How One Mission Trip Changed My Whole Life

Why go on a mission trip? And why go on a mission trip to Zambia?

Back in 1998, I had no idea how to answer those questions. Then, I was just a 21-year-old college student who had never left the United States. While I couldn’t locate Zambia on a map, I did know it was somewhere in Africa. Consequently, when my pastor first asked me if I would be interested in going there for a mission trip, my only thought was that it seemed like a cool way to see the world.

My only understanding of ministry work came from reading the letters from other members of my congregation and watching slideshows of their trips. To me, they looked like those Youth Group mission trips I took to rural towns in Pennsylvania and New York back in the day. That kind of outreach always moved my spirit while I was there but, after returning home, I’d forget most of those memories and the impact that work had on my soul. 

But nothing could have prepared me for almost two weeks on a mission in Zambia. The long-lasting effects of what happened there years ago still impact my life to this very day. 

Getting There is Half the Journey

Preparing to visit Africa looks different than packing for a week at the beach. I had to visit my doctor and get vaccines to prevent malaria and a few other diseases I’d never heard before. Next, I had to complete a pile of paperwork and visas to assure we could travel into – and out of – Zambia. Fortunately, the church had handled the majority of those details through its travel partner.

Wardrobe presented the next challenge. A July trip? That meant summer heat, correct?  No, not at all. Zambia is in the Southern Hemisphere and July lands right in the middle of winter. Thankfully, my church gave us a checklist of items we would need (extra socks, bug spray, sunscreen, hats, gloves, boots, more bug spray, etc.), but I kept thinking I was forgetting something. 

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Culture Shocked 

Finally, it was time to head to the airport with a dozen other people from my church. Three flights and 24 hours later, we arrived in Lusaka – the capital of Zambia.

The first thing I noticed about Lusaka was how modern it was. In my head, I had imagined a dirt runway and hut for a terminal, but the airport was a small building with two terminals for arriving and departing flights – mostly coming from nearby African countries.

Our local guide J.R. (we all just called him Junior) met us after we got off the plane, helped us collect our bags, and ushered us through a very basic customs checkpoint to an awaiting van. We each crammed into the vehicle and began the drive to our final destination.

Through the windows in the van, the city buzzed with energy. The streets were packed with cars, motorbikes, and people, moving in a seemingly-choreographed dance. My fellow passengers flinched a as cars came darting within inches of our cargo van, but our driver wasn’t fazed. Just focused on getting us to our destination safely.

As our van rolled along, the paved roads turned to dirt and tall buildings were replaced with dilapidated shacks, and soon we were there. My first impression of our living quarters was not the best. Home for the next 10 days looked like a set of rundown old army barracks. At least we had running water and electricity, because most of the homes around us did not. Technically we were still in Lusaka, but it felt like worlds away.

My Mind and Heart are Opened

The first few days on the mission were challenging for me. We spent most of our hours helping a local church and school, teaching the gospel to children and building out a one-room addition. I was tired, wasn’t sleeping well, and felt ill from jetlag. 

In the beginning, I often questioned why I was even on that mission trip. But the more I worked with the local community, I began to feel something unique to anything I had experienced before. I started to understand what my real mission was on that trip. And while my mission group was there to help, being around the local people seemed like a gift to us. Every interaction with the people there and the love and kindness given to us by the local community impacted me in a way that is hard to describe.

These people who had very little to their own name opened up their hearts and homes to us. They were so thankful for the work we were doing and always had the most positive outlook and expressions, despite the hardships in which they lived. A few members of the community helped us build the room addition. It was still early in the process, so most of our work involved leveling the ground and removing large rocks from the soil, which is a lot harder than it sounds. 

One of the local congregation members I worked closely with was a 19-year-old woman named Malindi. She had graduated from the school there and was hoping to attend college in the middle of Lusaka. Her English was fairly good (what she didn’t know, Junior was able to translate), and she told me about her dream of becoming a doctor, so she could return to her village to help the community. To this day, I still think about Malindi. Her spirit and attitude were incredibly inspiring, so I would not be surprised to hear that she achieved her dream.

However, my most memorable experience came on one of our last days in Lusaka. 

The pastor of the church where we were volunteering told us that his congregation wanted to invite us to a church service and meal. Expecting a short service and small picnic lunch, we were surprised to find ourselves at an incredible feast that no one expected. The service went on for hours with singing, dancing, praising, and praying. It was an incredibly moving celebration as we witnessed firsthand the combined spirituality of the entire community. 

To this day, I remember feeling an exhilarating and wonderful warmth in the room despite the chilly night as the intensity of the service and the participation of the community grew stronger. Worship included songs, prayers, and rejoicing in several native African tongues as well as English. We didn’t understand the language of at least half of the service, but it didn’t matter – we all felt the Holy Spirit inside of us. 

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The feast itself was even more amazing. In a true potluck style, it seemed like each family in the community brought something to contribute. Dishes included rice and meat, freshly made bread, and local fruits and vegetables that were entirely new to me. Once the meal was ready, the hosts insisted our group serve ourselves. Many of us felt guilty being that this variety of food was more than what many local families would normally eat. However, the people of the village were in high spirits and everyone was able to enjoy a delicious meal. 

Encouraging Words for Mission Trips and Volunteers

If I could pass along any encouraging words of advice for people asking why to go on a mission trip, I would give a few different answers. It’s truly an opportunity to grow and better understand your own faith while helping others. Not only that, but you will be amazed by how incredible other people really are whether it be through their love, strength, or hope despite difficult circumstances.

I left for Africa as a 21-year-old college student without a care in the world. I returned home with a new outlook on life and renewed sense of purpose and meaning. The experience not only shaped the type of person I became moving forward but also helped to solidify values and beliefs that I am now instilling in my own children today. Since returning from my mission trip, I have become more involved in my community and volunteering to help serve those less fortunate. From building homes to serving meals at local homeless shelters, donating school supplies to working with needy children, I seek to give back whenever and wherever I can. 

I am also sponsoring a child in Zambia. For about $35 a month, I am providing resources to a 12-year-old boy named Matias. I picked him because he reminded me of Mapalo, one of the children I met during my trip. Mapalo loved to play soccer and was amazed by my video game devices. Before I left Zambia, Mapalo gave me something he had made – a craft made of construction paper that featured a white hand holding a smaller black hand. I kept his artwork for years. To this day, when I’m feeling frustrated by my “first-world problems,” I can put things in perspective by thinking of Mapalo or Matias or any of other children I met during my mission trip.

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I’m sad to say that I haven’t had the opportunity to return to Zambia since that mission trip. However, I do expect to volunteer again soon – this time with my family by my side – so they can also experience the joy and salvation that I found almost 20 years ago. Today, I always have an answer when people ask me why I went on a mission trip.

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