Make a life-changing visit

Cross-cultural and service trips can transform the traveler
August 31, 2003

The following is excerpted from Jan Johnson's book "Growing Compassionate Kids" (Upper Room Books, 2001).

HOW WOULD YOU LIKE to take a vacation that would change you, your children or grandchildren forever? You'd never be the same, because you'd have a more loving heart for God and for God's people.

The McGinnis family of St. Louis saw this happen when they took a trip to Nicaragua and stayed with a family there. "There's nothing like that immersion experience into another culture to help children see that not everyone lives [like the folks on television]," says Jim McGinnis.

On their trip, then-15-year-old Theresa McGinnis bonded with 13-year-old Elizabeth, the daughter of the Nicaraguan family. Before they left, Elizabeth gave one of the only two shirts she owned to Theresa as a present. Overwhelmed by Elizabeth's love and generosity, Theresa knew she never could match such a gift. But she pulled out of her suitcase one of the nine shirts she'd brought with her and gave it to Elizabeth anyway. Jim notes, "A kid remembers this forever."

Above: Theresa McGinnis (far right, green shirt) with new Nicaraguan friends. Below: Danielle Baker, right, couldn't resist holding the babies.


Providing firsthand, cross-cultural experiences for children and grandchildren makes a difference more than anything else you can do. These experiences foster relationships. Familiarity doesn't always breed contempt -- it often breeds acceptance and respect.

Such exposure trips change the way you see God, too. While covering a story in the Dominican Republic for a week, I discovered the rich experience of bonding with someone who looks and sounds nothing like me. Even though we didn't speak each other's languages well, we dressed drastically differently and we ate foods the other thought were ... let's say "strange," there was a kinship. It changed me forever. I personally knew folks doing without food, clean water, schooling and medical help. They were not statistics -- they were Gina and Pablo and Maria.

And if these wonderfully different people believe in Christ as you do, a ping goes off in your head that says: "God is real. Christ lives. Christianity wasn't invented by people at my church. God touches all people on this planet."

When American families travel to other countries for vacations, they "often act as though foreigners are their servants, that any inconvenience is intolerable and that beggars and lame people on the street are to be photographed," writes missions pastor Paul Borthwick of Lexington, Mass., in his book "A Mind for Missions." To avoid that attitude, it helps to be interested in the culture and an asker of questions. Here are some ways to do that.

Organizations such as Parenting for Peace and Justice sponsor alternative family vacation and travel seminars. Ken and Gretchen Lovingood of Santa Barbara, Calif., took their three grandchildren on one of these tours to Jamaica. Says Gretchen, "It was 50-50. We did tourist activities and exposure activities. Our 8-year-old grandson noticed they were driving on the 'wrong' side of the road. We told him, 'This is the right side here.' One of our teen-agers wanted 'real' food. We teased her and said, 'This is "real." To say this isn't real food is an insult.' That helped us explain to our grandchildren that things are different but not wrong."

The Lovingoods stayed with Jamaican families, but they also visited tin-roof shacks with no plumbing. Gretchen describes visiting a settlement house (or orphanage): "It was at the edge of a slum. As Danielle (our then-14-year-old granddaughter) walked by the nursery, she saw a baby crying and picked up the baby to hold it. She didn't care about his surroundings or even if she was supposed to pick him up. All she cared about was the fact that he cried and needed comfort. It was good to be able to talk about these experiences together."

You can mix fun with a visit to a mission enterprise. The way to "truly encounter the secrets of the land and its people is to serve them," according to Dale Painter of Newaygo, Mich. Writing in "Discipleship Journal," he suggests incorporating volunteer service into your vacation itinerary, claiming it "can transform an ordinary excursion into a deeply meaningful travel adventure."

The Painter family members spent part of their vacation on a Zuni reservation, where they tutored students, assisted in janitorial projects, helped program computers and wrote grant proposals.

"No AAA tour book could have led us into such an intriguing cultural experience," Dale says. He describes being allowed to make the hike up a cliff to a sacred mesa and seeing ancient petroglyphs on the way. This is where "thousands of Zunis fled to escape the conquistadors. Many such mission-oriented vacations offer insider information and moments not usually open to visitors.

Here are some guidelines suggested by Dale Painter:

Decide what part of the country you'd like to visit. Get out the maps. Fantasize. What about that dream to live with the Amish? Or places you've seen in travelogues or in National Geographic? Maybe it's a place you've already visited, but you long to experience it from the inside.

Take inventory of your skills, interests and talents. Don't limit your assessment to your professional skills -- often a change of pace from employment-related duties is important. Manual skills or interests in gardening, building, the outdoors or writing may represent valuable resources to service organizations.

Decide how much of your vacation you're going to volunteer. Even service ventures that last only a few hours can produce meaningful experiences and be deeply appreciated.
Evaluate how your children fit into your plans. What projects can they get involved in? Which settings appeal to their interests and sense of adventure?

Consider traveling with a local youth group as a driver or chaperone. Everything is already planned. All you need to do is follow along.

Contact organizations that connect people with projects needing volunteers.

Dream a little. What would you and your family enjoy doing if time and money weren't the constraints that they are? Most people agree that visiting a developing country changes you for life. You come home with real images in your mind: kids sharing beds; a home with cardboard walls; wires hanging from the ceiling with one light bulb powered by an extension cord stretched from another building. When you hear someone say that God supplies all our needs, you think a little harder about all that entails. You are more eager to give money because you've seen the people's needs and the missionary's work. You have a new sense of partnering with God to bring good news to the world.