"The Week That Changed My Life"—How a mission trip completely transformed my perspective

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It was my sophomore year in high school with spring break just around the corner, and I was your typical teenager.  I had everything I needed at home: friends to hang out with, a crush that lived down the street, movies to see, and long mornings that I was looking forward to sleeping right through. But little did I know, my plans were about to drastically change. 

Am I Crazy?

A friend that was in a local church group just a few towns away told me about their plans to go on a mission trip to Ensenada. They were going to work in one of the area's biggest needs—repairing a local school. Not only were they going to be working on the school but they were also going to be teaching children that attended. They invited me to go.

There are rare moments in life when things come out of your mouth that you never imagined you would hear yourself say. The youth pastor walked over to me during that youth group meeting and asked if I'd go with them on this big mission trip to Mexico. The word "yes" poured out of my mouth, it felt surreal. What have I gotten myself into? 

After we landed and were headed to the campsite we would be staying at, a wave of fear struck when I saw one of the wheels of a trailer we happened to pass by, fly off and bounce across the freeway.  Am I crazy? 

After dodging a few more local drivers who were going the wrong way on the highway, we finally made it there safely. Did I see a hotel appear before my eyes? Nope. We were going to be camping on the local beach. As we pulled into a vacant dirt lot within earshot, the rich smell of salty Pacific waves swept through the air which I breathed. We pitched thirty tents in circle, like a wagon train, set up a night watch at the entrance, and went to sleep. Tomorrow would begin the real mission work. I was terrified. 

The Soccer Game I Will Never Forget 

The next morning my team, a group of seven high school students and translators, arrived at the school. Some of us would help repair parts of the old building that had been used before for other mission groups. The rest of us would run the school, hang out with the kids, teach them daily lessons, and act as big brothers and sisters to them. Before we stepped out of the van I was so nervous I felt as if I might throw up.

I stepped out of the van, then heard the sound of feet kicking a soccer ball. The local Ensenada kids were waiting for us in front of the school playing soccer. Raw sewage ran down the dirt street from the prison at the top of the hill in two little streams on either side, and the kids stayed in the middle as if the dark streams were field boundaries.

We introduced ourselves and quickly joined the soccer game. We were mostly tall, uncoordinated, clumsy guys in their eyes, but they were over the moon. These Americans came to play soccer with us? Indeed we had, and from the first back-and-forth kicks we shared with them I could see their eyes light up with a sense of joy I had never previously seen. 

After the game, we began the lessons. The kids patiently listened through our slow plodding sentences that left space for the translator to repeat twice what we said in Spanish. Some of us had learned Spanish, some of us had not (like me), but the kids welcomed us anyway. They knew we had traveled a great distance just to spend time with them. We were there to have fun, teach, and give their parents a rest from worrying about trying to find childcare.

Although I still felt nervous, as I saw how quickly and warmly they accepted us, the fear slowly melted away. We quickly became a part of their world. We had joined their team.

Widespread Joy (Despite The Freezing Showers)  

The joy of being there for a bunch of kids and being able to elicit genuine happiness to their lives was far more euphoric than I had anticipated. Jesus taught that it is better to give than to receive. I never knew this to be true until that day when I stood in front of an audience of wide-eyed kids smiling at me, cheering for me at every full stop as I taught a simple English lesson. All of the comforts of my home—my movies, video games, cushy bed, warm showers, big houses, paved streets, magically functioning plumbing and sewers—faded far into the distance. I didn't miss any of it.

It didn't bother me that we slept in tents for a week, that we could only take freezing cold showers at the beach bathrooms (where we had to keep our mouths shut tight to avoid ingesting any water that evidently had contaminants), that we brushed our teeth over a dirt pit and spit into it when we were done, or that groups of us had to stay awake at odd hours to be the night watch.

We were all so overwhelmed with joy after our time at the school each day that none of the "hardships" mattered. In fact, there were moments of sheer beauty in the midst of it. During one of my night watches as I plucked on a guitar someone had brought, a group of wild horses suddenly ran along the beach. We had to spring up and shoo them away to ensure they didn't run into our tents, but it was a moment I will never forget: standing on the Ensenada beach watching wild horses graze across the sand under a full moon.

My World Was Flipped Upside Down

By the end of my week, all of the fear and reluctance had disappeared. I was no longer asking, Am I crazy? I was asking Do I have to leave? Can we stay another week to help these kids and their families? 

I saw how little these kids and their families had, yet they still found ways to squeeze simple joys out of life. They didn't need video games, TVs, movies, or malls. It seemed as if they beamed with joy and kindness every moment we were there. There were days when I couldn't tell who was encouraging who: were these kids encouraging us or were we encouraging them?

But the biggest moment of impact was still to come. It was the day we head back to the States. My mom picked me up at the airport, and as we drove home it dawned on me— I have so much to be thankful for!

From that day on I never saw my life in America the same. I stopped taking everything and everyone for granted. Even to this day, I randomly dream of that soccer balls rolling down the dirt street, wild horses running by our tents on the beach, and I remember that it is always better to give than to receive.

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