Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Four Ways We Need to Shift our Perspectives on Missions Trips and Global Volunteering

I work for an organization that is actively preventing poverty-related vulnerabilities through holistic local partnerships and empowerment. We're preventing kids from being orphaned. We're preventing people from becoming homeless. We're preventing women from being pulled down paths towards human trafficking and exploitation, and it's working. It's small and tiny but it is working.

Questions I battle every day: Do I post more or less photos of myself with those I work with in other countries? Do I run out of the room every time I feel like I'm being credited for work that certainly doesn't involve just me? Do I share tough but valuable lessons I've learned over the years?

For quite some time, I've wanted to write out some perspectives I've developed about non-profit work, missions, service, and the role of Americans in global development. Years ago, I began with perspectives on these things that were defined by a massive American social media revolution that enabled us to witness hardships around the world straight from our screens, paired with the message that we could make a difference. I was enlightened. I was empowered. I dove straight in, and have emerged years later with perspectives that have been re-shaped by genuine, trusting relationships with some of those whose lives we were promised to have impacted by buying a cool t-shirt, or whatever. American culture promised me I could be a hero, and that was totally inspiring. It was also a lie that is hurtful to the heroic people in other countries with whom I work, and I was thankfully quick to run far, far away from it.

My message here is to those whose hearts are coming alive upon learning about the realities of the world. Those young people who want to say no to selfishness and the status quo; who want to follow a calling, and are trying to figure out what that looks like. There are a lot of options that will compete for your attention, time, and money, and I want to help you navigate that by sharing some lessons I've learned. After all, what good are lessons if I don't share them?

Know, even as I post this, that I actively encourage people to come to East Africa with me. All the time. At the end of my post, you'll find out why.

1. Don't confuse social media with real impact

Social media is a gift and a curse; I think most of us know that by now. We've heard of the psychological damage we've inflicted upon ourselves by staring at all the insta-stuff and comparing our ho-hum with someone else's highlight reel. It happens to the best of us. Social media enables us to communicate in some really good ways; social media does not always reflect reality. Volunteerism and service reflected in social media posts also presents a complex reality; I won't go too deep here except to say that a photo of something that looks impactful may or may not have had an impact in reality. 

(I work in communities who feel very exploited by Americans with cameras; they tell me that they have seen volunteer groups come in with cameras, play with their kids, say that they're going to use the photos to raise money, and they never see them again. It's damaged the trust of those I work with. Keep that in the back of your mind when you see photos of good-hearted people on missions trips on your Instagram feed.)

2. Don't confuse adventure with sacrificial mission

You want, need, crave adventure. You see the social media posts of friends who have been able to explore parts of the world, volunteering as they went, and you can't miss the chance of doing something like that with your life. Sleeping in sleeping bags, riding across beautiful scenery on a bus, carrying all your belongings on your back - wow. That's an adventure you just can't pass up.

I want to first tell you that the fact that you even have the opportunity to sleep on the ground and eat rice for three meals a day in lands far away from your home is a sign of a remarkable amount of privilege, and not necessarily a sacrifice. IF you're feeling drawn to global volunteer work or missions trips only because of the draw of adventure, just go take a trip to a National Park or sign up for a rainforest trek or safari that will help build the local economy of another country. (Side note - I have a HUGE love of National Parks, and have hiked about 20 of them across the continental United States so far. Seriously, they're some of the best adventures).

Why am I saying this? Because of point number 2:

3. Don't confuse adventure with sacrificial mission because real sacrifice is HARD!

Like, real tears, real sleepless nights for years, real empty bank account, real being-told-no-by-potential-supporters-every-day hard.

Yeah, there might be a handful of glorious, fulfilling moments scattered around in there, but the vast majority of your work involves fighting a really tiring uphill battle. When I tell people I spent like two years without really sleeping on an actual bed, it sounds inspiring, but it was actually really annoying. And that was really the least frustrating thing. See, when we're working for the Kingdom, it's something that runs contrary to every single system of this world, and you start feeling like you're running a never-ending race. That's what it is. But it's worth it. And Jesus never said it would be easy, so there's that. 

