An Unconventional Training Opportunity: Short-Term Missions, by Nate C.

When it comes to training, there are many good avenues. Some choose (or are drafted) to serve in the military and take advantage of the training there, ranging from basic to advanced. Others get involved in Scouts. Some piece together opportunities like firearms training, wilderness survival and emergency medical courses. Still others learn through travel. There are many types of travel, and each teaches in a different way, if we choose to learn. A cruise with touristy ports-of-call probably isn’t much of an education, except in the gustatory sense, but foreign military service clearly can be. Not all of us are wealthy enough to take cruises, of course, nor young enough to serve in the armed forces, but there are good opportunities between these extremes. One of the best, in my mind, is short-term foreign missions. Here are a few reasons:
Immerse Yourself in a Foreign Culture

This is the most obvious.

In a TEOTWAWKI scenario, there’s a good chance you’ll be dealing with new and different people outside your social circle. Placing yourself in a foreign country forces you to encounter and deal with new people, as well as a whole new set of customs, foods, climate, language, etc. You can study all you want about being adaptable, but nothing compares to being forced to do it by dropping yourself into such a situation. You may learn, as I did, that live flying termites aren’t a bad snack.

The strength of short-term foreign missions is that much of it is done in developing countries (though that is changing somewhat as Europe and other historically Christian areas have abandoned the faith). You’re not going to be sitting at a café in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, eating croissants and reading SurvivalBlog over free Wi-Fi. More often than not—if you seek out appropriate opportunities—you’ll be experiencing a way of life that we haven’t known in the West for over a century, possibly a millennium.

Practice Traveling Light

This is not required, of course. The tendency is to “be prepared” by having a bit of everything with you. By choosing to travel light, however, you learn to be prepared by making do with what you have on you and what’s available along your journey.

Bags get lost. Not always, but often enough to plan for it. Traveling with only carry-on luggage is liberating. Not only do you not have to worry about your bags being lost, but you’re also more maneuverable, faster through airports and less obviously a tourist. I’ve been to Africa twice. I was in both urban and bush areas and stayed in modest guest houses but also camped in remote and wild areas. I also took extended layovers in European cities on the return trips. Both times I fit all my personal belongings in a convertible carry-on backpack/suitcase. I use Rick Steve’s Convertible Carry-On, but there are other good options. It’s light, low-key, well-thought-out and meets both US and international carry-on guidelines. The US Customs agent was baffled when he looked at my passport when I returned. “Kenya, Uganda and the UK. With just that backpack?” Yes.

There are plenty of resources for learning how to travel light, so I won’t go into too many details, except to mention a few favorites:  synthetic liner socks (good ones are comfortable and dry overnight, unlike thicker athletic or boot socks), Campsuds (concentrated and washes yourself, your clothes and your dishes), a sleep sack or REI’s Travel Sack (one’s basically a sleeping bag made out of a single layer of whatever material you choose—silk, cotton, synthetics, blends—folded over; the other’s a lightly insulated bag with a hood—both are very compact) and polypropylene long underwear (goes nicely with the previous item when things get chilly and are great for layering in cooler places, like Europe for longer layovers and even the higher altitudes on the Equator, where you may not want the hassle of carrying bulkier cold weather clothes).

Deal with Discomfort

Most Americans live a life of comfort. All but the poorest live at a level of ease and safety well beyond much of the world. But in the event of a short-term disaster or longer change in our way of life, we’re going to face discomfort. Knowing how we cope and how to cope can go a long way in preparing us.

I recall lying in a tent in eastern Uganda with the temperature in the 90s, heavy rains revealing every leak in the tent and a tent door zipper which wouldn’t close for the last 18 inches to the floor. Water, insects and animals were free to come and go at will (thankfully only water and insects took advantage, though both can be just as deadly as animals in that part of the world). Sometime during the sweltering storm, one of my tent mates began vomiting profusely. It was one of the most uncomfortable experiences I’ve had, and it was one I simply had to endure. There was nowhere for me to go, no way of alleviating my discomfort. I just prayed and waited.

While I wouldn’t seek out misery, having experienced it on multiple occasions has helped prepare me psychologically for handling it again. I know I can do it, because I’ve done it.

