrestling with what it might mean for us upon returning home. For example, after standing in a refugee family's mud hut – one that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing – we wrestled with how we might better welcome a refugee family into their new apartment in the United States. After seeing first-hand the meager food rations the UN provides refugees with, we discussed why it might be confusing for a refugee used to a single bar of soap to suddenly be confronted with dish detergent, hand soap, bar soap, body wash, and laundry detergent. Such things might seem minor but they provided our team with a world of insight into a refugee's experience.

After returning home, we connected teens with local refugees. Three days after returning from Rwanda, we sat in the living room of a Burmese family, welcoming these newly arrived refugees into our country with a Welcome Pack, a collection of bare necessities needed to begin life in America.

Aug. 5 Welcome Pack Delivery

To be clear, this Burmese family never set foot in Kiziba refugee camp. But their experience mirrors that of the refugees we met there.

Having stood in a refugee camp in Rwanda, my teens now better understand not just the experience of Congolese Refugees, but the experience of other refugees – those forced to flee their homeland for fear of persecution or death – throughout the world. That experience will forever shape their interactions with refugees, not just if they go abroad again, but when they sit in class next to a resettled refugee teen or interact with our refugee neighbors at church.

When it comes to short-term trips, sometimes what happens there is so removed from life here that the trip only ever remains an exotic experience in a person's life.

What I've learned, however, is that it doesn't have to be that way. Sometimes, what happens there can make a lasting impact on what happens here.

Just ask the many refugee families we've been privileged to partner with since returning from our first trip to Rwanda in 2011.

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and the forthcoming A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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