by Jan Johnson
This is a condensed version of chapter 12 of Jan’s book Growing Compassionate Kids.
How would you like to take a vacation that would change you, your children or grandchildren forever? You’d never be the same because you’d have a more loving heart for God and for this world God so loves?
The McGinnis family saw this happen when they took a trip to Nicaragua and stayed with a family there. Jim observed, “There’s nothing like that immersion experience into another culture to help children see that not everyone lives [like the folks on TV].” On their trip, then fifteen-year-old Theresa McGinnis bonded with thirteen-year-old Elizabeth, the daughter of the Nicaraguan family. Before they left, Elizabeth gave one of the only two shirts she owned to Theresa as a present. Overwhelmed by Elizabeth’s love and generosity, Theresa knew she could never match such a gift. But she pulled out of her suitcase one of the nine shirts she’d brought with her and gave it to Elizabeth anyway. Jim notes, “A kid remembers this forever.”
Providing firsthand cross-cultural experiences for children and grandchildren makes a difference more than anything else you can do. Why? These experiences foster relationships, not a do-gooder mentality. In 1979, a Louis Harris survey for the National Conference of Christians and Jews concluded that ‘the most salient idea to emerge from the study is the fact that familiarity does not breed contempt. To the contrary, familiarity breeds acceptance and respect.’”
Such exposure trips change the way you see God too. While covering a story in the Dominican Republic for a week, I discovered the rich experience of bonding with someone who looks and sounds nothing like me. Even though we didn’t speak each other’s languages well, we dressed drastically differently, and we ate foods the other thought were. . . let’s say “strange,” there was a kinship. It changed me forever. I personally knew folks doing without food, clean water, schooling and medical help. They were not statistics — they were Gina and Pablo and Maria.
And if these wonderfully different people believe in Christ as you do, a ping goes off in your head that says: “God is real. Christ lives. Christianity wasn’t invented by people at my church. God touches all people on this planet.”
Many American families travel to other countries for vacations, but there’s a difference between “well-traveled Americans” and “world Christians.” The former, says missions pastor Paul Borthwick, “often act as though foreigners are their servants, that any inconvenience is intolerable, that beggars and lame people on the street are there to be photographed, and that other countries are subservient to or a subsidiary of the United States.” To avoid that attitude, it helps to be interested in the culture and an asker of questions. Here are some ways to do that.
Exposure vacations Some organizations such as Parenting for Peace and Justice sponsor alternative family vacation and travel seminars. Ken and Gretchen Lovingood took their three grandchildren on one of these tours to Jamaica. Says Gretchen, “It was 50-50. We did tourist activities and exposure activities. Our eight-year-old grandson noticed they were driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. We told him, ‘This is the right side here.’ One of our teenagers wanted ‘real’ food. We teased her and said, ‘This is “real.” To say this isn’t real food is an insult.’ That helped us explain to our grandchildren that things are different, but not wrong.”
The Lovingoods stayed with Jamaican families, but also visited tin roof shacks with no plumbing. Gretchen describes visiting a settlement house (or orphanage): “It was at the edge of a slum. As Danielle (our then 14 year-old granddaughter) walked by the nursery, she saw a baby crying and picked up the baby to hold it. She didn’t care about his surroundings or even if she was supposed to pick him up. All she cared about was the fact that he cried and needed comfort. It was good to be able to talk about these experiences together.”
Roots vacations Although Blanca and Raul Castro were born in the United States, they wanted to take their kids to Puerto Rico, the nation of their heritage. Blanca thought, Let’s do something that will stay in their minds and hearts for the rest of their lives. It will be expensive, but it will give them a defense against the materialism of America. That way, they’ll never look down on someone who doesn’t wear shoes.
The Castro kids now tell Blanca and Raul this was the best thing they could have done. Blanca says the families lived in two little bedrooms “but that wasn’t the big deal — it was the warmth and hospitality. There, the poor people live on ranches and my kids loved seeing the cows run around. They enjoyed the simple life. They told me, ‘Ma, this is so cool.’”
The Castro family also noticed that even though people were poor, they always offered them coffee and put out a table of food. “We thought about how here in America, people don’t always offer you a glass of water — even though we have so much to spare.”
Serving vacations Or, you can mix fun with a visit to a mission enterprise. Why? To “truly encounter the secrets of the land and its people is to serve them. By incorporating a short-term volunteer service or mission component into their vacation itinerary, ‘travelers-in-service’ can transform an ordinary excursion into a deeply meaningful travel adventure,” wrote Dale Painter in Discipleship Journal.
Dale admits, however, that the thought of working or serving while on vacation was not always an appealing prospect! “At first I resisted the idea. After all, when I have a chance to ‘get away from it all,’ I want to relax, see the sights, and enjoy myself. If I want to work on my vacation, there are plenty of projects to be done at home!””
Still, Dale insists that vacation and service can be quite compatible. The Painter family spent part of their vacation on a Zuni reservation where they tutored students, assisted in janitorial projects, helped program computers, and wrote grant proposals. Dale said that “no AAA tour book could have led us into such an intriguing cultural experience,” as he described being allowed to make the hike up a cliff to a sacred mesa and seeing ancient petroglyphs on the way. This is where “thousands of Zunis fled to escape the conquistadors. Today non-Zunis are forbidden to make this climb unless accompanied by someone from the reservation.” Many such mission-oriented vacations offer insider information and moments not usually open to visitors.
Here are some guidelines Dale Painter offers:
- Decide what part of the country you’d like to visit. Get out the maps. Fantasize. What about that dream to live with the Amish? Or places you’ve seen in travelogues or in National Geographic? Maybe it’s a place you’ve already visited, but you long to experience it from the “inside.”
- Take inventory of your skills, interests, and talents. Don’t limit your assessment to your professional skills — often a change of pace from employment-related duties is important. Manual skills or interests in gardening, building, outdoors, or writing may represent valuable resources to service organizations.
- [Decide how much of your vacation you’re going to volunteer.] Even service ventures that last only a few hours can produce meaningful experiences and be deeply appreciated.
- Evaluate how your children fit into your plans. What projects can they get involved in? Which settings appeal to their interests and sense of adventure? This is also their vacation so be sensitive as you plan and prepare them for a positive experience.
- Consider traveling with a local youth group as a driver or chaperon. [This way] everything is already planned. All you need to do is follow along. Often, the experience will show you how easy it is to get involved and what a transforming experience such service can produce.
- Contact organizations that connect people with projects needing volunteers.
These guidelines can help you and your family dream a little. What would you and your family enjoy doing, if time and money weren’t the constraints that they are? Then talk with your family, dream a little more, and see what plans come of it.
But is it worth it to “waste” money on a trip when you could be spending the money on missions? Most people agree that visiting a developing country changes you for life. You have real images in your mind: kids sharing beds; a home with cardboard walls; wires hanging from the ceiling with one light bulb powered by an extension cord stretched from another building. When you hear someone say that God supplies all our needs, you think a little harder about all that entails. You’re more eager to give money because you’ve seen the people’s needs and the missionary’s work. You have more of a sense of partnering with God in bringing Good News to the world.
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