When I was sixteen I went on my first missions trip to Los Angeles. One week in the City of Angels with a hoard of teens, our time was split between leaning various Christian mimes and helping out the Los Angeles dream center. The first was stupid, with kids dressed up in costumes, lunging about to the newest Carmen song. (Carmen the Christians singer, not Miranda) I was still a bit shy back then, so I didn't really volunteer for any of these. Nevermind that as interesting as some of them were, I thought they were a little stupid. I certainly don't recall any feelings of jealousy for not being involved. I learned a dance to 'Stomp' that we performed near the Chinese Theater, but being a white girl with very little hip hop prowess, I know I looked like a fool. Our work with the Dream Center was the highlight of my trip. We were shown the largest homeless tent city in the country. We were taken to help a man who owned a home in the Hollywood Hills who had been shot the year before and was unable to clean up his home for sale. We put on work gloves and rediscovered the tiers and stairs that surrounded his home. We also found a horrible termite problem that I still wonder about today, because I can't imagine it selling with that much issue. The last day we went to Disneyland, which was fantastic, although certainly not necessary. I stayed an additional two weeks in LA with my Great Aunt who gave me a real tour of the city and its many features.
Belfast, Northern Ireland
The next year, having had such a great experience and feeling like I had really done something important, I signed up for a trip to Northern Ireland. Now, I have thoroughly convinced myself that God had told me to go on this trip. Reality was that I had a brochure that listed all the trips this group went on and there were about twenty. So I already knew I was going on a trip therefore I had the very low odds of 1 in 20 that I would end up in Northern Ireland. A few weeks before the registration deadline came, a man from Northern Ireland came and visited our church specifically recruiting for this particular missions trip. I was sold....errr....I saw it as a sign from the Almighty. The trip was problematic from the beginning. When I arrived at the airport, there was no one to pick me up. I soon ran into a small band of similar "independent" travelers that were with the same group. Eventually, a pastor from another US church felt bad for us and was also there for a mission trip, so they just took us along with them. This was exceptionally kind of them, because it took us three days to track down anyone from our group and almost two weeks before we ran into them. So we were taken to a church in the heart of Protestant Belfast, where tensions between Protestants and Catholics were high. We didn't have pillows or sleeping bags for the cots so we had to go to the mall and buy blankets. Some of the parishioners were able to provide us with pillows and towels. We had been told we would be staying with families so we had not brought these things.
Because we were now joined with three youth groups who didn't know any of us, the eight of us became a little band. I was the spokesperson who advocated for the group, often speaking to the youth leaders about wanting to be more involved and needing for space to be made for us. That did happen. Eventually they did track down the leaders of the group we were supposed to be with who, for some reason, thought that we would magically find our way to them and assumed that we hadn't come when we didn't show up. Obviously, with there being eight people who didn't have that information, I'm pretty sure they were the ones who fucked up. We were more than a little pissed (as were our parents) when we finally got to meet them in person. Yet, if I had stayed with them, apparently I would have spent the whole time doing VBS in Ballymena. I can do VBS in the United States. That would have been shit. Instead I did face painting, and cleaned up the yard's of elderly, visited schools, and worked with at risk youth. I also learned what life is like in a war torn country. We were supposed to be there for 4 weeks. We left after 2 1/2. We knew it was time to go when the kids attacked a tank and then police came with uzis. Actually, we should have known before that when the schools started emptying out because the parents were sending them to country to be safe. We left the day that the police woke us up because they were ransacking the neighborhood next door at five in the morning, dragging people out of their flats by their hair and throwing them into paddy wagons. I saw children who had sat on my lap two days before, now scattering into the neighborhood, men with guns and clubs chasing after. It was horrible and fascinating all in the same breath.
