Are you sure you'll be safe?" "Maybe you should try something smaller first " When we told friends and family we were thinking about taking a family missions trip, the general reaction was less than enthusiastic. They thought we were three seats short of a full flight to pack up our grade-school age kids and travel to the other side of the world with a group of strangers just to help out at an orphanage. Did we really think our girls couldand shouldminister beside their parents so far from home, eating, sleeping, and (worse) going to the bathroom in strange places?
Traditionally, short-term missions are the province of youth groups and adults who want the chance to minister to other cultures without quitting their day jobs, if you will. But Adam Henry of the relief and development organization Food for the Hungry says that's starting to change. "More and more, families are beginning to inquire about the possibilities of serving together," says Henry. "I see it as beneficiala child able to see parents serve the Lord. Children become world Christians."
My husband and I had talked about the idea for three years, but it never seemed to feel quite right. Yet as our girls got older, I saw them adapting more to our relatively easy life in the suburbs. Yes, they went to church every week and learned the evils of sin, but what about the evils of complacency? I feared that our culture of prosperity and instant gratification would slowly numb them into being careless Christians, unaware of and unconcerned with the hurting world beyond their comfortable lives.
We also felt our kids needed to experience their faith in action, to discover that they didn't have to grow up before they could be ministers. Pastor Eric Spangler, Director of Mobilization for Free Methodist World Missions, took his children ages 4-12 to India for that very reason. He says, "We hoped our children would gain a larger perspective of the world and the kingdom of God, as well as a sense for the lives of those who suffer."
And so last October, our family of five (Mom, Dad, and three girls ages 6, 10, and 11) were our way to Beijing, China, for a two-week adventure. None of us returned home spiritual giants, but the experience made us certain of one thing: We'll do it again. Because of their time with Chinese children, our three girls have indeed become "world Christians" in ways we never imagined.
The First Step
Once we decided to pursue a family missions trip, we had to figure out where to go and what to do once we got there. To find the right location, I took the easy route and surfed the Net for "short-term missions." I narrowed down those results with a few logistic issues. We probably needed to go someplace closeno trans-Atlantic flights for our three girls, all of whom deal with some degree of ADHD. It had to be affordable. I also had some specifically family-oriented questions: 1) Is the area safe? 2) Can all family members participate in the ministry? 3) Is the agency open to sending families?
When I saw the opportunity to work in an orphanage, I knew it was perfect. Then I saw the place. China. China? Seriously, God? What happened to close, affordable, and easy? But it didn't take long for God to let me know that none of those things were hurdles for him. Okay, I prayed, China it is.
In the Field
Our two-week mission with The Sowers International (www.sower.org) included two parts. We spent days going into Chinese classrooms to help them practice English by telling about ourselves. Their questions often led us to share our beliefs.
After school and on weekends, we assisted in an orphanage run by a Christian couple, bonding with the 35 children whose backgrounds we could never have imagined. The orphans spoke minimal English, but despite this, our children helped them with their homework, taught them songs, did crafts with them, and raced them along the Yellow River.
Becca, our oldest, gravitated to the nursery where three little girls with cleft palates smiled at her touch. She held them, rocked them, and even let them spit up on her with none of her characteristic "eew-gross" declarations. Becca is typically rather shy and reserved. She also has Tourette Syndrome, which causes her to be extremely sensitive and easily overwhelmed. As I watched her with the infants, I could see her mind working to match the unthinkable act of abandoning such beautiful babies with the reality that some mother felt the need to do just that.
When we came home, I asked Becca if her experience changed her. She said, "I'm not so shy to help people. Before I was too scared. Now I know if someone needs help, I can do it." Becca still knows one girl can't change the world, but she knows one girl can hold a motherless baby. One girl can e-mail a Chinese orphan who can't have a Bible but can have a Christian friend. One girl can tell a class full of Chinese children why she came and nod at their awestruck questions. "You believe in God? Why do you care about orphans?" "Yesu ai ni," she assured thembecause Jesus loves you. One girl, she now figures, can do whatever God has for her to do.
On the other hand, Emily, our 10-year-old, has rarely felt overwhelmed by anything. Hers is the confidence that asserts, "I don't need the instructions, Mom!" Emily, whose energy and volume could power a 747, discovered in China what she had been hearing for years: God made me special to do what only I can do. It was Emily who figured out she could teach English with a rousing rendition of "Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes." It was Emily who led the other kids hiking up the side of the mountain. It was Emily who met a group of girls on the street, invited them to have dinner with us, and introduced us to their families.
Emily, who is forever being told to calm down, quiet down, and slow down at home, learned the beauty of channeling her gifts into ministry suited to her. While she ponders where that ministry will take her, Emily's expanded worldview makes China and its children a part of her that simply comes out in whatever she does. Guests at our County Fair last summer viewed an unusual display on "China's Forgotten Children," Emily's "own" 35 orphans, now a part of her heart.
I know much of what Beth's 6-year-old mind took in won't be revealed in immediate, concrete ways. But one thing Beth knew from the first trilingual announcement on the airplanethese people are different. They speak different. They look different. They drive differently, go to different schools, and eat different food. Her second conclusion followed quickly"different" can be a blast.
