“Have you ever been afraid to go on a mission trip, or has it always just come easy to you?”
That was the question I was recently asked by a friend of mine who didn’t know me in my early years of crossing cultures.
I’LL TELL YOU WHAT I TOLD HER – If you consider holding your breath because the people sitting around you in a dirty, confined space are coughing and you’re afraid you’ll breathe in some undiscovered airborne disease and die and never again see your 2 preschoolers you left behind in the States with their grandparents; if you consider not sleeping at night because a mosquito is flying around your head and if it stops buzzing you’re certain it landed on you and its bite is inoculating you with some bacteria that is untreatable, again resulting in your children being orphaned; if you’re afraid to eat the food, breathe in the unidentifiable smell, terrified to shake sweaty hands, or overreact at the sight of insects you’ve never seen – then YES, I HAD A LITTLE FEAR ON MY FIRST TRIP OVERSEAS!
I’m certain that the run-on-sentence above may seem overdone, but that’s exactly the type of mental hyperventilation that took place in my head on my first mission trip. All my thoughts seemed to collide with every emotion I had never felt.
First experiences overseas are both mission exhilarating and mentally exhausting.
You are emotionally intoxicated by a new adventure, spiritually charged to be part of God’s mission, and mentally drained by sensory overload.
If you’re crossing cultures for the first time, know this:
1. Your fears are normal.
While your fears feel incredibly personal, I promise that others have traversed this path before you. It’s an initiation of crossing cultures and you, too, will learn to lean on God in a new way. You may find yourself thinking that you are a weak disciple for feeling the way you do. That’s a lie. Nothing creates a need to rely on the Holy Spirit more than an awakening to our own weaknesses. Name your fear and let God meet you there.
2. Some of your feelings are legit.
Partly, you’re jet-lagged and rest will dissolve much of what you’re feeling. But, also, you’re disoriented. You feel a loss of control for many reasons- you can’t navigate transportation, you don’t understand the language, and you have no clue what the next toilet will look like. Pull away for an hour, get some rest, but don’t isolate. And do drink some bottled water.
3. Culture-shock won’t kill you.
Culture shock is disorientation due to a disruption of your normal thinking and routine that results in frustration and often a feeling of “get me the heck out of here!” Your brain and emotions are in overdrive as they search for a way to catalog all your new experiences. Untangle your feelings by journaling, comfort yourself by eating that candy bar you packed, and be honest with your team about your struggle. Recognize that you may have come to create change in other people, and yet God is changing you.
4. Think one day at a time.
Resist counting down the days you have remaining until you get back home to your tall-cinnamon-dolce-latte. Instead, think in small quantities of time. Ask God, “What do you want me to experience TODAY that is part of your world?”
5. Remember that God is enlarging your worldview.
While it might feel like anxiety overload, your spiritual heart is actually expanding. Cross-culture experiences stretch your global awareness allowing your heart to expand and embrace the people of the world that God loves. Trust that He is at work in them; and trust that he’s at work in you, too.
Your first cross-culture experience might seem like the best worst experience all wrapped up in one. You may find yourself ready to get home! And then once home, you’re ready to go back again.