New Zealand is one of the most gorgeous places I have ever been in my entire life. It was also the worst trip I have ever been on in my entire life. I was traveling with a group called Teen Mania, a group I don't mind naming because I think they are absolute fuckheads. I was twenty-one, graduated from college, living on my own, and signed up to be a missions leader. What I wasn't told was that here was actually a sort of trial to see if I had the right stuff to be a leader. The way they determined this was to see how excited you were about God as you learned a synchronized dance under a tent in Texas where it was 95 degrees in the shade. But it's a dry heat, right? I failed. I was not built for hot weather. Not only do I burn within minutes, but I also overheat easily. I need to remain constantly hydrated even though I barely sweat when I am hot. I just turn redder and redder to the point where I can't tell whether I have a sunburn or not. There was little relief and I found myself floundering as I tried to learn a dance that I was also not good at. So I was informed after 24 hours that I, at the age of twenty-one and already a retail manager, didn't have the right stuff to lead a handful of teens. My "leader" was two years younger than me and I was quickly treated like a teenager, which chafed me in all the wrong ways. Later I learned that this was actually typical since Teen Mania likes to promote from within, giving leadership deference to young college-age people who are in their Honor Academy. (ie an internship program in which they suck money out of the "students" in exchange for showing them how to be Godly) It also created a rift between me and the leaders my own age, since they now saw me as less than and other. There were only two people who didn't, both having arrived after the unfortunate tent-dancing-trial-by-sweat incident and didn't understand the whole leader thing (even though they were a part of it). Sadly, once we arrived in New Zealand they were put on other teams, on purpose, and things only got worse from there.
Remember, at this point I am being treated like the fourteen-year-olds on our trip. I have no responsibilities. I am not even allowed to go to the bathroom by myself. They put all sixty of us into four teams. Sixty was too many people. They didn't have enough for all of us to do. Team A did a lot of work at local schools. New Zealand has a really high suicide rate per capita, that team was working with schools to help create and promote programs that will give young people hope, education, and a future. Team B was doing similar work, but was helping to set up a skateboarding competition up on the tip of the North Island near the Bay of Islands. Very cool work that we got to go see once everything was finished. Team C got to perform the dance number we were taught throughout the city and shared their testimonies with people. They were even featured on the news. And Team D? My team? Well, they had run out of things for us to do. So for a month, my team was dropped off at various shopping centers and malls and forced to prosthelytize to strangers.
The first time they said this is what we were going to do, I balked a bit, but kind of tried. The second day it happened, I stepped back a bit. Within a few days I outright refused to be a part. I would force my group to leave me in the food court, promising I would do intercessory prayer for them, but I wasn't going to tell complete strangers in the mall about Jesus. Yes, this does mean that I spent most of my time in New Zealand, one of the most beautiful countries in the world, hanging out in malls. Word soon got back to my leaders about my obstinance and "bad attitude". They threatened to call my parents, which made me wonder if they had somehow forgotten how old I was. They had. When they did call my parents my mom was like, "Why in the world are you calling us? She lives on her own, she's an adult, she can drink and vote, is a manager at her work, and if you have a problem with her, I suggest you talk to her." It was at this point that they threatened to send me home. I told them I had $1500 in my bank account and it was illegal for them to keep my passport, and I would leave when I wanted to. It was at this point that someone started spreading around that I was twenty-one, not a teenager like everyone thought I was. Someone let me drive one of the buses, which helped me feel like I was actually doing something and being treated like an adult. It was a small thing, but it really did go a long way.
Then I got sick. Of course, I tried to power through. But I was miserably ill. I probably needed to see a doctor. Instead I got prayed over. I completely lost my voice due to coughing and was coughing so hard I was vomiting. I bought a water bottle that I could prop up and suck on through the night so that I could sleep. Finally, I informed them that I just couldn't go out. I needed to stay "home" and rest. At first they tried to guilt me into going. "You know if you stay someone else is going to have to stay with you? And they will miss out." When I refused, they then told me that God would heal me if I just had enough faith. Considering I had been really ill for days now, I didn't see that happening. So I stamped my foot so hard that everyone within hearing distance heard me (I lost my voice so I couldn't shout) and I hissed out, "No. I am staying here." I proceeded to spend the next two days in bed with a fever, sleeping the entire time. I didn't get better until I returned home and saw a doctor. Sadly, I also gave this mysterious New Zealand flu to my roommate who, to this day, says it is the sickest she has ever been. Interesting thing of note: My brother actually met the girl who had to stay with me for those two days. When she found out we were related, she immediately expressed her sympathy for me and said, "Your sister was so very sick. They didn't treat her very well either." So I wasn't imagining that, huh?
