My brother is a talented musician. His last band made it through their entire song at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, a venue notorious for having tough crowds that will boo musicians off the stage mid song. He once opened for Wilco. And he was forced to move to Nashville because, according to law, all musicians must spend at least one year in that city. (I made up that last part, but he does live in Nashville.)
He wrote one of my favorite songs while on a mission trip to Africa. It wasn’t about the people. It wasn’t about the culture. It was about something much bigger and more universally understood than that. It was about falling in love on a mission trip.
This happens a lot. We go away on a mission trip. We fall in love. We break up when we get back. Why does it happen? Why do we do this? Just so happens I have a few ideas:
1. Your relationship back home doesn’t stand a chance.
I once wrote that on a mission trip, “Your girlfriend is going to start seeing Mark, that awkward but kind of cute guy, in a whole new light. It’s a light called, ‘Look at Mark feed hungry children in Africa while my boyfriend plays Xbox back in Ohio.’ A girl responded by commenting, “I am going on a mission trip next month…and you just totally freaked my boyfriend out. I think he’s getting rid of his Xbox as I write this.” I love that response because it’s true. When you go on a mission trip with someone, you almost instantly eclipse the person they are dating back home. I don’t care how great they are, they’re not on the mission trip, helping people. Caring about people, being a servant of the Lord in a tangible, visible way. Doing things that aren’t selfish or self-centered. And come to think of it, my girlfriend and I don’t even like the same music. And I love that you like weird ethnic food too and helping people. Can you hold on for a minute, I need to go see if there is a phone in this village. I need to break up with someone.
2. Mission trips are an amazing backdrop.
The best line of my brother’s song, Moment Golden, was “I’ve never had my breath punched out by a sunset.” But there, over looking the Serengeti, he couldn’t help but be captivated by the way the dusted gold sun collapsed gracefully into the endless flatness of a wilderness that seemed to swallow everything he once thought was so important. (See you fell in love a little right there.) And then he met a girl who was on the trip too and against the backdrop of Africa, he started a relationship. Even if you go somewhere scary and dangerous, there is an emotional reaction stirred up that is powerful and easy to transfer to someone you are with.
3. You get this weird common language with people you go on mission trips with.
Ha, remember that time when we all hiked up that little river in the jungle and there was that crazy orange lizard? And for the rest of the trip, we called anything that was crazy an “orange lizard situation?” That was hilarious. And then that time Frank said, “bring your Bobbles to church” instead of “bring your Bibles?” That was so funny! Nobody gets those stories like you. Let’s fall in love on the last day of the trip and then break up when we get dropped off back at the church. I mission trip love you!
4. You get to see the real person on a mission trip.
Anyone can be nice and polite on a date to Chili’s. Anyone can open your car door and slide your chair out before you both eat baby back, baby back ribs. But when it’s 100 degrees in the sun and you’re sweaty and dirty and you have to perform one more Noah’s ark puppet show for the kids in the village, you’re going to be real. And seeing how someone really is, who they are in the tough situations and the easy situations is a pretty intoxicating thing.
5. The cliques disappear on a mission trip.
If your mission trip is to a rough neighborhood in your own city, cliques aren’t going to disappear. But when you go abroad, when you head out into the great unknown, especially if you are all wearing the same colored t-shirts, the walls between the cliques start to deteriorate. Goths talk with jocks (are we still saying jocks?) Nerds talk with popular girls. Everyone gets kind of mixed up in a really fun way. You secretly know that the cliques might come back on the plane ride home, but you don’t care. Everybody is the same for a little while. Everyone is a stranger in a strange land and that’s a unifying experience.
I don’t think it’s easy for a mission trip relationship to survive but I know it happens. I know a few folks that did find love in Africa or Dominica or where the streets have no name. It’s not impossible, but it is rare.