The topic of mission trips seems to be one of America’s least favorite topics, unless you participate heavily in organized religion. About 22.8 percent of the American population is unaffiliated with any form of religion based on a survey done by Pew Religious Landscape in 2014, and that number is steadily increasing.
Not only is the topic unpopular in daily conversation, but it is also unfamiliar or highly stereotyped.
About three weeks ago now, I traveled to Sotuta, Yucatán, Mexico for a mission trip. Sotuta is a small town in the Yucatan peninsula, just an hour and a half away from Merida, which is the capital of the Yucatan. Sotuta has a population of about 9,000 people and it is surrounded by a few other small towns, like Yaxcabá.
While I was serving in Mexico, I took many things from my experience that led to me not only want to serve in other places around the country, but it also made me realize mission trips are never a part of conversation, especially on a college campus.
I do believe that what makes some uncomfortable about discussing serving is rooted in what makes them uncomfortable with talking about religion.
Religion has been a part of our world for thousands of years. Before 21st century America, it was the backbone of our morals and values, and even some our evils. Americans forget that Christianity was the basis of the KKK. The ending scene in G.W. Griffith’s, Birth of a Nation, was a white, radiant Jesus Christ symbolizing that the terrifying and inhumane acts of the klan were justified by Christ and he wanted them “to cleanse the world and make it pure.”
One of things that Mexico taught me was that mission trips are not for converting, but they are to spread love, hope, grace, and joy to people of other nations and people of your own country, if you choose to stay and serve at home. Forcedly converting someone or a group of people to a religion is not an act of a servant and it is not an act of a missionary. A missionary with a true heart to serve only gives the option for them to follow Jesus and helps them flush out their curiosities. I would never want to take away anybody’s beliefs or try to make them believe in a religion they just aren’t convicted in.
Mexico also gave me a clear perspective on what not to expect when you are on a mission trip: a vacation. Not that I ever thought it was going to be, but when I told any of my classmates they would immediately say: “oh so you’re going on vacation.” Even some of my friends responded the same way, even after explanation.
Well to set the record straight, a mission trip is not a vacation. It is actually the polar opposite.
Yes, I did come back two shades darker and yes, I ate authentic Mexican cuisine- which were the best meals of my life. But, I was not on a beach and a pineapple pina colada never grazed my palm.
The mission team and I helped build the pastor’s home, and the church that will one day reopen to all of Sotuta. We also made cement, we moved bricks, we scraped and painted the walls of the church, and we taught a bible study to children in Sotuta and Yaxcabá.
Lastly, the mission trip taught to me to thankful for what I have and the future that is set before me. Although, the people of Sotuta lacked technology, beds, running water, air conditioning, paved roads, and water filtration, they had something even greater- community.
Essentially, the people of Sotuta had each other. It was a common tradition that if a neighbor ever needed anything like running water to shower or dinner, you would offer your home, food, and time.
It would seem like an uncomfortable situation from the outside, but living in it was not uncomfortable at all, it was their reality and living in it made us accept who they were and love them for it. Sure, I was praying for my mattress all week, and I was uncomfortable sweating from my head to my toes every second of the day, but me being uncomfortable led to my continued strength and growth as a servant and person.
The uncomfortability I felt and thought the people of Sotuta felt, correlates well with the conversation of religion in America. I do not believe anyone is required to practice a religion, but it has become common to shun the topic and the people who do follow Christ or any form of a religion. Christians also, continue to judge and speak in unnecessary extremes when our goal is to spread the love of Jesus, not force anything or make anyone feel less than. It is truly a battle on both ends.
Well here is a possible solution: give a mission trip a try and see for yourself.
Mexico gave me something that I had never seen before and something that I am honestly just realizing as I write it down. Mexico gave me a clear perspective on what peace looks like. And I am not talking about the peace you find when you finally get over your ex. I am talking about the peace that makes you never want to pass judgement about a person, event, activity, lifestyle, religious practice, etc. ever again because the outcome of your judgement may stretch too far to one side and then you miss out on new knowledge, experience, or even a gift.
You can serve without having religious affiliation, as long as you have a heart to serve without criticism. As people we can also end judgement of Christians, and as Christians we can end judgement of people whose sole difference is they don’t believe what we believe. We can coincide together and we can live in peace. It is a choice.
Take the first step, and see for yourself.
By: Imani Thaniel
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