Advice for Short Term Missionaries

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Jolene wrote recently and asked for advice regarding a short-term medical missions trip to Kenya.  Here are my two cents for those of you planning trips:

Well, I confess that it has been 20 years almost to the day since I arrived in Kenya – I landed on Jan 6, 1992 as an exchange student from Wheaton College to Daystar University in Nairobi.  Of course, we landed in the middle of an attempted coup d’etat and there were armoured vehicles and soldiers up and down the runway… quite exciting for my first day in Africa.  But don’t worry, that probably won’t happen to you!  But plenty of other surprises will, of course, that’s just how Africa is…

It was hard for me to put all of my thoughts into a few paragraphs that might be useful to you on your trip. I presume that your organization is helping to prepare you, giving you readings on culture shock, and organizing your packing lists and travel details.  Be sure to take your malaria prophylaxis – I can testify that malaria is no fun – and pack your hand sanitizer and Peptobismal, of course.  But really what I would like to say to you and other short-termers is this: 

LISTEN.

There are two parts to the “Listen” guidance.

(1) Listen to God.  God has many things He wants to talk to you about during this process, starting now.  He will teach you more about Himself, His way of relating to the world, and the things He cares about.  He will teach you about His majesty, His providence, His mercy, His peace, His justice, and much more.  He will convict you about issues in your own life.  He will change the way you see yourself and the world.  He may call you to something new, different, or just greater obedience.  He will teach you to overcome your fears, and to trust Him.  He will humble you, reveal to you that you control nothing, and simultaneously use you in ways you did not imagine.

Any time you are out of your comfort zone, God has a great deal to say to you.  Listen to Him.  Keep notes, or a journal.  And start reading through the Bible chapter by chapter, so His word has a chance to speak to you everyday.  Let Him change you.

I know you are excited to go, be helpful, and do something for Kenyans.  However, in my experience, the most permanent, significant change that comes out of short-term trips — is in the heart, mind, and worldview of those who went as missionaries — not in the people they went to minister to.

(2) Listen to the people.  Remember that different is not necessarily bad.  Every culture has bright, glorious characteristics that are wonderful… and dark, negative habits that are destructive.  Become an observer… When people do something different than the-way-we-do-it just take note… don’t pass judgment (even if it makes you crazy!).  Be the best anthropologist you can be and figure out what their value system is.  Don’t presume to know anything, always ask why… especially if you have a local person who is a “cultural guide” for you and may be able to explain things in your terms.  Everyone loves a good listener.  And the more you know, and understand, the more credible you will be when you finally speak.

I guess that’s my 2 cents in a nutshell… Probably not the advice you had in mind – but still the most useful thing I can say to you at this point!

If you have time, or a true interest in Africa and its cultures, I would suggest reading Into Africa: Intercultural Insights by Richmond and Gestrin. It’s one of the better summaries of cultural habits and advice for outsiders who travel or work there.

Blessings!

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