How To Describe a Mission Trip

[Editor’s Note: I’m delighted to introduce our newest contributor to the blog, Julia Blanchard. A native of Twinsburg, Ohio, Julia recently completed her degree at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio, and is currently doing a year of service in Cleveland as a college counselor for high school students. For more on Julia, see her profile in the sidebar. Welcome Julia!]

 Last summer, I spent two weeks on a school-sponsored immersion trip to Uganda. And even a year later, when people ask me what it was like, I struggle to answer. Our group traveled around so much that I only made small, fleeting connections with people in Uganda, and I was disappointed by my inability to learn more from them. When I try to explain these thoughts to my family or friends, I tend to stumble over my words and mumble incoherently.

Here’s what I wish I could say when people ask me about Uganda:

I want to tell you about Francisca, who invited us to her front porch under the sunset-painted sky, who looked around at her sisters and daughters and grandchildren with a wide grin. Whose husband and sons had all died, and who led her all-woman household with a ferocious love. Who pressed juicy mangoes in our hands and insisted on sending us with nuts and avocados. Who laughed and laughed as Elise held her tiny grandson, as Brad danced in circles with the neighborhood boys, as I sat on a scratchy red mat with my shoes off, trying to convince her four-year-old niece not to be afraid of me.

I want to tell you about her, but I don’t know how. As soon as I start to describe her, she becomes more of a character and less of a person. I can’t talk about her without taking away part of her complexity.

Daniel and I working together at his high school.

And I want to tell you about Daniel, an older high schooler who stared intently at the bright screen as I showed him how to use a word processor, who smelled strongly of sweat and unwashed clothes, who smiled like a boy, and shook my hand like a man.

But how can I tell you about him? How can I show you him without sweeping generalizations, without descriptions that merely glaze over who he is? Who am I to paint his portrait, with only a glance and without permission?

Consolata and me outside of her university.

And I want to tell you about Consolata, a college student my age who walked with me down the streets of Gulu as we returned from mapping the houses and shops and NGOs. Consolata, who turned her beautifully round face toward me and questioned me about God, school, boyfriends. Who asked me, quite seriously, if the roads in America were paved in gold. Whose family believes in witchcraft, but who eagerly showed me all the Christian worship songs she has on her black flip phone. Who hugged me when we left, gave me her Facebook name and email, and told me she hoped to see me again – whether in Uganda or in America.

How can I tell you about her? And how can I not?

A fuller account of my immersion in Uganda may be found here.

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