This is the tagline to a Fly Emirates advertising campaign. Obviously they are not giving away free flights, nor do they pay you to fly with them. Rather, this is an advertising campaign for air miles – the more you travel, the richer you are in terms of air miles collected.
However, I have found this tag line to be true in a different way. I have found that the more I travel, the richer I become personally.
Although, I am speaking of a particular type of travel – short-term mission trips.
I have been on three significant (for me) cross-cultural mission trips in the past eight years (Peru, Morocco and Zimbabwe), and wish to share some lessons I learned.
Lesson 1: I am more materialistic than I care to believe
I am unsure as to whether or not the three countries I experienced would be classified as Third World countries or not. The capital cities, and many of the larger towns had wealthy people living there and business seemed good. However, beyond the urban areas the poverty could not be hidden.
Throughout all these countries I saw: people wash clothes in rivers, people wear cement bags as shoes and hats, people own one set of clothes, large families living in one room homes, elderly widows care for orphaned grand-children with no finance at all, a lady dance with joy because she was given a blanket (and not even a particularly nice one). In other words, the people I spent time with had little to nothing – materially speaking.
Just to see some of these things highlighted the materialism in my heart. I often had more in my suitcase than most of these people had ever owned.
Now, I am not particularly rich in western terms. But materialism is not the possession of goods, but the desire for them. I desire a better car, a newer phone, a bigger house, more fashionable clothes, etc. Indeed, the longer we spend cocooned in our culture the more materialistic we let ourselves become.
So, my first lesson was I am more materialistic than I care to believe.
Lesson 2: Be truly grateful
It is a strange sensation to walk into Tesco again only a matter of days after finding yourself in a situation where people struggle to find food, never mind a certain brand of food.
However, it is not just food that I became grateful for. I think of groups of believers, maybe only five or ten of them, and no other Christians to meet with – anywhere. I think of churches without Pastor’s. I think of the political leadership in some of the countries I visited. I think of the lack of law, or the unjust implication of law in certain places. I think of the vulnerability of children, women and the elderly in some countries.
I came back to Northern Ireland where I live in a town with 20 odd churches in it. My church has a faithful pastor, elders, deacons and ministry leaders. My political leaders are not perfect, and are not always concerned about the issues I wish they were concerned about, but the country is run pretty well. The law is executed justly and fairly in most instances across Northern Ireland. While children, women and the elderly are still vulnerable here, we also have social services, NHS, nursing homes, home help, women’s aid, foster carers and a number of other facilities and service which care for those who are vulnerable.
The second lesson I learned was to be truly grateful for all that I have.
Lesson 3: The benefit of other cultures to my character
I am a very task orientated person. I work through tasks, devoting my attention to the task I am completing now, before thinking about anything else.
Therefore, it was of great difficulty to travel to somewhere like Peru where time, in all reality, does not exist – for example Church meetings take place 3 hours after they were scheduled. It was a challenge to be somewhere like Morocco or Zimbabwe where people come first, and no matter what you are supposed to be doing, if someone needs you to sit down with them you do.
These were the difficulties which helped develop my character. They helped me to realise the importance of spending time with people and caring for them in addition to completing tasks faithfully. Of course this is something I still need to work on.
This may not be your weakness, but travelling to other cultures exposes our cultural snobbery where we glorify some traits and demonise others.
The third lesson then was the way in which other cultures benefited my character.
Lesson 4: Brothers and Sisters across the world are both an encouragement and a challenge
On my travels I have spent time with both missionaries and indigenous believers.
Many of the missionaries have given up so much, and embody Jesus words ‘let him deny himself’ (Lk. 9:23). Some of the missionaries I met had been working in an area for ten years and were only aware of two people committing their lives to Christ because of their work. Other missionaries had been sent used tea bags from their home country as a treat! Still others had left comfortable lifestyles to serve God in very different contexts across the world.
Some of the indigenous believers had been disowned by their families for professing Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. Others devoured their Bibles, like a child on Christmas morning with a new toy. Many endured hardship and difficulties just to meet with Christ’s people.
One Pastor in Zimbabwe walked for four or five hours every other Saturday evening, then slept on the ground inside a mud hut (see picture, the green mat is his bed), so he could open God’s word for a small congregation (who could not pay him).
Spending time with these people challenged me immensely. However, it was also a great encouragement to see Christ’s church growing around the world, to see people’s lives changed by the same gospel I heard in Northern Ireland and to join them in worshipping our God together.
Lesson four then was experiencing both the encouragement and challenge that our brothers and sisters across the world are to us.
Lesson 5: Cultural exposure helps my biblical understanding
Connected to the previous two lessons is lesson five.
Standing in Peru, unable to communicate (except through a translator) with people who desire so much to talk to you, helps us appreciate the frustration and confusion that took place at the tower of Babel (Gen. 11).
Sitting/lying round a table in Morocco, eating out of one bowl, with your hands, brings alive the image of Jesus and his disciples observing The Last Supper (Lk. 22:14-22).
Singing hymns in Zimbabwe, with dancing Africans singing in Shona and me standing poker straight upright singing in English was only a little glimpse of Revelation 5 and 7.
Lesson five was that experiencing these other cultures helped me understand the Bible better, and to imagine and experience just a little of what the biblical culture was like.
Maybe it has been a while since you went on a mission trip, or maybe you have never been! Either way I hope the lessons I learned and have shared whet your appetite a little.
It is only early March and so there is lots of time to organise something for the summer (or any other time that suits you). Short-term mission trips open up another world – so can I encourage you to come fly with me?
Because the more you travel, the richer you are.