Test Your Gear

You can read all the gear reviews you want, but until you actually use your gear, you won’t know how it performs. A short-term missions trip is a great way to field test. See if your Gore-Tex really “breathes” in hot, rainy weather. Find out if that collapsible water bottle is really the perfect answer you were looking for—mine wasn’t. Figure out if that tiny LED flashlight will get you safely to the bushes and back to relieve yourself when there’s no light for miles except for the stars. Try assembling your high-tech tent by the lights of a Land Rover. You get the idea.

Get Super-Vaccinated

Most of the vaccinations I received when traveling to Africa were for diseases that are either not seen in the West or ones that we’re generally not exposed to due to better sanitation, vaccinations, etc. Either because they were required or recommended, I’ve been vaccinated against hepatitis A, hepatitis B, yellow fever, meningitis, typhoid, and H1N1, and received boosters for polio, mumps, measles, rubella, diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus. Not only am I up-to-date on my boosters, but I’m also vaccinated against several diseases which we currently avoid but which we could easily see a resurgence of in the event of certain natural disasters. This can be an expensive proposition, but some insurance will cover portions of the vaccines and it certainly prepares one health-wise both for the immediate trip and for unforeseen circumstances to come.

Learn the Value of Water & the Environment

This may sound trite, but you really can’t appreciate the value of water and the environment until you travel to a developing country and can’t drink the water straight out of the tap. Or maybe you don’t even have a tap. In countries like the US, we have many buffers between us and nature. While we may be inconvenienced at times when extreme weather strains our systems, we often aren’t in touch with our environment as we drive our climate-controlled cars from our climate-controlled homes to our climate-controlled workplaces. Manicured, watered and fertilized lawns may mask a dry spell. Efficient and invisible waste management hides the consequences of being poor stewards or resources; we simply don’t see it unless we go looking for it.

In both Kenya and Uganda, water was not a guarantee. And even when it was available, it was necessary to boil it before drinking, a truly tedious task on a hot day. At home I can fill up my bathtub with potable water and soak in it for leisure. In many parts of the world, such a thing could only be accomplished by women and girls lugging multiple jerry cans to a bore hole a mile or more away, then returning them and heating the water using a wood fire.

Adjust Your Needs and Wants

For me, this was the biggest lesson learned. We take so much for granted and can’t fully grasp just how much until we say how the poorest of the poor live. When I came back from east Africa, I walked into the kitchen. “Snacks! Why do we have snacks?!” Then I walked into the bathroom and felt convicted about our bubble bath. Despite the heat, I went without A/C in my car for a time. Gradually, the convictions fade, unfortunately, but I still have a radically altered view of what are needs and what are wants.

There’s an anecdote I’ve heard a couple of times about a seasoned missionary greeting a new missionary in the field. The new missionary begins to ask about how to obtain certain necessities when the seasoned missionary replies, “You tell me everything you think you need, and I’ll tell you how to live without it.”

Necessity is the mother of invention. People in developing countries have to be resourceful. There is no Social Security, no welfare. If you want to eat, you have to get up and do something. Just being around this kind of productivity is inspiring. Are there lazy people, crooks and addicts in every kind of country, rich or poor? Absolutely. But a poor person in America looks nothing like a poor person in the slums of Nairobi. We sometimes look to history to see how people lived in simpler ways, but we don’t need to. Millions live that way right now.

The applications for preparedness are pretty clear. Having your mind transformed helps you streamline your life, live more simply and be a better steward of all that you have. This does two things: 1) It makes you better able to prepare, in terms of having resources and knowing what’s really needed. And, 2) In the event of a lifestyle-altering disaster, you won’t be nearly so impacted.

Practice Charity & Faith

Lastly, although I’ve described what you can get from short-term foreign missions, what you give is every bit as important. So much of survivalism and preparedness tends to be self-focused. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s like the in-flight instruction to don your oxygen mask first in the event of an emergency, so that you can help those around you. Figuratively speaking, we sometimes forget to go beyond donning the mask. And, let’s be honest, we often prepare for eventualities of varying likelihood while ignoring present certainties—disasters in progress for others. Short-term missions give you an opportunity to practice charity.

As anyone who’s ever planned, raised funds for and gone on a missions trip will tell you, both the preparation and the trip itself will test and grow your faith. You are willfully going against your self-preservation instincts for the benefit of someone else and relying on God to do it. Done with a humble and willing spirit, this exercise in faith will stand you in good stead if and when the hard times come for you. I challenge you to consider it.