I should also mention at this point that, despite the trip costing several thousand dollars, most of which I paid for myself through working, our meals were shit. We were actually required to pack peanut butter and jelly in our suitcases from Texas. And then we had a team that would make the sandwiches every morning and hand them out with an apple. You have got to be shitting me? I spent nearly $7000 to eat peanut butter and jelly every day for lunch? I don't recall anyone even asking about allergies although I hope to the gods they did. Our breakfast was okay and our dinners were a mixed bag, but every day for a month I was expected to eat a peanut and jelly sandwich. Lucky me they kept dropping us off at malls. While my team was out witnessing to people, I would get something from the food court and scarf it down. No one ever said anything to me so either they didn't know or didn't care. And yes, I was using my own money, so spending even more on a trip when I shouldn't have had to. Also, I should point out that only a few years before I had gone on a student ambassador trip (not listed here because it wasn't a missions trip) where I traveled to four different countries over a 3 1/2 week period. We stayed at four star hotels, with host families (who were paid), traveled via plane, bus, & boat, visited every museum, and ate amazing food every day. We ate at the Pope's Wine Cellar in Hungary. But I pay three times that to go to NZ and what I get instead is cereal and yogurt for breakfast, brown bag lunches, and cafeteria food dinners. I've tried pricing the trip out now if I were to travel there, including things like renting a car, hotel costs (at a decent place, not an empty summer camp for at risk teens), and food and there is no way it should have cost that much. By my calculations I could, right now, fly to NZ, stay at a highly rated bed & breakfast with a free continental breakfast, do all the touristy things we did (Auckland city center, Rotorua, Bay of Islands), and eat for just over $6000. Obviously, my money was going to pay for other people's trips and lining someone else's pockets.
At the end of the trip, some sixteen-year-old brat named Dallon claimed he was healed from color-blindness. I was the only person who thought he was lying, which made me question the depth of my faith. These days, I am sure he was a liar. I don't think he was ever color blind. Gods, I wanted to strangle his smug little neck as he pretended to see rainbows for the first time. When I tell people about my trip to New Zealand now, I usually lie. I say I was on a humanitarian trip that was working with at-risk youth and we did some sightseeing. I tell people about Auckland, and Rotorua, and the Bay of Islands because they were the only places I went. A month in New Zealand and I walked away with more clothes from the mall then I did good memories.
Dominican Republic #1
My first visit to the Dominican Republic felt promising. We wanted to work with Haitian Refugees as the earthquake had just happened, but we weren't allowed into Haiti. We also wanted to do health clinics and build water purification systems. That is something I could get behind. Real work helping real people in a tangible way. The trip itself was heartbreaking. The conditions that the refugees were living in was shocking. They were so incredibly desperate. I've never seen anything like it.
The main problems lay with our leaders. There were five of us. Two married couples and me. Obviously, I had been on a number of mission trips and so I had experience. Same for the older married couples. The young couple, *Terri and her husband *Jason, were such anal retentive fuckheads who if anything seemed abnormal, they started to freak out, especially Terri. The one thing I have learned from my experiences in life is that nothing that requires this level of organization ever goes according to plan. These people simply were not rolling with the punches. Then we had *Bob and his wife *Kendra. Kendra is the sweetest person you will ever meet, which helps balance out the fat fuck who is her husband. *Bob would sometimes disappear (even though we were told to never go off alone) and reappear with snacks or a soda. We would be outside working on a water filtration unit and Bob would be in the air-conditioned bus doing nothing. If questioned, he said he was talking to the bus driver. You know, the one that speaks four words in English. We were handing out shoes to kids at the health clinic and Bob is sitting in the corner fanning himself. I have photographic evidence of this. Now, let's be clear that when we set up this trip Bob had no interest in going to the Dominican. None. He made it very clear that he wanted to go back to one of the places he had been on a trip to and didn't see much reason to go to the Dominican.
