4 essentials to unpacking your trip overseas

Too often I see people come back from mission trips or overseas experiences with no idea how to process all they’ve seen and been through. After participating in and leading mission teams, I’ve found these four essentials to be extremely helpful when returning home.

1 – Avoid word-vomit.

Coming home completely unprepared to process your trip can lead to a lot of word-vomit. I’ve seen team members return and bombard everyone with an hour-long saga of all their feelings—leaving the guy on the way to the bathroom shivering in the corner, regretting his offhanded ask of how they’re doing.

Here’s the key: come back with three answers to the question, “How was your trip?”  

Answer number one should be one word.  

Yes, I want you to sum up your 1 week, 2 month, 3 year excursion in one word.  This will be the answer you give the majority of people who ask as they brush passed you in the hallway.  It’s not that they don’t care, but they might not understand enough about your experience to want to ask.

Answer number two should be one to three sentences—something that sums up your experience and gives people the opportunity to ask more questions if they want.  Depending on your friends and family, you might have 10 to 20 people who want the full sentence and less that ask for more.

Answer number three is the big one.  Find one to three people who want to listen to all the details and help you really dig in and process.  If you find more than three that’s incredible. But I’m telling you right now that’s not usually the case.  Often these are the people who are well-traveled themselves and know what it’s like to have your world shaken.

2- Don’t feel guilty.

I once heard a story about a guy, we’ll call him Greg, who served overseas.  On returning to the States he was overwhelmed with guilt at the possessions he owned.  He ended up giving away everything he had and living in a tent in the backyard.

While I in no way want to limit what the Lord is calling you to do, don’t give away everything out of guilt.  Greg now has no sustainable way of helping people in poverty and has lost his voice.  How many people are going to listen to a guy in a tent shouting at them to give up all they have?  Often what people in poverty need is for someone to use the power they’ve been given in the US to speak up for them.

I’ve never met someone overseas who says, “I want to move to America so I can live in a tent.”  No one is blaming you for having a roof over your head, clean water and more than one shirt.  Those in the majority world want some of the security you have, so how can you best help them? Giving up some of your possessions and cutting back on your spending is completely legitimate and probably necessary. Just remember, God placed you where you are for a reason, so thank Him and ask Him how you can best help those around you. 

3- Don’t make others feel guilty.

This has been the hardest section to write because it’s so easy to make others feel guilty—I constantly find myself slipping up in this area (whether intentionally or unintentionally).  Speaking up for the poor is a Biblical command—God couldn’t be more clear about that one. At the same time, it’s important to distinguish what’s speaking up for the poor, and what’s beating down those around you.

Remind yourself that guilt is rarely a vehicle for long-term change or support. While you could pressure someone into giving money, if they’re not giving with their whole heart, then their gift isn’t really a gift and all and their support will wean over time. 

Tell stories about the people you’ve met and the experiences you’ve had. Try to make your community realize the individuals you’ve gotten to know are people, not statistics. But, don’t condemn others because they haven’t been given the same opportunities to understand poverty as you have. 

4- It’s okay to not be okay.

After spending two months in the Philippines I came back to the States and felt overwhelmed by large groups.  I started crying in a sea of 300 at our college ministry and had to leave the church. Most of my memories of that semester are sitting by myself, snuggled up next to my radiator.

And I needed that. I needed time to process, to figure out all I had seen, and to learn to live in a world—that for me—had been greatly expanded. 

Each of my team members handled the return to the States in a different way. Some didn’t struggle at all, while some were wedged between me and the radiator. It didn’t mean that the trip meant more to some of us than others. And it definitely didn’t mean there was something wrong with me for processing differently. I had to learn to cut myself some slack and so do you. 

Reminding yourself that it’s okay to not be okay, can sometimes be the thing that frees you up to move forward.