It was a warm and beautiful July day when I embarked on my first overseas mission trip. The agreeable weather presented perfect travel conditions for the two-hour drive to the airport, and provided ample time for myself and the rest of the mission team to ponder and converse about the five-weeks that lay before us. While we all had differing thoughts and views on how the trip would change and impact us, we were united on one fact: we were being called to step outside our comfort zones and embrace the unknown with courage and determination.
Our team of eight spent weeks and months of preparing for what would certainly be a life-changing experience for all of us. While I excitedly anticipated the day of our departure, that day was nonetheless filled with some apprehension at the reality of living life in a developing country, if even for a relatively short amount of time. The daily comforts of western culture – endless hot running water, toilets with modern plumbing, air conditioned facilities, and the like – were being left behind for uncertain and limited accommodations. In addition, there were the apprehensions of all the unexpected we would likely encounter in an unfamiliar culture.
Our mission was primarily spent in a small village working on a number of projects: repairs and updates to the clinic, missionary nurses’ homes, and local church; assisting the nurses with their daily clinic duties including baby deliveries; teaching Bible school lessons to the village children; and teaching sexual abstinence classes to teens and young adults.
The full-time missionary nurses spoke English so communication was effortless and uncomplicated, and they often served as our translators. However, as the village people and children only spoke their native tongue, and the nurses weren’t always available to translate, communicating with these beautiful people was likely going to be a challenge. Especially drawn to the children and longing to communicate with them, I so wished I could speak their language. How could I possibly communicate with these precious children?
Whether too young or too scared to attend, a little girl sat outside the church every day during Bible lessons, sad and despondent. I so desperately wanted to speak to her. To say something that might bring a smile to her face or generate some laughter. To share with her the Bible lesson that the other children were hearing. Snacks were given outside the church at the end of every day. While all the children eagerly awaited their handout of treats with excitement and delight, this little girl did not participate in the joyous event. On the final day of Bible lessons, she sat with her back up against the door jam. While handing out treats to some children nearby, our eyes crossed paths and locked on each other. I walked toward her, took her hand in mine, gently turned her hand upward, and put some treats in the palm of her hand. She paused for a moment before turning her eyes upward, her face glowing with a huge, beautiful smile. Breakthrough! I knew in that moment that I had touched her. I had communicated with her. A little act of kindness and love had broken our language barrier.
As Bible lessons were geared for the children, these were reserved for the daytime. This left the evenings for teaching sexual abstinence to the teens and young adults. However, this did not hinder the children from waiting outside the church (where we taught the classes) to greet us as we walked back to our housing complex. Night after night, we were greeted with hugs and smiles and laughter. We couldn’t speak their language nor they ours, but the exchange of hugs and smiles and laughter vanquished any language barrier there was among us. As one child took my hand in hers and we walked back toward our housing complex, I was struck by the powerful image that while no words were spoken between us, so much was said.
One evening during the sexual abstinence classes, I took a break while the rest of the mission team finished the lesson. It was about three weeks into the trip and I was feeling exhausted in all aspects: physically, emotionally, and mentally. Sitting outside the church I took a deep breath, soaking in the fresh, cool night air, and rested my head in my hands. Then, with little warning, the tears came. First, slowly and steadily, then heavily and liberally. I tried to fight the tears, but the intensity and duration of the trip had taken its toll on me, and all I could do was succumb to the exhaustion and tears. My body needed this release. My mind needed this reprieve.
Unaware that nearby stood a young adult from the village, likely waiting for classes to end so he could escort the younger teens back home, I was embarrassed that he had seen me in such a condition. But when our eyes met, I saw empathy in his eyes and knew, somehow, he felt my grief and distress. He understood my tears. I embarked on the trip concerned how I was going to communicate with people from a different culture, yet he was the one who, in that moment, had communicated with me.
Through these moments and experiences I learned a powerful and profound truth: there is no language barrier with love, laughter, or tears; these three are a universal language. In these, there is no language or cultural barrier. All people regardless of age or race or cultural upbringing understand and know the exchange of love, the joy of laughter, and the shedding of tears.
Since my trip to Ethiopia I have been on two other mission trips, both of which have taken me out of my comfort zone in similar yet different ways from my experience in Ethiopia, and which have likewise taught me life-changing lessons and forever changed me. Most significantly, I have learned through these experiences that stepping outside my comfort zone has rewards which far exceed any apprehensions or fears I may have.