Story-telling and the Short Term Mission Trip

Claude & I celebrating 5 years of community development in Burundi!
Claude & I celebrating 5 years of community development in Burundi!

We just said good bye to a team of friends who left Burundi last night. Their send off included one last party with friends, good food and the experience of the Burundian drum corp. As they loaded their luggage into the cars and headed to the airport, I thought back over the week.

I remember, in a word, the vibrancy of the first few days up-country as our guests mingled with our Batwa communities. I remembered the moment Godece washed my muddy feet after I fell down the rain-soaked hill of Matara. I’ll never forget the leaders of Matara parading toward us with gifts – a chicken, a branch of green bananas, beans and fruits – all from their abundance. Now they bless us with their first-fruits, after 5 years they have more than enough to share. These are the snapshots from a full week – and if there were time I’d tell you so many more things that took my breath away during this week of visitation and celebration.

Even this morning, as I’m hung over with exhaustion (and an eye red and watery from some kind of scratch or infection) I can remember these few things clearly. I can articulate them even through the fog of my aching bones and coffee-craving. Because we prepared for this all along.

Let me share quickly (because I am really tired) how we practice story-telling and prepare our teams for their return home after their short term mission trip…

1. Give me a word.

At the end of day one or day two, the team is usually buzzing. There is still a sense of disorientation but now, after the first few experiences on the field, there are new sensations added to the mix. You can see that people are still fighting the jet-lag and that they are trying to get their minds around what they’ve just witnessed with the Batwa friends.

This is when, around the relaxed setting of the dinner table, I begin to prepare the team for their return. I look around the table, look at each team member and, after clicking the glass to get their attention, I say, “Give me a word.” I instruct each person to give me one word to describe what they are feeling or what they are seeing thus far.

You can give just one word without explanation. There is freedom in that request – especially for team members who don’t know all the others. One word is not a heavy burden. Also, for people still reeling with a mix of emotions and exhaustion, one word is manageable.

This week some of the words were familiar, joy, heaven, rightness, overwhelming, freedom, love, sustainable, transformation. Mine was vibrancy.

Some people felt the need to elaborate. Others didn’t. But everyone offered one word. It was the beginning of putting words to the experience, starting to frame this trip as it developed.

2. Tell me one moment.

About halfway through the trip I invite the team to share one moment that arrested their attention or provoked some emotion or new awareness. Sometimes this happens around a meal, but sometimes amid a time of devotions. No one is rushed, but no one is skipped either. Everyone tells the group a moment that stands out for them – even if it echoes someone else’s.

Now I watch people strong more words together around what they are experiencing in Matara, in Bubanza, with our various friends and projects. One is touched by the encounter with a driver, the conversation they had driving through one neighborhood in particular. Another shares the recognition that now these local friends have access to healthcare because there is a little clinic with a nurse on duty. Someone else notes that for the first time they’ve witnessed joy beyond circumstances when they saw the Batwa women dance.

For me, my moment was when Godece washed my muddy feet. She took my feet in her hands as her son poured water over them. She wiggled her fingers in between my toes to dislodge dirt and tiny stones. She rubbed the bar of soap over my feet and coaxed out the cleansing suds. It was a sacramental moment between us.

Stories being shared around the table!
Stories being shared around the table!

3. A break to rest.

Near the last days of the trip, the team starts to ware a bit. They’ve been on the go for days, they’ve been eating unfamiliar foods, their schedule is irregular and they are feeling it. Despite all the goodness, I can see they need a break. We also know that this is when many of our guests hit the saturation point. So many sights, so many faces, so many stories swimming in their brains – accompanied with all the emotions sloshing around their hearts.

So we plan a set of hours for the team to relax. When there is time, we take the team away for an entire day to a resort to rest. They can walk on the beach, take long naps or read a book by the pool. On shorter trips, we end the day at 3:00pm and allow the team to relax for the rest of the day. They can take a swim, enjoy dinner at their leisure or skip it entirely and go to bed early instead. We just ensure that there is some unscheduled time for the team to rest, to practice some Sabbath amid the trip.

What I’ve learned is that this time allows the stories to seep in deep. This time allows the thoughts criss-crossing their minds to untangle a bit. The rest allows the team members to recalibrate, but also to absorb what they’ve been experiencing. Open time allows the stories to find their place and for deeper connections to emerge.

The truth is that team members have busy lives back home, so we can’t just assume there will be reflection time once they return to their city. But knowing how critical that reflection time is to their ability to process all the local experiences, we make sure to offer space while they are with us.

I assure you, this is not wasted time in-country. Sometimes we don’t need one more story or one more visit across the city, we need time to contemplate all the other stories encounters thus far.

Often the best conversations happen in the following couple of days after the time of rest and reflection. People have put thoughts together and return to us with great observations and questions. I love when this happens before they leave us, when there is time for engagement before a continent separates us again.

4. How was your trip?

On the final night I invite the team to each share the moment that stands out for them, the one that rises to the top. Often I will have them break into teams of two to share for about 5 minutes each. When we come back to the large group, everyone shares the story again, but in about 3 minutes. Then I challenge them to find another team member and now share that same story in 2 minutes.

We are practicing.

Once the time is done I remind them that when they get off the plane, the question they will most often hear is “How was the trip?” This is your moment to honor those friends in Burundi, to say something true about the people or the place. Don’t waste it by saying “It was great” or “I loved it there.” Take the opportunity to share something true about your time among our friends.

So we practice in Burundi so that our team is ready when they land in Houston, Vancouver, Melbourne or wherever. They can share their moment in 2 minutes or so, offer a sterling memory of their time among the people of Burundi. Maybe people will want to hear more… and over coffee you can share more stories, pictures and such. But even if all you get is 2 minutes of their attention, in that time you honor your friends in Burundi and your time overseas.

I’ve had several people over the years tell me how grateful they were for the preparation time in Burundi. They reported that upon landing home, when they were jet-lagged and out of sorts, they kicked into gear when the question was asked. They pulled from the memory of the words, moments and stories they shared around our table and were ready to say something true about their trip.

This is one important way we can prepare our teams for homecoming from the moment they arrive with us in-country… practice storytelling the entire time. Yes, it will offer you a sense of where the team members are as you listen to what affects them. But almost more important, you will prepare them to tell their story well when they return home. I know they will take the goodness of Burundi home with them and spread it like good seed whenever they share a story or a moment or a word.

[This is the third post in a series on How To Host A Mission Trip based on our ten years of practice in Burundi!”

How do you facilitate story-telling for your short-term mission teams?

Have you ever returned from a short term mission trip and felt tongue-tied?


Kelley Nikondeha  |  community development practitioner in Burundi

Blog |    Twitter | @knikondeha


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