I recently returned home from a mission trip where I was one of seven adult chaperones for a group of nineteen high school juniors and seniors. We traveled to Detroit, Michigan; specifically the southwest neighborhoods. My church does these trips each summer with the teens and this was my first time accompanying the sojourners.
The genesis for my going was my oldest child was scheduled to take part. He will enter his senior year of high school this fall and this was to be his first mission trip outside of our home state of Wisconsin. Unfortunately, a day before we were scheduled to leave he became ill and doctor’s orders keep him home. I was conflicted about whether I should still go or not and ultimately decided the right thing to do was honor my commitment. So off I went to safeguard and be a role model for nineteen young men and women from my parish family, leaving the one young man from my biological family behind. I admit, I was a little salty the first day or so. I was caught up in the unfortunate turn of events that would lead to me spending Father’s Day and my wedding anniversary away from home. Eventually, and by the grace of God, I got over myself and made the conscious decision to be completely present and engaged in the experience. And I am so glad I did.
The trip was a much needed diversion from my “regular life” fraught with my own desires, trials and tribulations, and so-called urgencies. I found it very comforting and centering to have built-in time for prayer and meditation each day. And now, back at home well rested and sleeping in my own comfy bed again, I reflect on what the experience meant to me and how it will impact me moving forward. So here is a list of four things I learned from the mission trip–listed in no particular order.
Be sure you have the right tool for the job.
Do you remember the Spike Lee Nike commercials from the late 1980’s? Lee’s character, Mars Blackmon, helped sell a lot of Air Jordan shoes with the slogan, “It’s gotta be the shoes!” Sometimes the right piece of equipment can make all the difference. On our way east from Southeastern Wisconsin to Detroit, we stopped on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan at Warren Dunes State Park for a picnic lunch and stretch break. It is a beautiful park with spectacular views of the lake and a majestic dune formation rising 260 feet above the water. Naturally, the dune enticed many of the teens who felt compelled to climb it. Some were successful at making it to the top and others were not. What was the biggest contributing factor keeping some from reaching the pinnacle? “It’s gotta be the shoes!” Full of excitement and eager to run after having been cramped in a van for a couple hours, many of the teens began their ascent without their shoes. Those of you who remember your school science lessons know that sand has a lower specific heat than, say, water. This means that sand changes temperature more quickly. The bright summer sun caused the sand to be too hot for many to tolerate. Set motivation and skill aside, without the right planning and equipment you may not reach the apex of your goals. My grandfather used to call it “having the right tool for the job.” An important leadership and life lesson is to take a pause, set your bearings, and make sure you set yourself up to be successful.
Relationship outdoes rules.
As you can imagine, chaperoning a group of teens on a week-long trip requires its fair share of rules and regulations. For example, everyone has a job to do each day such as cleaning up after meals; lights out at 11:00 p.m. (the adults need their sleep); and absolutely no cell phones allowed in the sleeping quarters. Needless to say, the rules were a little difficult for the teens to adhere to on a regular basis. And the more the adults enforced the rules the more resistance we saw. It was a few days into the trip before I established enough of a connection with the youth to recognize people rarely do what they are supposed to do because it is a rule, law, or policy. People are more likely to do what they are expected to do because they value a relationship. The more the teens got to know the adults, build trust, and create empathy, the more likely they were to comply. Think about your own homes or workplace; do you assume people will do what they are expected to do simply because it is a rule or policy? Put work into the relationship early and often, and I think you will find people will follow the expectation because they don’t want to let you down and because they care about the relationship.
You can assert yourself lovingly.
At one of our work sites, our challenge was to design, build, and erect a sign for a neighborhood park that hosts outdoor movie nights throughout the summer. We were given some donated scrap lumber, a vague vision, and best wishes. Joining our crew that day was a board member from the non-profit organization that runs the neighborhood outreach program. He is an engineer and confident in his handyman skills. I have about 30 years of experience as a woodworker. We immediately took joint leadership of this task. Also in our group was a young woman, a recent high school graduate heading to college in the fall to study engineering. She enjoys woodworking and working with power tools so she gravitated to the task more so than any other teen in our group. As the two “old guys” problem solved on the fly and figured out the design as we went along, there were a handful of times where our ideas were not practical; they simply wouldn’t work had we pursued them. This young, aspiring engineer caught our imminent errors each time and stopped us before we got too far in the wrong direction. Impressive as that was, the really magnificent part was how she did it. She had the self-confidence to course correct two older adult males and do so in a way that was nurturing. She didn’t say, “Stop! That won’t work. Don’t do that.” Rather, she lovingly asked questions such as, “Have you thought about…?” Or, “What would happen if we tried…?” She was so good at it we didn’t even realize what was happening at first. She was guiding us. She was asserting her intelligence and experience, and never once making the two old guys feel stupid or condescended. I witnessed a great lesson in leadership that day. You can assert yourself and drive a project while also having a compassionate, caring heart. In doing so, you will build credibility and loyal followers.
Find peace by giving a piece of yourself away.
Finally, what I learned (or reaffirmed) from our mission trip to Detroit is we are called to serve. We are anointed to live in communion with God and neighbor. For us to think anything different or to ignore the gentle nudging is self-destructive and neglectful. In my experience, there is no better way to generate more peace and clarity in your life than to give a piece of your life away to others. In our week-long mission trip there was only one part of the day where I never saw any fighting, disobedience, bending of the rules, or disrespectful behavior. That one-time was when we were serving at our work sites. The work was peaceful. The moment we left our sites and returned to our personal desires, selfish wants, limited truths, and social (media) comparisons I could see a change in our group. We became more irritable, competitive, judgmental, and intolerant. At times when you feel like life is moving too quickly, you are overwhelmed, or you are dwelling on your own preoccupations I recommend doing something nice for others-even if it is just a phone call or quick message to say, “I am thinking of you.”
Little did I know I would learn so much from our trip to Detroit. Living and learning go hand-in-hand; life’s lessons are all around us if we look for them. And if you can’t find an example…be the example.