Facing the Unexpected on Short-Term Missions Trips
by Rev. Ben Hopp, OPC Missionary Evangelist to Haiti (July 2018)
People travel on short-term mission trips for all kinds of reasons. Some want to experience the mission field. Others desire to help and serve missionary families and the local people. Others desire to see new and exotic locations, wondering whether God might be calling them to a life of service in missions.
Over the 11 years we have been hosting short-term teams in Haiti, we can safely say all our teams have had a good experience. We are thankful for the ways they have helped us and the ministry to the people of Haiti. They have loved the saints here and have certainly been able to experience new things. Short-term team members have been an important part of the work of the OPC Haiti Mission.
However, for short-term teams traveling to underdeveloped countries, your trip might end up being expressed this way, “It was an incredible experience, BUT…” That “BUT” may take many forms. In places like Haiti, events can quickly take a turn toward the unexpected. Your well-planned trip might not turn out exactly as you anticipated. Uncertainty can create a level of stress and anxiety that far exceeds that of mere culture shock.
The first “BUT” or uncertainty that you may experience on a trip is sickness. Tropical countries in the Caribbean and in Africa are home to many insect- and water-borne diseases such as malaria and hepatitis. You are required to prepare for the trip by getting the proper inoculations before you leave, and by bringing appropriate medications with you to prevent these serious illnesses.
The real danger may actually be much more mundane - untreated water and ice. Missionaries endeavor to ensure what you are eating and drinking is safe, but intestinal issues can still hit you. You want to travel out with the team but you’re stuck back at team housing because you need to be close to a restroom. Being laid aside for a day or two may not be what you envisioned for your trip, but it does happen.
Most mild illnesses can be treated without a doctor’s visit. But if something more serious were to arise on a trip, there is often limited access to medical care. A 60-minute drive to the hospital is not unrealistic. We are grateful that the Lord has provided the proper care required when isolated medical emergencies have occurred. Accidents do happen, so team members need to understand how limited hospital access may be.
The second “BUT” is transportation. Countries like Haiti have very little infrastructure. “Roads” may be nothing more than a cattle path. As much as your back (or bottom) is sore after riding on the rough “roads” of La Gonâve, imagine the punishment the vehicle takes on every trip. This means breakdowns are inevitable. It might be a flat tire requiring a quick 20 minute tire change. Or it might be something more serious like the Kawasaki Mule overheating 40 minutes from home, which occurred during this year's Team Haiti trip. While we do perform comprehensive preventive maintenance on our vehicles, the unexpected can happen and change our plans. Praise the Lord that he always provides those who are more than willing to help figure out the issue and get us home safely.
The third, and perhaps most important “BUT," is the issue of security. You come from a home country where the rule of law and personal security are maintained at a very high level. This is not the case in many of the countries where short-term teams travel. And this has been our experience over the years in Haiti.
Your missionaries take the security of the team very seriously. We evaluate the situation on the ground and use information coming from places like the local embassies before you even get on the plane. If things are uncertain, we reschedule or cancel the trip.
Our priority while you are on the ground is to make sure you have a safe experience. An important resource in maintaining your security is the wisdom of the missionaries who live full-time on the mission field. As a team member, you may be completely oblivious to any security risks happening around you because your missionaries on the field have shielded you from them. But when insecurity does arise while a team is in country, the missionaries put plan A and then plan B into action. If those plans are not viable, they prayerfully work on a plan C. It is their goal to ensure the team’s safety until they arrive home safely and securely by an alternate method.
On the day Team Haiti 2018 was due to depart, roadblocks and demonstrations began popping up all over Haiti. The team was due to travel out of Port-au-Prince on an early morning flight. Plan A was for the team to head to the airport with our Haitian transportation company. Unfortunately, that didn’t materialize because their mini-bus was blocked by a demonstration an hour away. Plan B was for Ben and the team to squeeze into our truck and head to the airport. But, as they soon found out, the only road leading to the airport was blocked and impassable. It was safer to return to the Kaliko Mission compound and make new plans. After evaluating the situation based on embassy intel, Haitian newsfeeds, and other missionary updates, it was determined that it was unsafe to try to make it to Port-au-Prince by road that day. The missionaries knew from years of experience that these situations do not often blow over in 24 hours. So the team canceled their early morning flight and had their tickets credited toward future travel. When it was discovered that enough seats were available on a late afternoon flight, it was decided the best course of action would be to try to get the team out that same day. Plan C was put in action. The team was transported by air from a local helipad straight to the international airport. In God’s mercy, they made the flight and did arrive safely in Fort Lauderdale later that evening.
While you prepare for a short-term mission trip, keep these three “BUT”s in mind. Prayerfully ask the Lord to guide the team safely on their trip. Pray for wisdom for the missionaries on the field to accurately evaluate the security climate in the country. Pray for team members to prepare medically for the trip based on what the missionaries and the Center for Disease Control require for that country. Pray for grace and strength to be flexible and trust God when the unexpected does happen. Enjoy yourself and may these and other “BUT”s be non-existent on your missions trip.