I've seen an interesting phenomenon unfolding in the lives some American young people in the last few years. They take a year off school, raise a LOT of money, and spend a year hopping to different volunteer projects around the world. I think this is interesting. It can't be easy. It shows a willingness to make big sacrifices, at least for a year. Young Americans: Keep doing this - I think you're learning some important things. But as you do, think about whether it's something you're willing to do for the rest of your life. If it's not, maybe you should reconsider. Think about whether you will be able to maintain the relationships with the people you meet around the world for the long-term, and what kind of real impact your big investment is making. If you can't come up with strong answers, maybe you should reconsider.

Because if it's not just for the adventure, and you are willing to learn, and your desire is to make the biggest impact possible, I want to dare you to do this a different way.

4. Look for long-term opportunities

You want to learn about the world and serve so badly. You don't think you can commit to living in another country for the rest of your life. Is going somewhere short-term a bad thing?

Sometimes, but not always.

I want to dare you to do this, but do it differently from how most sending agencies out there are asking you to. Instead of visiting a bunch of different countries, visit one. Instead of meeting so many faces along the way that you lose track, just find one. One country, one face, long-term. It could be Florence in Uganda, it could be Neema in Kenya. Walk alongside her for the rest of your life. Come alongside a single mom at risk of giving up her children to an orphanage due to extreme poverty. Help tell her story. Enable her to be enrolled in a program that empowers her economically, preventing her from becoming a victim to poverty-related vulnerabilities. Visit her. Watch her children grow. Learn from her. Go to church with her. Hear her heart. Make her a part of your family. Let her make you a part of her family.

Don't do it for a week or a year; do it with your life.

Do it with your life.

Under the Same Tree is a non-profit organization that exists to partner with local initiatives in communities faced with the effects of extreme poverty around the world, working to equip these communities to prevent key poverty related vulnerabilities through economic empowerment. 

What does this mean? We're preventing kids from being orphaned, and keeping families together, thriving. We're preventing vulnerable youth from becoming homeless. We're preventing women from being pulled down paths of human trafficking and exploitation. It's working, and you can enable this to happen in the life of one more person.

Do it with your life.

Friday, July 15, 2016

You're not broken: thoughts on introvertedness

It's blog catch-up time! I have all kinds of life-lessons spinning through my head, and this is the place to share them. I have about six posts coming up all falling under the theme of "Things Learned in my Early 20s." - 1. You're not broken 2. If you want to impact the world, then.... 3. Relationships 4. My 20s and the Great American Roadtrip 5. Hope and Fear.

What a time to be alive.

Here's the first one: You're not broken.

I am somewhere in between an introvert and an extrovert. I've spent all my life wearing the label "introvert" like a punishment. I once took a stupid buzzfeed quiz titled "Are You More Extrovert or Introvert?" and it told me my personality falls right in the middle. Tears came to my eyes and I took it like a crown. So, ever since then I have said that I'm somewhere in between (thanks, Buzzfeed). I like to call myself a listener. I really like conversations, but I'd rather listen more than talk. And I honestly think that the world actually needs more listeners. Listeners are highly underrated. Introverts are highly underrated.

All this to say.. I've been learning lately about the value that having this type of personality brings to the world, and I think it's worth sharing. I think it's worth writing about because our society is so fickle. It ascribes all kinds of value to certain types of people, and says those kinds of people are the ones who should be listened to, seen, heard, all of the above. In our society, extroversion is valued above introversion. So, if you're an introvert and you want to be heard, if you are trying to draw attention to a cause or idea, you have to work a lot harder and do things that terrify you. Like picking up a phone. Like trying to network in noisy rooms where people have to bend over to hear you (because of course you're not only introverted, you're under 5 feet tall. Whyyyyyy..).

I've spent a lot of time over the past few years challenging myself in areas where I know I need to grow, but also learning to recognize the value of the areas where I know I am strong. If you're a listener, or you're an extrovert who would like to learn more about us listeners, here's a few notes from my brain:

1. If you're a listener, you're needed:
You're likely making an incredible impact on your community and the lives of those you're close to; you probably quietly practice your gifts and talents; you just don't make social headlines too often. And you're probably ok with that.

2. You can lead as a listener!:
That's right - you can totally be a leader without having to pretend to be an extrovert (how exhausting does that sound?). If the picture of a big, charismatic personality as a leader makes you want to back into the shadows, that's ok. I've actually become convinced that listeners can sometimes make the best leaders, and here's why.

