“What do you enjoy about doing international mission trips?”
While a Missouri-native, Abby Pratt currently lives in Richmond, VA where she serves as the Associate Pastor of Youth and Mission at Central Baptist Church. Abby graduated from Wake Forest University School of Divinity in 2014 and was ordained by Peace Haven Baptist Church (also in Winston-Salem, NC). With roots in Missouri, North Carolina, and Virginia, Abby is a fan of KU Basketball, the Kansas City Royals, CookOut Milkshakes, and tacky Christmas lights.
Dancing to a Different Beat
On my most recent trip to Uganda I got the opportunity to attend a traditional Ugandan dance show at the Ndere Cultural Center. The show included traditional Ugandan food, music, and dancing. For three hours we were immersed in Ugandan culture as young, talented artists told the history of Uganda and its many tribes through song and dance. Dancers depicted the lifestyles of Ugandans that spanned from the mountains to the oceans. It even included the unique Karamojong cow dance in which performers dressed up like cattle! Rhythm, movement, and color brought the diverse history of Uganda to life and told the story of the people.
Towards the end, the Master of Ceremonies jokingly (but with a hint of truth) stated that you can distinguish between Westerners and Africans according to the way they walk. Westerners are very uptight and independently rush around, always in a hurry. In comparison, Africans jive together as one, with confidence and in a calm and content state of being. For the majority of Americans dancing consists more of juggling obligations and relationships than experiencing embodiment. But that’s ok, for a lot of us, it is all we’ve ever known. What I love most about international travel/mission experiences is that it offers us the opportunity to dance to a different beat, even if it is only for a little bit.
I still remember the gut-flipping feeling I experienced as I looked out the window of the airplane as we landed on the dirt runway in Entebbe, Uganda. There were no lights for miles in any direction, Customs consisted of two armed men who you gave $50 cash (printed after a certain date), and a taxi is a van similar to what your parents drove in the ‘80s. When we awoke in the morning chickens paraded through the breakfast nook of our hotel as we were served fresh-squeezed Passion Fruit Juice with eggs and avocado slices. All my jet-lagged mind could come up with was, “Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore.” Over the next few days my feet stumbled to catch on to the beat of Ugandan life but as days turned into weeks I came to love the African jive of Uganda.
The beat of Ugandan life taught me to remain calm (even when the appropriate reaction would be to panic). When we approach life calmly we learn to wait for what we need and to see situations from less anxious-tainted viewpoints. Ugandans dance together. Relationships and time spent together are more important than being on-time. The beat which guides Ugandans finds its center beyond creation and within the Creator. Individuals have rich faith-lives which is portrayed throughout their daily lives (even on the sides of motorcycles and within store names). We would often pass the local “Praise God/Allah Grocery Mart.” Dancing to this different beat required me to slow down and abandon the pride which holds my bodies captive, and reorient myself to move to a new norm. Over the few weeks I have spent in Uganda I have experienced the Divine in ways I would have never imagined within the United States.
Robert Lupton’s book Toxic Charity is a challenging and enlightening book that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in mission work, especially international trips. In this text Lupton critically questions the value of mission trips and concludes by proclaiming that changes must be made to faith-based organizations’ current systems. While I agree whole-heartedly with Lupton on this statement, I am not as quick to dismiss the value of international missions. The mission trips I was a part of throughout high school and college helped me discern my call to ministry and have forever shaped how I interpret and embody the Gospel in my own life. If done responsibly and respectfully, international mission experiences give us the chance to dance to a different beat and with new dance partners. In going, let’s put aside the hero/savior complex and embody the role of guest. Let’s seek to go and learn, listen and remember, leave changed and ready to tell the stories of our experiences. Engaging with a different beat asks us to risk comfort and tradition but offers deeper unity with one another and with God.