What in the world were we doing in Nome, Alaska? Wendy and I both wondered the same thing as we stepped off the plane and set foot on the arctic tundra. It was a rainy day in July 1987. After 17 hours and three different flights, our family of four (including a 4-year-old and 18-month-old) arrived at our destination. For six weeks we would call Nome home and claim the title "short-term missionaries".
I was approached by our denomination to help out during a staff crisis at a missionary radio station that serves Eskimo villages on the Bering Sea in Alaska (and Russia). Because Wendy and I desire to serve the Lord wherever he needs us, we opted to spend our extended summer vacation way up north.
After being greeted at the airport, we were escorted to a plain but functional three bedroom house where we would stay. After unpacking our three suitcases and eight cartons of food supplies, diapers, and toys, we were driven around a town famous for a 19th-century gold rush and the Iditarod race. We were quickly introduced to wild blueberries, dried salmon, and powdered milk. Although we never did try the Eskimo delicacy of muk tuk (whale blubber), our spiritual expedition allowed us to develop a taste for the following:
Exposure to a different culture. My wife, Wendy, grew up in Mexico as an MK (missionary kid), and it's been her desire to introduce our children to life in another part of the world. True, the folks in and around Nome are U. S. citizens, but their lifestyle is far removed from the suburbs of San Francisco where we lived. Mushers and sled dogs; unpaved streets; cluttered front yards with junked cars, worn-out washing machines, and garbage waiting to be covered by nine months of snow; Arctic dialects; 90 percent alcoholism and 90 percent unemployment; 22 hours of daylight in the summer (reverse it for the winter). Our two daughters, Kristin and Allison, played outside at midnight with the neighborhood kids whose eye slant and skin coloration aroused their curiosity.
Real community. The radio staff of ten welcomed us with open arms. We were a contact with the "outside world." Nome is only accessible by boat (in the summer) and by air. As we sat around studio B in the radio station that first night, we munched popcorn and played a homemade version of Wheel of Fortune. The game provided a fun way for us all to get acquainted. Instantly we felt a connection with our new friends. Within a couple days, Wendy and I detected something unusual. The staff related on a level we were not accustomed to back home. There was a refreshing candor and vulnerability to their interaction. As we met other people in the community, we discovered that the quality of relationships among the staff permeated the people who claim the permafrost as home. The shared experiences of risk, isolation, and a hearty existence resulted in a depth of belonging that we had not seen before (or since). As young as they were, even Kristin and Allison sensed the atmosphere of genuine acceptance and friendship.
Satisfaction of simple living. The house in which we stayed had a radio in the kitchen and a black and white TV that received one fuzzy station. Initially we worried about how the kids would be entertained. But our anxieties were unfounded. Walks to the local library amid the gold-rush remains were more exciting than watching Sesame Street. Our family played Dominoes with some of the Eskimo townsfolk who gathered at the local church. We walked the beach, learned to sail, and picnicked on the treeless tundra with those we hoped to influence with Jesus' love. Contrasted to the stressful image-conscious lifestyles we'd come from in the Bay Area, a simple life of grilled cheese suppers and blue jean fashions began to grow on us. It was eye opening how little "stuff" we need to be filled with contentment.
Meaningful family time. It sounds crazy to suggest that we needed to travel to the border of Russia to experience meaningful family time, but it was true. My job in California kept me going upwards of 70 hours a week. Our lives were fragmented. Our time together limited. But in Alaska we were together almost all the time. Curiously, we had agreed to go on this short-term missions trip to reach out to others with the message of God's love, but in the process we had discovered new ways to reach out to each other. Because we were there to encourage the radio staff (my job was to spin records and read the news) and witness to those we met in the villages, we reminded our kids in our daily prayer times what a privilege it is to spread God's word.
The joy of sharing our faith. Our Alaska expedition taught us that the ideal summer vacation doesn't require a luxury hotel or an exotic location. By the end of our six weeks, we didn't want to go home. We had discovered first hand what I'd heard others talk about for years. There is nothing as rewarding as serving others side by side with your spouse and kids.
"A family mission service trip builds into children at an early age the pattern of 'service,'" says Prout. "As young people develop, having visited other nations and cultures, they have lessened fear of different ethnic groups and heightened gratitude for the blessings of their own surroundings."
Tasha Wilson is a case in point. She grew up going to Latin America with her mom and dad and sister every spring from the time she was 12. She has no regrets.
"While most of my friends were going on vacations to Hawaii, I was caravaning with Sierra Ministries," says Tasha. "Over the years, I watched kids grow, as well as communities, and it felt good to be a part of the healthy changes that took place whenever and wherever we went. The lessons that I learned about the wonderful diversities of people have been some of the most valuable in my life so far."
Dale Lusk of Merge Ministries runs family trips throughout Mexico and Guatemala. Lusk believes that because Latinos are so family-oriented, a ministry involving a family unit rather than just adults or youth is far more effective. He also loves the way little kids minister. "Young children are excellent missionaries. They are not intimidated by language, dirt, or other things that inhibit adults and youth," says Lusk. "If they are exposed to missions at any early age, it will be natural for them to support them for their lives. It does not help to further the gospel by sheltering our children from what the world is truly like. It will also bond children to their parents in unexpected ways."
Popular Christian author, speaker, and CPT columnist John Trent agrees. Last summer when John took to the road for back-to-back weeks of speaking commitments, he and his wife, Cindy took their two daughters, Kari, 14, and Laura, 10. The first week was at a beautiful, five-star resort in the mountains. The second was a family missions trip to Tijuana, Mexico, with Amour Ministries. "Guess which trip our kids can't wait to do again?" John asks with a wry smile. "The one where we slept in tents, took showers out of buckets, and got to work alongside other families from across the country building homes for the poor."
More than a decade after my family's expedition to the northland, the seeds of missions planted in the tender hearts of my girls continue to germinate. When the youth groups at our church have announced summer missions trips both Kristin and Allison have enthusiastically signed up. Their desire to serve the poor and disadvantaged in the inner city of Chicago, the hills of Appalachia, or the Native American villages of the Southwest suggests that it's never too early to expose children to leaving zones of comfort to serve others in Jesus' name.
Contact for family missions trips:
7130 Portland Avenue South
Richfield, MN 55423
Planning a family mission trip
Dan Prout, offers the following advice to families with an interest in going on "a vacation with a purpose."
1 Start out with a modest involvement.
Plan a trip that's long enough to get you involved in the culture you work with, but not so long that homesickness sets in. Consider travel time as well. If you need a day or two to get somewhere, factor that in. In our experience, a trip that lasts a week to nine days is a good starting point.
2 Plan for your service project to be far enough away
so that you have clear separation from your home. If it lingers in anyone's mind that "we could all be home in our own beds by dark" the dynamics of the experience will be undermined.
3 Look for an organization that understands
that a family mission trip or an intergenerational team will have different goals than a mission team comprised of high-school-age youth. Realize that parents will not be free from parenting on the trip. Approach the trip as an opportunity for the family to be together, not making unreasonable expectations for yourselves or children as to how much you are going to get accomplished at your mission site. Children will need extra attention and care since they are in an unfamiliar place, both physically and psychologically.
4 If you are not used to traveling across borders and do not adequately speak the host country language, ask if the organization has a representative who can meet you at the border (or other nearby location) to escort you to your host ministry site. Your first day in the new country will be a memorable one and you do not want to have it marred by frustration in finding your site.
5 If possible ask another family to go on the mission trip with you.
Having another set of playmates besides siblings can give excitement and variety to each day.
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