Make service adventures more meaningful for you and the people you help.
Thrivent Builds April 2016 in Nicaragua. From left, Sabrina Fay, Rob Burns, Sheri CooperThis article (PDF) | Current issue (PDF) | Archive
By Amy Merrick
When Joe Draxler goes on a service trip, it’s to do much more than drill and repair wells with his team. “The water is our excuse to go,” says Draxler, a fourth-generation dairy farmer in Glenwood City, Wisconsin. “We are really there to show the simple concept from the Bible of sharing your blessings with one another.”
In the past 10 years, Draxler has participated in 22 mission trips through Living Water International, a faith-based nonprofit organization. About half of his trips have been to Haiti, with the rest throughout Central America. His wife, Charl, has accompanied him—and so have his children and grandchildren. They have learned that proper preparation, both spiritual and practical, helps them make the most of their experience. Here’s what to keep in mind for your next service trip.
Before you go
Learn as much as you can about your trip and the community you’ll be visiting before you go. Ask your team leader what type of housing conditions and work environments to expect, says Lee Jerstad, a volunteer engagement specialist for Habitat for Humanity.
“Be ready to work hard—and to be changed by the people you meet,” Jerstad says.
Team members who go on trips with Thrivent Builds Worldwide, a program that is part of the partnership between Thrivent and Habitat, receive a guidebook that provides background about the country they will be visiting. But it’s also a good idea to do some extra research: read books, watch videos about the destination and talk to others who have gone on mission trips there. Before his Thrivent Builds Worldwide trip to Nepal in 2014, Joe Makston, a Thrivent member in Phoenix, read about the weather, culture and religion to get a better sense of the community he would be joining.
“Your mindset is so important,” he says. “The people you meet are actually helping you recognize how other people live, and your life is certainly enriched because of that experience.”
On the trip
You may be offered unfamiliar foods, people may work in ways that are different from what you’re used to or the weather may not cooperate. Keeping an open mind will help you cope with unexpected challenges.
It’s not uncommon to feel strong emotions when you see locals dealing with hardship. Many teams hold daily devotionals or reflection time to talk about their experiences. Thrivent Financial Representative Cathy Jenson of Elk Mound, Wisconsin, has traveled to Nicaragua and El Salvador with her father, Joe Draxler. They begin each day with devotions. “We talk about the highs and lows, questions or situations that come up,” she said. “Then we do worship time together in Spanish with the in-country staff.”
Teams often want to capture their trip through photos and videos. You should always ask permission before you take pictures of people or locales. Some places might consider photos to be intrusive, and certain places may be considered sacred. It shows respect when you ask before you act. You also should ask permission before posting photos on social media.
When you return from your trip, you may have a new appreciation for your home and the comforts in your life. You also may feel impatient when those around you seem to take their blessings for granted. Some people describe a reverse culture shock of seeing their familiar surroundings in a new light. “You come home and have different priorities,” Draxler says. “You find yourself not focusing very much on yourself.”
It can be helpful to meet with your team to process these responses. After returning from Nepal, Makston invited his team members and their families to his house for dinner. They talked about what they had learned and shared stories. The team also became friends on Facebook with their scout, Sandesh. When an earthquake hit Nepal shortly after their trip, they were able to check on Sandesh and hear about the recovery efforts.
Spread the word about your experiences. Share your photos and offer to speak at your church. Consider how you can be a better neighbor at home—and perhaps start planning your next trip. “Capitalize on that changed feeling you have,” Jerstad says. Taking action in your community will help to keep the spirit of your trip alive.
To learn more about Thrivent Builds Worldwide and available trip destinations, visit ThriventBuilds.com/Worldwide.
Amy Merrick teaches journalism at DePaul University in Chicago. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker online and the Chicago Sun-Times.