Organizing and Gathering Information During Your Mission Trip

missionary reading book to group of kids africa mission travel

"How was your trip?" is one question you will be asked repeatedly after your mission trip. That can be one of the hardest questions to answer. With some pre-planning and tips from the journalism pros, insightful answers will pop into your mind, land on paper, and zip down electronic highways.

Keeping a Journal

The three keys are a notebook, camera, and Twitter hashtag for the trip that the whole group will use. Before your trip, purchase a sturdy notebook. On the first page, write the Twitter hashtag your group has agreed to use. Inside, write Day One across two pages, on the next two pages write Day Two, and so on for the length of your trip. On the last two pages, write these words with a half of page of empty space between them: best, worst, funniest, saddest. 

Every night, no matter how tired you are, jot down a few thoughts about that day. Don't worry about spelling and punctuation. These pages are just for you. If you do not write down the day's events, the days may run together in your mind and you may forget what you did when. Or, an important detail may get lost in all the important events on subsequent days.

Every morning, your first photo should be a number: is this day one? Take a photograph of a friend holding up one finger. Now you will know when day one ends and day two begins. These images and your notes will help keep your thoughts organized when you want to put the whole trip together after you have rested from your journey.  

Social Media

This is one trip where instant communications may not be possible. The Internet may be spotty or not available. Usage may be expensive, and time spent on the one office computer may be needed for more important business than yours. Check with your phone carrier. Out-of-country calls and web access may be prohibitive. If you plan to use your camera phone, keep your phone in airplane mode so you won't be tempted to check your email. 

So, why did use a Twitter hashtag? Many travelers do not use social media to announce their journeys for safety reasons. Thieves target empty houses. For this safety concern and because of the problems with out of country internet use, hold your Tweets until you return. Post two or three a day, with photos if possible, using the group's Twitter handle. Use the same technique for Instagram, Facebook, and other electronic means of communication. After the trip, it is fun to see what your fellow travelers choose to post. Friends and family will love learning about your experience.

Taking Photos

Photos should tell little stories, and "line up and smile" is not a story. The people you are visiting will want you to take a group photograph, so be sure to oblige them as soon as possible. Then, take lots of photos of people doing things. Nearly every action you want to photograph should be photographed three times: a long shot, a close-up, and a photo of a detail. For example, if a woman is cooking take a photo of the kitchen or cooking area with her in it, next take a photo of the cook and how and where she is cooking (on a stove, over a fire, on the ground), then take a photo of a detail or several: the cooking pot, the cooks hand around a utensil, or anything that strikes you as interesting or unusual. If you visit a school, take a photo of a classroom including whatever they use for a chalkboard, a photo or several photos of students writing or reading a book, and close-ups of their school supplies. Most schools overseas require uniforms so it would be interesting to include a full body shot of a child wearing the school uniform.

Some cultures are sensitive about having photos taken. In Uganda, for example, people believe the photo will steal their soul. In other cultures, people may expect to be paid if you take their photo. Be sure to ask your local contact how people feel about photos, and always ask before you take a photo of a person or their child. Decide before the trip if it would be appropriate to take twenty or thirty one-dollar bills to pay interesting looking people doing interesting things. The mission and the people they serve will not expect to be paid to pose. 

Do your best to send the mission some of your group's best photos. As internet time may be expensive, find out how to mail them. These photos mean a great deal to people who do not own cameras. 

How to Interview

Interviewing mission and community leaders is a good way to gain an overall understanding of the mission and the culture. Interviewing people served by the mission gives great insight into the impact of the mission's services. Try to talk both to leaders and to the people they serve and remember that most are not accustomed to being interviewed. Do not drag out recording equipment, elaborate lighting, and other intimidating equipment. Instead, have a conversation and jot down answers in a small notebook. Prepare questions ahead of time, but do not restrict yourself to those questions. Answers may lead you to ask questions you did not think to ask before the conversation. Before the interview, ask your local contact what types of questions would be inappropriate. 

Keep your questions as specific as possible. "What do you do all day?" is not a good question, but "How do you get to school (or work)?" is easy to answer and a good place to start. Avoid "yes" and "no" questions. Do not ask personal questions such as about their spiritual life. Try to find out how the mission assists the person you interview and what that assistance means to them. If the school lunch is their only meal of the day, that is important information. If the only books they can afford are those provided by the mission, that is important information.

The best questions to ask a mission or community leader are "What have you learned from the people you serve?" and "What did I forget to ask you?"

Working with an Interpreter 

Try to talk to the interpreter before the interview to learn how well they speak English. The less proficient they are in English, the simpler your questions need to be. If they cannot translate a question, ask it in a different way one time. If that fails, move on to the next question.

For the most effective interview, you will need to model a one-on-one conversation. Think of the interpreter as an electronic device, not part of the conversation. Face your subject and talk to your subject, not to the interpreter. Don't say: ask her what she had for breakfast. Instead, look at your subject and say: what did you have for breakfast? Your subject may address her answers to the interpreter at first, but she will usually follow your lead and talk directly to you after a few questions.

Those Last Two Pages?

On your way home, get out your notebook and turn to the last two pages. Write a few sentences or a paragraph under "best," "worst," "funniest," "saddest." Don't worry about spelling or punctuation, just get down as many details as possible for the first event that pops into your mind when you read each of the four words. It will take days, even weeks to process all that happened on your trip, but many people will want to know immediately, "How was your trip?" Now, you have four things you can talk about right away. 

More formal reporting may be expected by the people who funded your trip, your church, or your school. Your local newspaper may be curious as well. Using your notebook and photos, you will be able to craft a compelling report or photo essay but take your time. The real impact of your mission trip may not be realized until you are rested up and have had plenty of time to think about it.