In December 2017, I spent 2 ½ weeks in Moldova putting winter boots on kids’ feet. It was my fourth mission trip to a developing country. It wasn’t my first time seeing poverty and less than adequate living conditions. This trip was different, though. This one was sweeter. The best way I know to describe my trip is to explain a few things I learned.
I learned how iron sharpens iron.
One of my favorite parts of CERI trips is the group of people I get to serve with. Some I have known my entire life. Some are perfect strangers. All of them are amazing and incredible people. I learned something from every person on my team. As our team leader was prepared for any physical ailment that could possibly come his way (and ours) and banned me from carrying boxes the second week because I was exhausted, I learned the importance of self-care in order to best serve others. As my first roommate convinced me to ride down the elevator and out of the warehouse on the box cart like we were kids, I learned the importance of laughter (hers is one of the best). As one teammate powered through the trip while battling a major illness, I learned the importance of a positive attitude in life’s scariest of situations. We watched out for each other, cared for each other, poured each other coffee (that’s important!), and prayed for and with each other.
I refer to them as “my shoe people.” They are some of my favorites. I know their hearts, and I am better because of each of them.
I learned what the absence of joy looks like.
Most of my job was sizing children’s feet. I would sit on the ground (sometimes on a flattened cardboard box) and be the gatekeeper for the massive line of kids with their caregivers waiting for boots. As a chair opened for a child to go get fitted to their boots, I would size another foot and send the child to my teammate. This meant I got to see every single child. On the first day, I didn’t understand why the kids would not smile. It was like they were numb. None of them seemed happy. That night, I learned that each one of those children came from that country’s child protective services and that many, if not all, have had such traumatic lives that it has left them with very little to be happy about. That crushed me. Every time I sized a child’s foot from then on, I could not help but to think about what kinds of things they had been through. I probably sized the feet of 3,000 kids over those two weeks, and each one broke my heart. It felt like 3,000 little jabs to the soul. That was what taught me my next lesson.
I learned the only thing that matters is people.
As a life-long perfectionist, it is easy to focus on doing my job perfectly. At first, my focus was on making sure I was doing everything right. When I realized some of the things these kids had been through and felt my heart hurt with each one, that focus shifted from how perfectly I could get the boot sizes and turned into showing love to the kids. I saw each one as a sweet little soul in need of kindness, compassion, and genuine care. It became my mission to tune out the noise, chaos, and people all around me to take the time to care for every single child. I wanted them to know they mattered. I wanted them to feel valued. I wanted them to feel loved. The only thing that mattered was them.
I learned that God cares for even the little things.
Some of the most memorable moments from the trip are the little things that came at just the right time. To name a few: coming across a coffee truck (my team really loved coffee) when we were getting pretty worn out, getting a paper Christmas tree from sweet kids at an orphanage, having the power shut off at an orphanage and teaming up to fit boots by iPhone flashlight (don’t worry, the lights came back on), being fed sandwiches by a sweet social worker after a crazy time of fitting boots to kids, and having over 30 kids raise their hands to wanting to accept Christ when I was presenting the gospel bracelets out in a village community. Our teams certainly didn’t lack for reminders that God was with us every step of the way.
I learned my biggest strengths.
It isn’t uncommon to wonder what purpose God created us for. I learned that answer on this trip: see the person, not the circumstances. Along with putting boots on children, my team got to put shoe-like slippers on residents at an institution for adults with physical and mental disabilities. Most of the residents were challenged in every possible way. It was uncomfortable, strange, and something most do not want to touch. BUT, those are just the circumstances. When you look past those things, there are hundreds of human beings who were stitched together, piece by piece, by the same holy, perfect, and mighty God who stitched you and me together. That God does not make mistakes, and He didn’t make mistakes when He created them.
This was the hardest but sweetest thing I have ever done. I got to get on my knees on a cold floor and put shoes on those who are easily considered the “least of these.” I got to look them in the eye, smile, and show them kindness. I got to show them Christ’s love.
When my grandmother was sick at the end of her life, people would look at her, see her circumstances, and look away because it made them uncomfortable. It made them hurt to see her like that. I learned then the value in looking at someone and seeing past their circumstances to who and whose they are. God used my experience with my grandma to empower me to love these people. When God looks at us, he looks past our circumstances, sin, and human nature. He looks past the things we have done. He sees who and whose we are. He looks at us in all of our messes, loves us, and NEVER looks away.
I learned to walk in other’ shoes.
Sometimes shoe distribution sites can be chaotic. Caregivers are so desperate to make sure their children receive shoes, which can result in being pushy and inpatient. This can be overwhelming as the “sizer,” being the first person they come in contact with and taking the brunt of their frustration. It’s easy to get frustrated back and think that they should back up and wait their turn. But, what if I were in their position? What if I risked having my child taken away because I cannot provide for them? I imagine I would be pushy as well. I learned that instead of looking at what a person is doing and forming my own judgements about what I think they should do, I need to put myself in their shoes and try to understand. With these mothers, fathers, foster parents, and other caregivers, I tried my best to smile and not be phased a bit by the mass of them trying to push their child in front of me to get sized for boots, even when I felt completely overwhelmed. After all, their intent was the same as mine: get the child boots.
After each of my mission trips, I have come home and gone back to my normal life. This time, I haven’t gone back to “normal” and I don’t plan to. Sure, I am back at work, my apartment, my friends, and the day to day tasks. Life is sweeter, though. I see people in a different way. I see difficulties in a different way. More than any other time in my life, Christ and I are big buds. We are a team. Maybe it’s because I reached the end of myself and learned to rely on Him more than normal. Maybe it’s because I got to experience His people in a new way. Maybe it’s because I saw the hot pink sunrise every morning in northern Moldova and was reminded that His mercies are new each day. Whatever it is, I want to keep it. I want to keep this closeness I have with Him. I want to keep the fact that He loves me so much. After all, His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.