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Courtesy of Ross Lockhart

Youth mission trips, 21st-century style

Exposure visits, as they’re now called, can open young people’s eyes and change their view of the world. Here’s how to do them right.

By Caley Moore

When Ben Robins, 16, travelled to Cuba with youth from Bay of Quinte Conference in March, his career goal was to become a high school teacher. Part way through the visit, he realized that he’d spent more on souvenirs than a Cuban teacher makes in a year. This kind of powerful insight is one of the reasons for going on exposure trips: travel can be an eye-opening, life-altering experience. But as Rev. Rivkah Unland, General Council co-ordinator of People in Mission, points out, “Transformation doesn’t happen by accident.” You need to lay the groundwork first. The following tips will help you plan a youth exposure visit that has impacts far beyond the plane ride home.

Identify your goals

Before diving into the logistics of trip planning, both leaders and youth need to think about the purpose and nature of short-term mission travel. The United Church of Canada encourages youth exposure visits that focus on building relationships. Some hosts may offer a work project, but the primary goal of a mission experience should be education and partnership.

“Go in the posture of a learner, not a doer,” says Unland. “Going in a position of power doesn’t really challenge you to question why you have that power.” She helps groups interested in mission travel connect with hosts in other countries, and is a passionate advocate for the United Church’s global partnerships. “They’re doing amazing work.”

At their first orientation weekend for an exposure visit to Zambia, young adults from the Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario Conference created a mission statement to guide their travel: “God’s People: Sharing in Partnership, Living Transformation.” Speaking before the May trip, leader Rev. Ren Amell said, “We hope that this [visit] will change the young people and they’ll be able to help people understand what they’ve seen.” In keeping with the spirit of partnership, Zambian young adults will return the visit next year with a trip to Manitoba, which the Canadian group is helping to fund.

Prepare for the journey

Start planning a youth exposure trip about 18 months ahead, suggests Unland. She offers a free training workshop for leaders twice a year. Another useful resource is Sojourning: A Leader’s Guide for Short Term Mission Travel, produced by the Canadian Churches’ Forum.

Once a location has been chosen, communicate regularly with hosts about the details of the visit, and make sure all the paperwork is in order, from passports to immunization records to travel insurance. Find out if the group will need religious visas for the trip, and apply well in advance.

Youth participants also need to actively prepare for the journey. Orientation sessions should foster theological reflection and cultural understanding, as well as a sense of teamwork. If possible, invite a person from the host culture to discuss the country’s history and society. Talk about culture shock and learn a few basic phrases in the local language.

A group of five youth and five adults from Three Willows United in Guelph, Ont., took part in a variety of workshops last year before visiting Japan’s Asian Rural Institute, an organic farm and training centre for community leaders from developing nations. A representative from Canadian Crossroads International spoke to the group about global partnerships and cultural sensitivity, while a member of the congregation who had already been to the institute shared information about
her experience. Something the youth didn’t rehearse was milking cows and feeding pigs in the early morning, but those skills developed quickly on the ground. “We went with open minds and said, ‘We will do whatever is needed,’” says Three Willows minister Rev. Paul Clarkson.

Raise the funds

Try to estimate a preliminary budget in the early stages of planning an exposure visit. Overseas travel isn’t cheap, and you’ll need to devote some energy to financing the experience. At the same time as you’re calculating the cost of the trip, you may wish to factor in the environmental price tag and consider buying carbon offsets for air travel. Thinking about your carbon footprint “can be important in framing a visit,” Unland observes.

When the youth group from Runnymede United in Toronto voted to make Kenya their mission destination, they faced a “daunting task” in fundraising, according to organizer Darryl Hobbs: $45,000 for a 17-day visit for nine youth and three leaders. Each person paid 10 monthly installments of $30 toward the visit, which added up to about eight percent of the total. Two United Church entities — Toronto Conference and the Vision Fund — contributed grant money, and the rest came through fundraising events.

David Ambrose, one of the trip leaders and the church’s musical director, helped to co-ordinate a concert series, including jazz, musical theatre and opera nights. The youth also held a bike-a-thon and an auction. Hobbs says the fundraising challenge “gave the youth an enormous amount of ownership” over the trip. “They came out and worked for it.” In the end, Runnymede raised $55,000 and donated the surplus to partner organizations in Kenya.

Open your hearts and minds

Once the visit gets under way, “Let yourself be immersed in the culture,” says Andrea Morden, 16. This past March, Morden and 13 other teens from the Bay of Quinte Conference travelled to Cuba to visit with local church organizations, including a Christian youth group. She enjoyed interacting with the Cuban youth and was impressed by the strong community roots of the church. “People are open about it,” she says. “Personally, my faith grew a lot.”

Ben Robins reports a similar experience, recalling the power of open-air worship. Before going to Cuba, “there was a mental block between me and God,” he says. “Over that week, something clicked and it’s back.”

Be mindful that some participants may experience culture shock initially, especially when confronted with poverty. “When you get to Cuba, you notice what they don’t have,” Morden observes. Make time each day for group reflection to help youth process what they’ve seen and felt.

Make the transformation last

“Before you even start planning a trip, you should be thinking about what you’ll do when you get home,” says Unland. Plan for a year of follow-up activities that turn awareness into action.

Darryl Hobbs concurs. Once back in Canada, “You’re all out of sorts with the world,” he says. “That’s really when the learning happens.” After his group returned from Kenya last summer, the teenagers spent a lot of time talking through the experience and maintained regular contact with the youth they’d befriended in Nairobi. “We developed some incredible bonds,” notes David Ambrose.

When violence broke out in Kenya following disputed election results this past December, the Runnymede youth sprang into action, issuing a press release and collecting hundreds of signatures for a petition that called on the Canadian government to contribute humanitarian aid to Kenya. Local MP Peggy Nash delivered the petition to Parliament, and soon after the government pledged an additional $3.3 million. “It was really empowering for the youth,” Hobbs observes. The group continues to maintain its connection to Kenya and is raising funds to build another classroom at the school where they volunteered. 

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