We’re almost at the end of our first week in Slovakia. The jet lag is entirely gone, the temperature has cooled enough for us to sleep with the windows closed, blocking out the street noise below, and were still having a great time.
This is the first time my wife and I have been to Slovakia–indeed, anywhere in Eastern Europe. So we’re having plenty of new experiences. But what really makes this trip unique is that we’re here as a family.
Here’s what we’ve learned so far.
Kids Open Doors
There’s something about having children that instantly breaks down barriers and creates opportunities for meaningful interaction. Having children around makes people see you as somehow more “safe” and approachable. Playing with your children lets them see you as normal people; it humanizes you. And, if nothing else, kids give you something to talk about, something that everyone understands.And kids also open doors in a very literal sense. We’ve already spent one amazing evening having dinner with a Slovakian family, we have another coming up on Sunday, and possibly a third on the way. We’re not getting these invitations because we’re such pleasant people. (Well, my wife is, so I’m sure she has a lot to do with it. I’m just included because it would be rude not to.) Most of it has to do with the girls. We’re a family, and that creates an instant point of contact with other families.
Kids Watch You
Every parent knows this, but it’s always good to be reminded. Children see everything. And they soak it in. So having them around while we’re doing ministry is priceless. It’s one thing to talk about the importance of ministry and how we all need to have servants’ hearts; it’s something else entirely for kids to see their mom crossing the language barrier to befriend two teenage girls, babysitting someone’s boys (even though she really doesn’t like babysitting much) so they can get some work done, and just finding every little opportunity to serve the people around her. And it’s even better when they can step in and do it too.
You don’t need to go to Slovakia for this, of course. But it’s been good for us.
Kids Create Normalcy
I wasn’t sure how else to say this, but having kids around forces you to maintain a more normal “pace” than we would otherwise. On trips like this, we usually stay up too late, work too hard, and otherwise push ourselves beyond exhaustion. By the end of the trip, you’re lucky if you can spend a few quiet moments alone without falling asleep.
With kids, it’s different. We need to maintain a reasonable schedule or face “the wrath of the cranky six year old.” So we’ve maintained (mostly) normal bedtimes. And I’ve even gotten my morning study time in every day, a rarity on trips like this for me.
And I think it’s better like this. At the very least, we’re not as tired as we normally would be at the end of the first week. But even more, it helps us see this as something sustainable. I hadn’t realized it before, but our prior approach to short-term trips skewed our view of missions in general, making missions work seem somehow unattainable, something you have to be nearly superhuman to do. And it would be impossible to sustain the aggressive pace of our earlier trips for very long. But the more “normal” pace that having children along required, changed that. And for the better.
Kids Need Attention
But having kids on a mission trip isn’t all rose petals and rainbows. The biggest challenge that I’ve seen is the simple fact that they are still children, and children can be rather demanding. Yesterday we visited the high school camp where part of our team has been all week. And since I’ve attended many high school camps, I know how to throw myself pretty quickly into games, conversations, and relationship building. Instead, I spent the first hour playing catch with my daughters. Granted, I did this so my wife could take advantage of an opportunity for significant ministry. (We’ve been “tag-teaming” like this all week.) But I still noticed how having the girls here was reshaping our approach to ministry.
To be clear, I wouldn’t do it any other way. The benefits far outweigh the costs. But there are costs. And one of them is that we’re less available for ministry that we’re used to.
Being here with the girls has been great. It’s created many good opportunities to talk with the girls about ministry, serving others, cultural differences, and the gospel. More than that, it’s created opportunities for them to see all of this in practice. Talk is good, but they need more.