She ate the food. She pulled her Pooh Bear suitcase along without help. She smiled and shrugged when two strange women took her into their merchant booth and began brushing and caressing her long brown hair. She accepted being the center of attention in every classroom we visited. Shy and quiet herself, she drew the quieter children into her orbit. She also served as an inspiration to the rest of our team, who joked, "We can't complain about anything getting rough, or we'll look worse than a 6-year-old!" Through her daily unconscious attitude of "adjust and appreciate"quite different from her at-home attitude!Beth taught the other eleven of us how to be a missionary: Become as a little child.
Preparing the Kids
Beyond the physical preparationsshots, passports, clothes, etc.a family requires special social, emotional, and spiritual preparation. Children in particular need to know what to expect: No TV, Nintendo, or swimming pools, and calling your best friend to chat will pretty much be out of the question. The restrooms (if any) will be "unusual," as will the food. But we found that our kids adapted quickly. After the first crisis over the very public bathrooms, our girls said, "It works for them, must be okay for us too."
As best we could, we prepared them for the pain they would see. Little hearts are blessedly tender, and they don't understand the complexities involved in the struggles of people around the world. The stories of how the children lived before coming to the orphanage broke our girls' heartsin a good but painful awakening. Children ministering to children, however, can impact everyone profoundly. Adults often move in with pity and helplessness, but children do instinctively what should be done. They treat their new friends like equals, with respect, interest, and love. Repeatedly we witnessed this truthchildren can open doors that adults cannot.
For this reason, many short-termers and agencies recommend choosing a mission where the work itself includes families or children. Pastor Spangler's family conducted a pastor's family retreat in India, and his four children ministered to the nationals' children in ways their parents couldn't. "Whatever you do," warns Adam Henry, "don't sign on for a trip that employs the parents and relegates the kids to spectators." Though my husband is a doctor, we did not seek out a medical mission for that very reason. We wanted a hands-on experience for everyone, ages 6 to 40.
Our most imperative preparation, however, was prayer. We prayed for China. We prayed for all of our financial support needs. Spiritual lessons don't start when the plane lands. From the first investigation through coming home and beyond, opportunities for trust, obedience, and answered prayer abound.
We knew our trip had succeeded when, after the 13-hour plane ride home, all three girls asked, "When will we do it again?" Now, months later, we keep the memories of our time in China alive with prayers, talks, e-mails, and gifts to the orphanage.
For Christmas this year, we gave Becca a card from Samaritan's Purse that read "A gift was given in honor of Becca to provide loving care for orphans." I watched her eyes get moist and I knew that, much as she loved the new "Rippin' Rocket Roller Coaster" set she had opened first, she would have traded it for that card. These orphans are not pictures on a flyer or names pulled off of a website. For our girls, these children on the other side of the planet have faces and names.
I want to assure you that we are not some ideal family. We have real struggles, real challenges, and real excuses for not heading off to a foreign country for two weeks. But, believe me, if we can do this, you can, too.
Jill Richardson, a homemaker,writer, and pastor, lives in Illinois.
Choosing a place: We found that the place is less important than the work you'll do once you get there. It's best to set up your trip through an established mission organization with missionaries already ministering in the area. If your church or denomination supports a missionary, consider connecting with that family. Food for the Hungry's Adam Henry also suggests contacting different agencies directly, attending a missions conference, searching the Internet, and basically keeping your ears, eyes, and hearts open to God's leading. Something will surface that fits God's intention for you.
Documents and details: Passports take time. Rushing them is very expensive and not always possible. After our kids got a good laugh out of my expired passport photo, we made the trek to the county courthouse to apply for new ones (applications can also be found online at www.state.gov). The sending agency will usually deal with your visas.
Health: We found no immunizations required for China, but a conversation with a travel health professional turned up a few suggested ones, plus a lot of good advice on food. Some of the shots take six months to complete, so again, planning ahead paid off. Of course, no kid likes shots, but for our kids, the excitement about the trip (and the knowledge that mom had to get more than they did!) eased the sting.
Packing: Listen when they say "pack light." You never know what kind of terrain you'll have to deal with, so try to stick with a backpack per person and maybe one extra bag that Mom and Dad can handle easily. Packing light saved us the stress of exhausted kids who couldn't haul their bags one more step.
Communication: We tried to get to know our teammates by e-mail before coming face-to-face. In particular, we gave our team leader an honest assessment of the girls' personalities and talked through any issues they might present.
Research: Giving the kids responsibility to learn and then teach us about landmarks, culture, and food helped them prepare, too. Since we were homeschooling Becca that year, she studied China and acted as our fount of information. Everyone at the local library knew where we were going by the three-foot stack of books she checked out every other week.
Language: Even young children can learn a few necessary phrases: "Jesus loves you," "Thank you," "Hello," "Where's the bathroom?" Not shy at all about their new knowledge, the girls still say "xie xie" (thank you) to the Asian man at the dry cleaners and at the Chinese restaurant, earning them very surprised looks. (Admittedly, Chinese gave me some pause. Who knew if, by a slight change in pitch, I might say, "I wish you a bat up your nose" rather than "I wish you happiness"? It could happen.)
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