Serve abroad, it’s guaranteed to change at least one life

This post isn’t about Christiantity, or any religion.

Just want to clear that up from the start. The Bible promotes both spreading the gospel and feeding/clothing/sheltering the needy. Both of the international mission trips I went on were with church groups, and we tried to meet both the spiritual and physical needs of the people we went to help.

I would support and encourage anyone who is considering going on such a trip with a church group. I just don’t want to discourage anyone from serving abroad because they might be turned off by the religious association with these trips. I would like for the focus of this post to be about meeting the immediate physical needs of less fortunate people around the world, and in the process giving yourself more perspective and appreciation of the world directly in front of you. We can all get behind that.

I know many people who have served overseas for varying amounts of time. Both my mother and my sister lived in Asia for years. My story pales in comparison, but it’s mine so I’m going to share it.

The first trip I took was to Juarez, Mexico when I was a junior in high school. There were about 15 of us who went over Spring Break, and we built a house for a family there. Honestly I don’t remember much about the house-building, but I vividly remember playing soccer with the local kids in the street during lunch break and at the end of the day. There was a simple joy in playing a simple game that we in America miss out on because of our endless distractions. These kids were playing on dirt roads, in front of cardboard or tin houses, with an obvious shortage of food and water. But they acted like they had everything in world that they needed.

The second trip I took was to the Philippines in the summer of 2000, when I was in college. I have a lot of great memories of that trip, especially since I got to go with both my brother and one of my best friends (Kevin Ash).

The most impactful memories, by far, are from when we brought food to the site of a garbage dump that collapsed in Manila shortly before we arrived, killing more than 200 people. The smell was so terrible that it was hard to breathe even wearing masks. We brought a lot of food but it was a mere drop in the bucket compared to what was needed.

In another part of Manila I remember seeing dozens of cardboard homes lined up in a narrow alley with active train tracks. Supposedly, when a train came through the people would fold up their homes and stand up against the wall, allowing just enough room for the train to get by before you set your box up again. But if you happened to be asleep or away from home, either you or your home or both would get blasted by the train. Seeing that kind of poverty and despair at age 20 no doubt changed my life.

A humanitarian aid trip changed Missy’s life to a much greater degree. She was finishing up her bachelor’s in education when she spent a summer in Tanzania with Cross Cultural Solutions. She taught third grade and also helped at the orphanage and the hospital.

Countries like the United States had donated lots of much-needed supplies to the town where Missy’s group was staying, but sadly the supplies either weren’t being used or weren’t being used properly. Her group found two full rommfuls of supplies just sitting in boxes because nobody knew how to use them. And when they did use things like the AIDS testing kids, they re-used the testing slides because they couldn’t fathom throwing them away after one use. Obviously, this only made the problem worse.

Missy’s group helped open boxes of rubber gloves, which nobody was using at the time. Then they had to tell them to throw the gloves away after using them because the locals would hang them on a clothesline after each use and pick them up again the next day.

This experience got Missy passionate about several things. International aid, nursing, and nursing education. Upon returning home she immediately enrolled to get her bachelor’s in nursing, and has since gotten her master’s in nursing education. She has no doubt that she will someday go on another trip to a third-world country where she can put all of her skills to use.

Life can make that a complicated thing to do. It was a lot easier when we were young and single (which is a big reason why I would strongly encourage anyone who is young and single to make a trip like this a priority now.) Between work and the four kids, Missy and I are pretty busy these days.

But we aren’t just completely setting aside our dreams to do our small part in making the world a better place. We are happy to financially support others who are in a position to go.

One example of this is our friend Katie Woodard, who has been on several trips but recently spent two years with Mercy Ships.

Here is a link to her blog about those two years. I’ll also let her make a pitch in her own words as to why going and supporting others on trips like these is so important.

“I won the jackpot. I was born in the U.S. Even if you are in poverty here you’re a million times more well off in material ways than so many people in developing countries. As a kid I always knew there were really poor people in the world, but I didn’t understand the magnitude of that and figured that they all had Food Stamps or some organization helping them. This is usually the case if you are poor in the U.S., but in developing countries, there are so many people who don’t have the basic necessities we all take for granted: food, access to healthcare, education, shelter….air conditioning, toilets, pizza.

One of the many valuable things I have gained from my experiences serving overseas is perspective. I have done short and long term missions in 6 countries, and while it is debatable whether short term mission trips are actually helpful to the people we intend to serve, I think it is something everyone should do once if they can’t afford to go longer, and not because it helps the people. Because it helps us personally. It is impossible otherwise to truly grasp how incredibly lucky we are. It is increasingly easy for us to just turn away and not want to help others if we never see firsthand the suffering that happens in the world. We want to live our comfortable life and not think about it or deal with it. We needlessly spend money on all of these things we do not need while there are babies starving to death or people suffering with completely treatable diseases. Maybe we don’t think about it because we feel guilty, but you don’t need to feel guilty about what you have. It is a God given gift entrusted to you, and you have the right to enjoy it, but you also have the responsibility to give back and help those in need. Whether you donate, or go overseas, or serve locally, or foster kids, or a combination of these things, we should all do as much as we can. If more of us helped, there could be a lot less suffering.

One incredible thing I have learned in my adventures that pertains to perspective as well is that many of us are way more impoverished in our spirit and attitude than many of the people I have served. They might have such a hard life yet they are still so joyful. While we complain about so much dumb stuff, they are grateful.

Now, I have so much joy and because of my relationship with God and because of my new perspective on life and the world. Also while I was serving overseas, I have never felt so purposeful and happy, and I hope one day I have the opportunity to do it again. While helping others may be a sacrifice in some ways, it does not have to be a sacrifice to your personal wellbeing or happiness, and it could be one of the most meaningful things you ever do.”

Katie Woodard
Katie Woodard

Recently our family visited Missy’s sister in Texas. Our niece Grace is in high school and has begun fundraising for another international trip this summer. It’s awesome to hear the excitement in her voice as she talked about her previous trips and the one coming up this year.

The world’s problems are far too great for one person to solve, or for the whole world to solve them in one day. But each of us can do a little something, and even if that little something just gives us a slightly better attitude and perspective about our lives here, it can really add up to something.

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