After over 6 years “in the field” and 4 of them as a family of more than two we get to see and experience a lot with our visitors. In the whole time that Chris and I have been married I can’t think of a time when we’ve had a poor experience with guests at the mission, but I think part of that is because we’ve put the work into designing a good guest program of sorts. We have a guide that our Vision Trippers get before they arrive for a week so they know how things work, what is helpful, what is harmful etc. For visitors that pop up on the calendar for a night or two here and there we have more one on one time to share our hearts so essentially the same things are communicated.
One thing that I think is safe to say is that most people, when coming in to spend time at an organization like ours, want to be a blessing and not a burden. They want to contribute in a positive way and know that when they go home things have ended on a good note.
So, from the missionary perspective, what are some things that can help make that happen? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. The truth is, I just looked at our calendar for the year and so far 7 of 12 months have at least one week of guests of some sort at the mission. Often our schedule fills up more as the months go on. We’ve literally gone through three month periods with the longest stretch without company being 5 days.
I think this is a good place to say that we really do enjoy having people here. It gives us a chance to meet new people and to share about what we do – something we’re passionate about. That’s fun and exciting. But, at the same time it can be exhausting. Not only are we a young family, but we have to keep things running at the same pace as they do without guests, but with guests our attention is divided. We want to make sure our visitors have a good experience and get to see the full scope of what we do, while our workers still get the part of us that they need to make things run well. It’s a bit of a juggling act.
So what can guests do to be supportive of the missionaries that they’ve come to support? I think there are a lot of things that may seem small to you, but can speak volumes to those of us that do this full time.
1. Ask how you can help. This seems small, but it can be big. I know that most everyone that comes wants to know how they can help on a project level, but what about the other things? Maybe it means helping to clear the table or do dishes after. Maybe it means entertaining a child while your hosts cook a meal. Maybe it means peeling potatoes or setting the table. When you leave, something as simple as stripping your bed and piling your towels for washing can be helpful and time saving.
2. Know they need some time alone. Our day starts early with getting our family up and moving and our workers on task. From there we’re getting food ready to feed everyone and so on and so on. By the time 7:30 pm rolls around it’s very normal for us to be feeling wiped out and for Chris and I to realize we’ve hardly had a chance to talk to each other. We need face to face time, our kids need their parents for some sort of normalcy. The biggest thing you can do is not feel offended if your hosts let you know that they’re ready to turn in. It’s not that they wouldn’t enjoy visiting more, it’s often a case of knowing they still have things to take care of and they need to get a full nights sleep so they can be “on” again first thing in the morning. Right now our family is young and it’s not abnormal for me to be up several times in the night. While I can manage that fairly well when I get going, it can add an extra layer to the day. Our kids have a bedtime routine, and when we break that too many times in one week, our whole family feels “off”. Things like helping a family in the field keep a sense of normalcy while your visiting is a HUGE help.
3. Don’t just give things to kids. We know that visitors love to give gifts as a blessing, and this is especially true with our kids. The thing is, when we have visitors at least once a month, you can imagine what happens. Our kids are always being given things. What happens from there is that they come to expect it anytime we have visitors, and other times where Mom and Dad give things, like birthdays and Christmas, become less special. We want our kids to grow up with a healthy attitude about gifts and giving and receiving. An important part of this is asking the parents, in private, if you can give their kids a specific thing. When you ask with the kids present, it’s the parents that have to be the bad guys if they say no thank you for whatever reason. That can lead to upset kids, etc. You get the picture. Go easy on your hosts and talk to them privately about anything you’d like to give their kids so they don’t have to deal with the added stress of the meltdown. Often we’ll have people bring things in for our family. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ll wait until Olivia is at school or in bed before I open the bags because I know there are things that I might not want her to see right away, but rather want to give her at a better time. It’s about being intentional and mindful. In this I would even include the tiny, little things – literally. Things like friendship bracelets, craft stuff, stickers… It’s all really nice, until you’re the one that has to pick it all up and find a place for it to live. Sigh.
4. Ask BEFORE you leave it. I think this is a big one too. Again, often well intended, people leave things behind that they think might be of use. However, if it’s not something we need, we need to figure out what to do with it. If you ask if the particular thing you want to leave is useful it’s much appreciated. We can probably use a bottle or two of sunscreen, but not a dozen. Hand sanitizer. Mosquito repellent… again, you get the idea. It can be a lot of work cleaning up after a group when you have to also sort and decide where things are going to go. A recent good example of this is our friend Lori’s medical/dental team that came in. Before they packed things up for the clinic they asked Sheena and I what medical and dental supplies we needed at the mission and told us to “go shopping”. We were able to grab the specific items that we knew our families or the mission in general could use. I restocked our first aid kit, got a bunch of anti-biotics and other useful things. It was great.
5. Take time to listen. The people you are visiting are a wealth of information about the country, life as a missionary, the culture and what it’s like to live there. Be sensitive to their experiences. Something we often hear is “Don’t you just LOVE living here?” Um, yes and no. Like living anywhere there are good things and there are hard things. We’re away from our families, we miss our friends and miss out on a lot of experiences back home. On the flip side we know we are being obedient to the call that God has given us. It can be hard though, and there are times where we want to go home. And yet home is multiple places all at once. We love to talk about life here but we realized that not everyone wants to hear the realities of it. When a visitor comes for a week they’re looking at things through different lenses. Things are all fresh and new and interesting and everyone is amazing. Things taste wonderful or disgusting. The sweat and bugs are a novelty. When all of those things grind away at you on a daily basis, it loses it’s charm. When you strip away the initial layers, the rosiness of it all, you are left with the reality. And sometimes reality isn’t what we want it to be. It means that sometimes you can’t get away from the heat and bugs and annoyances with trying to do simple tasks. It means not everyone is fun and nice and amazing. Not everything is novel and exciting, but rather, in most cases, just your norm. Talk to the people you’re visiting about the hard things. Don’t assume they love it just because it’s all new to you. You don’t love every bit of your life back home. Ask them how you can pray for them. Listen to their stories because they layers of their experiences can give you an insight into the real aspects of where you’re visiting. Ask what they think are good ways to do good in the country, and then think about how you can apply that to your own perspective. I can guarantee you that missionaries and cross-cultural workers see a lot of mistakes and can give you a lot of examples. Your idea probably isn’t original and probably won’t be the exception to the rule. Be a learner.
6. Take them home with you. When you leave and head back to your “real life” we are still here living ours. We’re, as I said, away from friends and family and our church networks – our very support base. It’s always nice to hear from guests when they return home. It makes us feel like less of a “stop over” and more a part of people’s lives. If you learned something specific, share that. Pray for us and let us know. If you feel led to pray for something specific, let us know. You never know when your sharing might be the words that God wants to speak to our hearts because of a trying time or discouragement. Share the lives of the people you meet with your friends and family and church, even if it’s informally. If you want to do something tangible, find out how you can help with financial needs. Most of the people we know, like our family, raise their own finances to be doing what we do, we don’t get paid to do it. What missionaries receive in regular support is often much lower than an average family of the same size would be expected to live on, and it’s often sporadic. Find out what the specific needs of a family are and pray about how you can help with that. It doesn’t have to be a lot. I know a lot of people in the field that would love to know they could count on a donation of even $25/month. Maybe there are specific needs that you decide you want to help with, like getting your care group together to help with missionary kid school fees. Stuff like that can make a world of difference for people serving in the field.
This list could be exhaustive, and would definitely change depending on who you talk to. These are just some things that I think are worth thinking about. I hope it helps. I hope it gets you thinking. I would love to hear thoughts from other missionaries or cross-cultural workers too.