My other issue was that once again, no one would listen to me. See, I speak Spanish. Not fluently, but well enough to have decent conversations about basic subjects. I had been speaking Spanish to the locals the entire time I was there. Everyone heard me. Yet, when I asked for directions or spoke with someone and then relayed that information to the group, they never believed me. This came to a head at the airport on the way home when we weren't sure which checkpoint to go through, so I just asked a man at the gate. No one would listen to me. They spent the next twenty minutes wandering around the airport, while I stood beside the ticket agent, arms crossed, wondering if this would be the thing that would finally drive me insane. The ticket agent was amused by their stupidity and by that point I was so done. I spent the entire flight home not talking to any of them. I even left them behind in the airport.
I also took issue with the fact that we spent only about 3-4 hours of our day doing work and the rest was spent back at the hotel relaxing by the pool. People treated it like it was a vacation where we spent a few hours each morning handing out medicine. Again, even as an adult there was no freedom and I was forced to go to the beach, which I hate, because I couldn't convince anyone to go into the city and wasn't allowed to go by myself.
The plus side of this trip was that we helped install a water filtration unit at a church and an orphanage owned by that church. We were able to build some much-needed connections.
Dominican Republic #2
I don't know why I went again. Somehow, I convinced myself that this trip would be better, especially if I wasn't a leader. So off I went sans any responsibility. On the plus side, since we had made connections the first year, we were able to better organize our trip. We stayed in the same place, worked with the same orphanage (which we had now bought a building for). This year, I had a mission though. When we visited the first year I noticed the serious lack of books at the orphanage and in homes. So I had my classmates in my children's writing master's program along with co-workers at my bookstore, help donate books in Spanish. I managed to collect almost 160 books which I hauled down in my carry-on. Screw a change of clothes, I was bringing knowledge.
My group did not get it. Instead they brought Beanie Babies, Barbies, and glow sticks. I want to point out right now that so many groups come to this area of the Dominican that they are very used to random Americans showing up and giving them free stuff. They get free stuff all the time and they aren't very kind about it either, because they know the stuff runs out. In my experience telling them to line up was useless. If I pulled out balloons (I can do a variety of balloon animals and objects), I was immediately mobbed. I had to make balloon animals over my head, avoiding the grabbing hands and the press of bodies as they tried to take them. Sometimes fights broke out and the balloon would pop. And if you think it was all children, you would be wrong. So year two, I thought I would bring something these people actually needed. Books.
Fat fuck Bob, still a leader, was so ridiculously against it that I considered not going. By that point I had already begun to collect books though, so against my better judgment I went. The day we went to the orphanage, Bob spent most of the morning ignoring and avoiding me. I had the books ready to hand out, but he kept delaying it and acting like there just wasn't time. We spent hours with the kids doing crafts and puppet shows and eating a lunch together, but still no room to hand out books. Finally, right before we left, I was allowed to give them out. One book for each kid and a pile to the teachers. The teachers cried and the children grinned. My group had already gotten on the bus so they didn't get to witness any of this.
I handed out the rest of the books at our final health clinic that week. The crowds had died down, but there were still a handful of kids and so I started handing out books. "For me?" they asked, cradling the books in their arms. Then they took them to other people in my group and asked for them to read it. Most of my group didn't speak Spanish, but the children loved it as they tried to read Cat in the Hat and Leo the Lion. Loved it. And it was then, on the last day of our trip that my group finally got it. Even Bob. Afterward, they told me as much. They thought it was stupid because books are heavy and beanie babies are not, but that the looks on their faces when they got those books. The pure joy at putting their names in them. One kid ran home to tell his mom and she came back to thank us. No one ever thanked us for beanie babies. I'm glad they finally got it, but it upset me that it took such a response for them to understand the important and value of an education and the tools needed for it.
I didn't go the next year. I knew I had had enough of Bob. Enough of these people who went on one trip once a year to make themselves feel better and have as much understanding of third-world poverty as they do the pre-colonial history of Mumbai. They still go too. Every year, although they have now added Kazakhstan (where Bob wanted to go originally) and Kenya. And as far as I know, they are still taking kids those damned beanie babies. Although to be fair, they also financially support the orphanage and have a very close relationship with the church and halfway house down in the Dominican too.
*names changed for the sake of not wanting people to hunt down these fuckheads
This is a personal, but secret, blog archiving my deconversion from a Christian to a non-believer.