The summer between the first and second years of medical school is really and truly the last summer break of our lives. We have 2 months to soak up all the sun and fun we can before we begin the arduous process of tackling second year and USMLE Step 1, which is then followed promptly by beginning our clinical rotations of third year. Medical students choose to spend this last glorious summer break in a variety of ways; those interested in competitive residency programs pursue summer research programs, others choose to take the summer to travel and spend time with family before allowing medical school to once again take over every aspect of their lives, and others choose to spend time as student missionaries in one of the many locations that Loma Linda sponsors.
Spending my summer as a student missionary was at the top of my list of things to do this summer and has been for quite some time. I had never been on a mission trip before because I had been waiting until this summer between my first and second years of medical with the hope that I would be able to utilize some of the minimal medical knowledge that I have accumulated in the last year to do some tangible good in the community that I would be serving. This summer I was privileged to have the opportunity to travel to Honduras, Central America to work in the Hospital Adventista Valle de Angeles. I was able to serve alongside three of my classmates and a pre-medical student from Union College for four weeks in this beautiful country, and the lessons I learned while on this mission trip will undoubtedly shape my personal and professional life for many years to come. Below is one of the lessons I learned about short-term mission trips. I hope that by reading this experience you will think about the impact that short-term mission trips have on the lives of those we serve and on our own lives.
I had my first doubts about the benefits of short-term mission trips while I was boarding my plane from Houston to Tegucigalpa. The vast majority of travelers boarding the plane with us were Americans wearing bright colored matching t-shirts with “Honduras Mission Trip 2013” printed across their backs. Most people visiting Honduras were not doing so to enjoy the vast natural beauty of its tropical rainforests, or to explore the rich history of the Mayan ruins, or to immerse themselves in the loving and hospitable culture of the Honduran people. Instead, nearly everyone on that plane was venturing to Honduras with the hope that they would be able to serve the Honduran people in some way, whether that was through building a church or a school or offering medical or teaching services. Although this is without question a noble motive, it made me wonder if we had pigeonholed this country into being a place that needs “our generosity.” I refused to believe that I would be serving the people of Honduras more than they would be serving me because I knew that I would likely learn more from this trip than I would ever be able to repay in service to my teachers. I knew that I would gain many insights during my time in Honduras and I prayed that God would use me in even the smallest of ways to at least make a small impact on the people that I would encounter.
As the trip progressed, I realized how much I was changing as a result of seeing the things that this country had to offer and how little I felt that I was contributing. Not being able to speak the language meant that I could not communicate well with those around me; this made it difficult for me to feel like I had made any impact on anyone’s life. That all changed when Miss Marjorie, a retired teacher from the local Adventist school came into our lives. We had requested the opportunity to go into the local school and teach the children about healthy living; Miss Marjorie was the person who made this request a reality. One week, Miss Marjorie was presenting a special English Sabbath School lesson about prayer to our group. She talked about times that prayers had been answered and shared a personal testimony about how a recent prayer of hers had been answered. To our amazement, she actually told us that we were the answer to her prayer. Earlier in the year, she had left her position at the school and never had a chance to say goodbye to her students. Ever since, she had been praying that she would find a way to get back into the school to see her kids and explain to them why she had to leave. She said that when the hospital had contacted her about 4 students from Loma Linda who only spoke English and who wanted to work with the kids in the school, she knew that God had worked to answer her prayer to get her back into contact with her kids. Miss Marjorie showed us that God was using us in ways that we couldn’t have even imagined.
I still believe that the vast majority of short-term mission trips benefit those who go on the trips more than those who are being served. I also believe that this is rightfully so. It is important for people going on short-term mission trips to realize that they will likely learn more from their experiences and change more as a result than those who they go to serve. Having an open mind about choosing to learn and grow from these experiences does not imply selfish motives, in fact, I believe that it is selfish to think that we can go on short-term mission trips and always make a life-changing impact on the communities we serve. That being said, there is no doubt that God can use us to touch the lives of others on short-term mission trips in ways that we cannot foresee and blesses us immensely through the process.
I am so grateful for the experiences that I had while in Honduras, I grew immensely spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, and I am assured that God was able to use us in ways that we may never even know. I would argue that there is no better way to spend the summer between the first and second years of medical school.