I have been on a few mission trips in my life and have personally learned so much from them; however, I also have a lot of complicated feelings about them I am still working through.
Something I have understood since I returned from my first mission trip in 2015: it is far more difficult to live on a mission to serve others any chance you get than it is to take a week long trip to serve somewhere a plane ride away.
It is easy to want to help but hard to be open to being inconvenienced.
For me, asking a person if they are hungry in my own city is a lot more intimidating than offering a snack to someone who simply looks hungry in another country.
For me, talking myself into pausing to offer help whenever (and wherever) I see it is needed is much more difficult than simply resolving to be available to do anything asked of me during a window of paid-time off work.
For me, committing to a weekly service commitment at my own church is more daunting than going to a country I have never been to before to assist people who, for the most part, cannot understand me and who, likewise, I cannot understand.
All three of those things are difficult for me, but I push myself to do them sometimes. Not as much as I should, but I try.
I try because I believe in the teachings of Jesus, but probably more so, I try because I have seen people who live that way and I want to be like them.
My friend, Lindsey, is one of those people. The woman is on a mission.
A couple of years ago, we traveled together to Chicago for a conference– her first time in the Windy City!
Aside from the conference, the only thing she expressed interest in doing was helping hungry people. Oh, and taking photos at Millenium Park, naturally. She did not go to Chicago for a mission trip, but she did choose to put a mission behind our trip. That is who she is!
Therefore, our free day in the big city consisted of taking a few photos at “the bean,” sitting on a bench by the lake for a really long time, and then wandering around with the hope of feeding some bellies.
We did not have a real plan and it was intimidating. At the end of the day, we only talked to and fed two people; however, the lessons I learned that day were ones I will sincerely never forget. I learned more in one day on the streets of Chicago, talking to one under-resourced man in particular, than I learned on a couple of my trips to developing countries.
As we were walking and psyching ourselves up to approach someone, we saw a man with a sign on a corner across the street from us. Resolved, we stopped in a McDonald’s and as we were purchasing cheeseburgers, brilliantly brilliant Lindsey said something I had never thought of before… “are you sure he is hungry?” She said this not because she wanted to save $1, but because she wanted to make sure, if we were going to meet a need, we knew what the real need was. Again, brilliant.
Am I the only one who would have assumed a person holding a sign on a street corner would be hungry?
After we crossed the street hoping to feed a presumably hungry belly, this was the tune of the dialogue:
Us: “Hi there, are you hungry?”
Man: “Kinda hungry… depends on what you have.”
Us: “Oh, we have a cheeseburger. Would you like that?”
Man: “I think so. (Pause) See, the thing is I got all of my teeth pulled two weeks ago, so I can only eat soft things.”
Us: “Oh, that sounds super painful!”
Man: “Yeah… a lot of people think I’m an asshole when I say I don’t want what they offer me, but it just hurts to eat a lot of things.”
Me (I am pretty sure Lindsey does not say bad words, unless she is in a real pinch): “Well, you do not seem like an asshole to us.”
HE DIDN’T HAVE TEETH. He was hurting and did not have teeth. Of course he was going to be picky– he had to be.
And he was called an asshole for it.
This back and forth made me stop and rethink a previous encounter I had in my own city when someone who seemed to be without access to food told me they only wanted the food I was offering if it was chicken. In the moment, I had thought (honestly) they were ungrateful and overly picky. Maybe they were, maybe they were not. I will never know because I did not ask questions. Instead, chickenless, I just moved along with my day.
What Lindsey tried to teach me, this Chicagoan man drove home. We cannot actually meet needs until we take the time to learn what they are. Sometimes we think we know the problem and the solution but we don’t know what we don’t know. Often, we are naive to our own biases; completely unaware of our own blindspots.
This conversation woke me up to the fact that I, as a person with relative power and privilege, need to ask questions of the people I am hoping to help- whether it be by voting, or volunteering, or giving money to a cause- instead of assuming I know enough of the story to prescribe the solution.
These conversations are hard. Really, really hard. Learning to eat my “I know better” instinct is honestly pretty dang difficult, too. Thankfully, (praise Jesus!) the Chicagoan man who schooled me on humility taught me the importance of wading through discomfort to ask and learn, instead of prescribing and fixing.
I’ll forever be thankful for him.
(And for Lindsey, my hero).