A mission is doing. A pilgrimage is becoming. This parenting journey is not a mission because a mission has an end. Parenting is a pilgrimage, a becoming, for both the parents and the kids. Years ago, we read from a story Donald Miller told, that as parents, it is our job to offer our kids a better story than the one being made available to them. They will simply live the best story at hand, so it’s left to parents to design a better story.

Early in our marriage, we decided that our family’s story would include serving, both locally and globally. Having met in Haiti, our hearts have long been steered toward the broken, the oppressed, the vulnerable ones on the margins who struggle to get ahead, especially where children are involved. While there have certainly been places where we flesh this out in our own community, something different happens when you create a story where your family gets to serve together globally, providing opportunities that aren’t available at home.

We served with our kids (ages 9 and 6) and some friends for the first time this summer. Months were spent planning, prepping, fundraising and packing to be able to take a family of 4 along with another family and seven high school seniors to the Dominican Republic. If I’m honest, there were times that even I – someone who’s spent the last fifteen years working occupationally with overseas missions organizations – questioned my own sanity, but also the why behind it all. Days passed where I wondered in the back of my mind if this was all worth it because it’s not easy nor is it cheap to take a short term mission trip, especially with 4 of us.

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Doing Missions Differently with Students International

If anyone wrestles with the cost and purpose of short-term missions, believe me when I tell you I have, too. But also, believe me when I tell you that I’ve never seen it done with more integrity than trips with Students International. They delicately balance short-term missions teams and long-term ministry without damaging the community, and training with integrity so that you know your role is to be a learner and a servant. Being on staff with them for a decade is one of the richest parts of my life. With the end goal in sight – serving the Lord as a family, creating the best story possible for our kids, allowing them the opportunity to see the global kingdom of God – the yes is much easier.

The experiences we’ve had on these trips have changed us and given us a lens through which we live out our marriage and parent our kids. Our posture with each international service trip has been one that begs the question, “What do I need to do with what I’ve learned?” The answers are never consistent. God is always doing a new thing, and the last time we went, we knew the next thing would be taking our kids. Little did I know, along with taking my own kids and some friends, I would get the unique opportunity to take seven of the high school kids I had been teaching this past year – it’s not lost on me what a gift that is.

The day after we arrived at our short-term mission trip in the Dominican Republic was Sunday. We headed to a church service – one of the most powerful I’ve ever attended in my four decades of attending church. A two and a half hour, non-air conditioned church service in the tropical island heat I presumed would be the initial challenge for my own kids. They chose to sit with the high schoolers and when I turned to look at them, my daughter was standing next to some of my students, mirroring them; hands raised in the air, worshiping Jesus in the three different languages spoken in the DR. At another point in the service, they were circled up praying with our high school students in English while other groups prayed out loud in Spanish and Creole – it was a thin space where heaven felt a little closer to earth. This trilingual church experience is something I cannot give them at home.

Over the course of the week, many moments like this happened. Our youngest has a deep love for babies. She found great joy each day at the preschool site, when everyday, a two year old arrived ready for a nap. She spent the better part of the week holding little Yamesly while she slept and my heart exploded watching her be present for this tiny girl in exactly the way God created her to love – holding babies. This is something I couldn’t give her at home.

Our older daughter connected with girls her age and spent mornings stumbling through her broken Spanish while they stumbled through their broken English and they taught each other, and laughed a lot. She found much joy in playing with a little Haitian girl named Kika. She was three, she spoke no Spanish and no English and the staff at the preschool don’t speak much Creole. None of this stopped my daughter from finding ways to play with her, communicate with her without words and make her feel welcome during her first week at preschool. These are things I could not have given her at home.

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We spent a few unexpected days at the base because of sickness. While this was initially disappointing, because after all… we’d raised all that money to come and serve, not to sit at the base sick, but the Lord showed up. I’m sweating, washing my laundry outside our bunk room in the blazing hot sun and the “vecino” (neighbor) comes by. The neighboring house to ours belongs to one of our staff members, Alberto, whose wife leads the preschool site where we had been serving. Here’s the thing about life in a different culture, most people have to be dependent on their neighbors and know them well. Because we live such autonomous lives and our goal is to climb the ladder and better our own lives, we don’t often take the time to know our neighbors, nor do we need them. Alberto and I spent the better part of an hour discussing our families and our kids. He shared with me how his daughter almost died from an illness while they were serving in Africa and how the Lord increases our dependence on him when we are asked to trust him with our kids. We talked about the joys and frustrations of ministry, about what’s next for our family and for his. That conversation wouldn’t have happened if we had gone to the preschool that day. This is something I would never normally do at home – mostly because I’m not outside doing my laundry, but also because I don’t share much of my personal life with my neighbors. My Dominican “vecino” has much to teach me.

During our debrief times, quite a few questions were presented to us and the answers my kids spoke brought me to tears and gave me full confidence that this journey was well worth it. When asked what we will do with what we learned, our 9 year old responded, “The first thing I want to do is learn more Spanish. I want to be able to talk to people and help more. I know how hard it is to be the one who can’t communicate now.” She’s getting it – it’s not about her. And when asked what we loved the most, our 6 year old’s response both surprised and humbled me. These are her sweet words: “It doesn’t care what language we speak, it just cares that we love the same God. I loved the most that we got to sing and worship in not just English.” Yet more things I can’t give them at home.

I could tell hours of stories about how the Lord has used decades of youth ministry and trips to change students, but this summer, he used his people in the DR and our willingness to say yes to change our little family and to begin to mold and shape my kids alongside some incredible high school seniors I got to teach. I’m filled with gratitude.

My friend and long-term African missionary, Jim Beck once told me: “The goal of a pilgrimage is not to make a difference but to be made different – not to solve, but to search; not to give, but to be present; not to assist, but to eat with.”

That’s our why. That’s the reason we will raise a few thousand dollars, collect suitcases of extra supplies, spend months organizing and packing – so that we, and in turn our kids, can be made different and can join a work already being done. We will keep saying yes so that our kids will begin to expand their own hearts and minds, so that we can be present even when we don’t have the words. We will keep saying yes, not so that we can “help”, but so that we can eat with and play with, worship and do laundry with and learn much from our new vecinos.

We say yes so that we might be more equipped to love and see others through the eyes of Christ and not through our limited lens, that we might reject indifference and be committed to a life where our eyes and hearts are open. Short term missions are already beginning to play a big role in that. May your pilgrimage, like ours, continue to be marked by saying yes to a story that will change us and make us more like Jesus.

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