Students on a Mission

by
Service Learning Manager, Maryknoll Lay Missioners

Rooted in faith and a desire to help others, mission trips afford students a unique opportunity: they combine passion and social justice, faith and exploration. Whether they involve building houses in rural areas of Mississippi or running a clinic in Uganda, missions have a huge impact on the people they serve--and on the missionaries themselves.

When you think of this journey, you might imagine groups trekking through the rainforest, bustling urban work sites, or even quiet Bible study meetings. Missions can be all of the above. They vary widely in scope and setting, depending on the group’s goals. But at their heart, missions are about serving a greater need, and doing so with faith.

How to get involved

The best way to get on board with a mission trip is by partnering with your college or university, or with a mission organization that serves the poor both in the United States and overseas. Mission-planning organizations are often instrumental in helping student groups embark on a mission. They do the prep work, then present it to the school or student group. The school or student organization provides the necessary funding. Mission organizations and participants must also work with the university’s risk management departments to cover liability. Some prominent examples include Catholic World Mission, Adventures in Missions, and Catholic Mission Trips. To choose the organization that best fits your needs and values, take the time to do some research and get to know their principles and goals.

And if your school does not offer any missionary work, it may have one or two (or 10!) volunteering organizations. Plus, there are plenty of nonprofits out there that welcome college students! Colleges and university students are a pretty ambitious bunch when it comes to volunteering, often deferring to “service learning,” where students engage in community service related to their academic studies. In fact, many schools offer credit for service learning, including Rivier College in Nashua, New Hampshire; St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa; and the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. Just as in missions, students can serve communities both locally and abroad. The Bonner Foundation honors college students who demonstrate a profound commitment to community service, and the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll is the highest recognition a college or university can receive regarding volunteerism.

How to prepare

Start your planning and preparation by investigating the culture, the specific ethnic groups you may encounter, and the current political, social, and economic reality of the area. Figure out what ministry options are available too.

While the mission planning organization will handle most of the logistical issues, you will still need to prepare in practical ways (researching what to pack, immunizations, travel documents, etc.). Missions require emotional preparation too. Missionaries and volunteers need to determine why they want to have this experience. What has led them to this point? What do they hope to discover or learn from their mission? How open are they to realities that are unknown and different? How flexible and patient are they? What type of support system will they need?

Praying and spiritual reflection should also be a part of the preparation. Missions are a deeply spiritual, even sacred, experience. When you encounter the world’s most destitute, think about grace and compassion. Think about your relationship with God and how he manifests Himself during you mission.

Benefits and challenges

Missioners and volunteers experience major cultural and spiritual growth, two of the greatest benefits of the work. You will learn about a different culture through art, music, dance, food, stories, rituals, and celebrations. You will learn through lectures, reflecting, and journaling, exploring themes such as education, health, ecology, women’s issues, children, and other sociocultural issues. And you will learn (before, during, and after your trip) a bit about language. You will have great opportunities to expand your vision of the world and your faith.

Some of the challenges missioners face include poverty, the possibility of violence, and the lack of resources, all depending on the location. The diverse peoples and cultures you encounter will likely be radically different from anything you’ve ever experienced before. It requires a great deal of observation and listening. Due to language barriers, communication can also be extremely challenging.

Cultural differences may leave missioners changed or even puzzled. Recently, a group of students came back from a mission to Chile (following the earthquake there in the spring of 2010). They became accustomed to greeting people with a kiss. Returning to the United States was hard for them in several ways, including feeling awkward when they addressed people.

Opening a door

Some missions are only about hands-on mission work, where people perform a service or complete a project for the poor. Other missions incorporate spending time with the locals to learn about them and the dignity they possess despite their material poverty. To really be of service, you should know the people and work with them, not for them. Developing a dialogue between the receiving group and the visitors is the key to achieving this.

You aren’t going to rebuild a society in a week or solve any of their major problems in such a short time. However, if the visitors of the “first world” can enter into an understanding and appreciation of the diversity of the other, a door to building a more tolerant world is opened. Short-term missions should provide awareness about communities and individuals who dedicate their talents to building a more just and compassionate world. It also opens the door to understanding the different realities the people of the world face—and the things we all have in common.

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