For nearly 30 years, I made an annual mission trip. But it wasn’t just any mission trip. I went to a variety of places, sometimes returning to the same location. I never went with anyone from the church I was serving, though. In fact, some people did not understand why I called it a mission trip, because I always went as a Navy Chaplain who was serving the men and women who serve our country. But I always thought of it as a mission trip when I left for my two weeks of annual training in the Navy Reserves because I was going as a representative of the church carrying the message of grace to people in a different location. I made my last trip in 2009.
Ever since, I have sought an opportunity to bring people with me, or to join others as they went on their own mission trips. That is why I was so excited to participate in our Sager-Brown trip over Spring Break. It was unique for me in a variety of ways. First, I did not go alone. This time there were 14 people who made the trek to Baldwin, Louisiana together, including a few people from another church (First UMC, Wichita). Not only that, but I did not pack my uniforms this time, although we did have special T-Shirts that set our team apart from the others. And, thanks in large part to our team leader, Dave Glover, I was not the pastor or chaplain of the team, I was a team member, doing the same work everyone else did.
At the same time, it was very much like many of my experiences with the Navy. We didn’t know exactly what we would be doing when we arrived. And I had to wear shoes other than my sandals. (Ugh.) We ate common meals with the others who were there. (We were one of 7 different teams from a variety of places, some teams were larger, some smaller. In total, there were 70 volunteers on campus!) Like my experience with the Navy, there were many, many mundane tasks that needed to be accomplished. And, if we were looking, there were amazing insights and what many people call God-sightings.
In many ways, our experience was more akin to my experiences at church camp than my time with the Navy. When I was a Navy Chaplain, I always preached about my experience on the Sunday I returned. This time, there will be a presentation during the Sunday School hour when we make the next Mission Presentation in May. Our team members bring home shared memories that will bind us together for many years to come. There are stories that will find their way into conversations over the next few weeks and months, I’m sure.
And that leads to one of the most profound observations Ronda and I made. We tried to sit with members of the other teams during meal time. We introduced ourselves and asked them to introduce themselves. But most of the conversation that happened was related to their church or setting. We were left out. It wasn’t intentional, but they knew each other’s stories and were more interested in the people they knew than the new people at the table.
We tried to break into the conversation, but we soon realized it is really hard to make room for a new person in a group. My hope is that Ronda and I at least, learned to watch for that tendency when our group starts to tell an inside joke about sponges, for example.
It’s a lesson maybe we all need to work on whenever we see visitors in church!