Four brave adults and myself just took our church’s Youth Group on a mission trip to Sault Ste. Marie, Mi. The “Soo” is in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and right across the river from Canada’s version of the city. It is a LONG drive. We planned on twelve hours with stops, it took us sixteen. You actually end up in a completely different biosphere (using my newly acquired biology knowledge) and climate zone. At one point we noticed that our detour road had no lights except where the snowmobile trails crossed it. That and the “Caution Elk Crossing” sign clarified we were in the North country.
I found this today and started thinking about all the trips the youth group has undertaken. Five trips to five different cities in five different states. They never repeat, even if the previous trip had more memories than can be recounted in a two hour meeting. The group is always ready for the next place. They want to see the country they live in and it isn’t about the hot spots. They are looking for the places no one chooses to go. The real city that hides beneath the gloss of the Chamber of Commerce description. The teeming masses yearning to be free that the Statue of Liberty welcomes. The kids are looking for a place to have an impact, one that no one knows about beyond the sphere they live in.
I recently shared with them how unique they were in a society that is always looking for the payout. These kids never look for a payout. They are looking for the experience, the friendships, the moments of accomplishment. The intangibles that have no price tag. When I mentioned how unusual this was, true to form they looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. The “HUH?” look was mirrored from face to face. The kids never contemplated the idea of a material reward or that they should expect one for the work they did. They just loved doing it. A chance to put on the light gray shirt with the grinning sheep and head off on a week adventure that would test them physically by sleeping on air mattresses in rooms with no AC, test them mentally as they cut box after box of melons to feed hungry people, and emotionally as they encountered people who were grateful just to have someone notice them. That was the reward.
Ask a youth group member, past or present, to share their favorite memory from a mission trip. Some of the stories will match, but each member has a special moment from at least one trip, and usually one from every trip they attended. Some memories relate to the fun things we did between serving, but just as many of the memories will grab your heartstrings and bring tears to your eyes. Because these kids take off the blinders, put the rose-colored glasses aside and truly look at the community they are serving. And it changes them, creating people that I look forward to spending time with during the year, people that I know will work to make where they live and work a better place, people that understand there is no price tag on compassion.
If you were ever looking for a chance to experience life in its truest form, go on a mission trip with a group of teenagers. Immerse yourself in the world they live in for a week, with all the ups and downs that adolescence requires. See the people, places, and moments through their eyes. It will change your perspective. Every time I jump in a van with the big circle magnet that has that goofy sheep with the cross around its neck and the words “St. Michael’s Youth Group”, I know my life is going to shift. I know my viewpoint, my perspective will be impacted in ways I never imagined. I will store the memories and they will show up at the perfect time, like the best rendition of “September” I ever heard on the longest detour ever, or the opportunity to let a Yute know about the photo of us I treasure from a particular trip. When I have a moment that feels like all I do is fight the current, I remember cleaning a Salvation Army center or building new animal pens at a teaching farm. It tilts the balance back because I know those memories were all pebbles dropped in a pond that continue to ripple through-out the world.