I've been able to lead a non-profit organization as a listener for the past three years. Now because of this, we seriously lack in marketing, publicity, and networking. BUT we've been able to build effective, sustainable, and locally led programs in East African communities that effectively prevent poverty related vulnerabilities through listening. My personality is such that I research, listen, learn, and fill my brain up a lot. As a result, my brain is stuffed with information about under-resourced communities, grassroots development, culture, and social issues. I haven't been the one to build UTST's programs though. When I begin building a relationship with a community, I spend a long time asking lots and lots of questions. I usually already have an idea of what the answers are, but I want to hear the people. I want the solutions that we work towards in their community to come from their own hearts and minds. Because they know what they want to see happen in their communities, but are rarely given the opportunity to be heard. Then, they lead out in planning and carrying out programs designed to empower. Now, we're seeing that our partnerships are preventing children from being orphaned, preventing homelessness, preventing prostitution and exploitation, and preventing all of the trauma that goes along with these things. I'm overjoyed. I think that if I had not entered these communities as a listener, we'd not be seeing the type of true empowerment that is happening. Too many people enter communities and tell them what is going to happen, when the truth is that a leader cannot force grassroots community development and empowerment. That can only come from the people. Listeners give that power to the community.

Listeners are good leaders because it usually doesn't come naturally for them. They have to choose it every day, and they have to practice. They are constantly evaluating themselves, and conscious of the effects they have on others, both positive and negative.

Lastly, as a listener who leads, you don't have to force yourself to be everything and do everything. Like I said, my organization seriously lacks in publicity, marketing, and things like that because they are my weak areas. I have brilliant stories to share, stories of people who I am so very, very proud of, but I have no idea how to get our message out there. I'm scared of people making it all about me, when it isn't, and so I hide a lot. That's not fair to the people I work alongside. So, I've learned that I need to find people who excel at things like publicity, and let them do it for me.

3. Listeners have things to say!
Usually really well-thought out things to say. But maybe they won't say them until they're asked. If you're a listener, you need to realize that you might never be asked to share your thoughts and/or opinions. If it matters enough to you, raise your hand and speak.

4. They have to work hard.
In a world that rewards extroverts and talkers, listeners have to work extra hard. Engaging in class discussions, making small talk at work, meeting new people, these are things that can be totally exhausting. (Or if you're like me and fall somewhere in between, oddly mentally energizing and draining at the same time. Like running. Oh life.)

5. If you're a listener, you're not broken!
I cannot emphasize this enough. Society will make you feel like you're not enough, like you cannot make as much of an impact as those outgoing people, that people don't like you as much, the list goes on and on. Especially when you're surrounded by outgoing people and feel like you have to sprint on your short legs to keep up. They're all lies, friends. It's simply not true. Do you have to work harder? Yes. Do you have to do things that terrify you every day? Yeah. Do them. Have patience with yourself. It's ok.

6. If you're a listener and ALSO are occasionally plagued by anxiety, give yourself grace:
It's so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so hard. Give yourself grace. If it's a day where everything makes you feel like you can't breathe, give yourself grace. Focus on things you know you are good at. Find things that are healthy distractions and let yourself spend some time there. Sing! Singing fills your lungs and keeps you from breathing too fast. Sing really, really loudly.. it's helpful for me. If you occasionally experience high-functioning anxiety, like me (in which your nervousness fills you with a terrible buzzing energy that you have to let out somehow), let yourself clean the whole house, let yourself run around the park. Go for it. The more you learn about how to help yourself, the better it will get.

7. If you're a listener who hates being alone, find the people who love you.
It's one of the symptoms of falling somewhere in between introversion and extroversion. I know introverts who could spend days completely alone and be happy about it. I panic about spending 30 minutes home alone. I like having down time with other people. Maybe it comes from growing up homeschooled and rarely being by myself, but also rarely actually being with other people (what a strange phenomenon). When David and I got married, we lived alone for like a year and I hated it. I never wanted to be home. Since then, we've been housemates with lots and lots of friends, over time, and I like it. Find your own balance.

8. Listeners enjoy extroverts (I think).
Extroverts - I love people like you. I love how you fill up conversations and blank spaces with words. I love how you give me something to listen to. I love being around extroverts - I really do! You're not broken either, by the way.