“Why are you here?” This is a question I ask first-time missionaries as they arrive from the USA. Many will recite the needs of the location that have traveled to. They have so much and want to give something to the less-fortunate.  Many cite the Bible and how it says to reach out to the poor and the least of His children.

My first short term mission trip was in 2010. When I headed to Guatemala, I was determined to help as many people as I could. I had the attitude that the Guatemalan people needed what I had to offer. I was determined to save Guatemala.

Hours after our team arrived, I was a changed man. The first Guatemalans I met were homeless victims of recent mudslides being sheltered in an overcrowded gymnasium. We gave each family a small bag of food, one blanket, and a hug.

Then the refugees, who certainly looked like the poorest of the poor, thanked us and prayed. They thanked God for sending us. They prayed passionately for our safety and well-being and that our lives would be blessed forever. They prayed for our church and our families. They raised their voices to God and begged for blessings to be poured out over us all.

That was the moment I realized just how poor I was; and how much I needed what they had.

My prayer for each visiting missionary is that they experience the same revelation. They will see cluttered homes with makeshift wood-burning stoves, dirt floors and leaky tin roofs. They will see diminutive men, and sometimes women and children, carrying heavy loads of firewood on their backs for miles to keep the stoves going. They will notice toes sticking through shoes and bare feet walking along dirt or rocky roads.

They will drive past children in the streets filling potholes with dirt and begging passersby to give them some money in return for their work. They will see families sleeping on floors or boards in woefully under-sized homes, and sharing one outdoor bathroom that doesn’t flush. They will hear stories of disabled or elderly persons trying to find food and water every day.

And one thing will stand out: the smiles. Everyone is smiling. Such is their life, and they are dealing with it. It is a life harder than we could ever imagine, but they still smile. They cheerfully say “Hello” and “Good Day” as we pass by. It is impossible not to realize, that despite all they deal with, they feel blessed. They are blessed.

Every night, the sounds of worship and singing resonate. The people praise God for everything they have and trust that He is watching over them. They are a great example to us all.

At the end of the mission trip, we ask visitors to share their experience. Many hesitate because they can’t express what they feel without crying. They start talking about the family whose house they built… a young mother they met in the medical clinic… a child they held. “It was just so…” and then comes the vain search for words as the tears well up.

And it always reminds me of who “the poor” really are.

There is some debate over the value of short-term mission teams. Some feel short-termers should stay home and send the money it costs directly to the missions. Local men can build the houses. Shopkeepers can sell the clothing. Their medicines can help existing clinics that see patients every day. Local, full-time missionaries can make better use of the funds and supplies.

That may be true. The work of short-term mission teams often does more for the missionaries than the local villagers. But I am totally okay with that. If more lives change back home than in the destination country, is that a bad thing?

After a mission experience, ignoring a homeless man on the street becomes harder. We are faster to step up and help victims of a disaster. Donating to special collections and participating in charity projects becomes easier. Things we took for granted last month are suddenly appreciated. We thank God for everything we have.

For sure, all the missionaries will feel closer to Jesus, even if only for a while. The experience will make them an even better person than the one they thought they were when they chose to sacrifice a vacation week. The mission will renew their faith, grow their faith and give them a faith reserve to draw on when difficulties pop into their own lives.

That is why I encourage churches to keep sponsoring mission teams and for all of you to take a week out of your life to work missions someday. Unimaginable blessings are waiting for you.

“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace”          -1 Peter 4:10

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