Learning tours see the world through relationship
Every few weeks, the same church in Mexico gets repainted by another group of North America do-gooders. It’s an urban legend that illustrates the dark side of travel as a missional activity.
Yet, the desire to see the world and offer something of ourselves in the process needn’t turn out so poorly. Organizations from MB Mission to Mennonite Central Committee to post-secondary schools to a commercial travel company are finding new ways to meet the impulse for travel combined with philanthropy through tours focused on learning – giving by receiving.
Meeting the family
When Lloyd Letkeman, MB Mission mobilizer for Central Canada, takes a team on a pray-and-learn trip to connect with MB partners around the world, he calls it a family reunion. “That analogy has worked really well,” he says. “You go to family reunions to get rooted, find yourselves in God’s broader story.”
TourMagination, a Christian company specializing in Anabaptist connections, offers “pilgrimages” focused on history. But “one of the trademarks of our company is ‘people to people,’” says president Wilmer Martin.
This was illustrated on a recent TourMagination European Heritage tour. At the war cemetery in Bergheim, France, one participant said to a 10-year-old boy travelling with his grandparents, “‘What you see here is the foolishness of humanity. Instead of loving each other and loving the world God gave, they kill each other.’ Those kind of sound bites stick in your brain,” says Martin.
Dora Dueck, participant on several Anabaptist heritage-styled tours says, “There’s something more about those kinds of connections” – not only with other participants, but also with the Mennonites she met. “You feel that bond.”
Tim Schmucker, who leads tours to visit MCC partners in Colombia says, “You become really close. Only people who’ve had an intense experience with people they didn’t know before can get a sense of the bond you feel.”
Gerald Hildebrand, pastor at Winnipeg’s McIvor Avenue MB, has been “profoundly enriched by encounters with people of other cultures, different lands, different communities, different language groups. They have come to know Christ in their setting: it’s not imported – it’s their experience. They enrich us; we enrich each other.”
Learning with the heart
MB Mission’s vision tours are “experiential discipleship…learning in our head, our heart, and our will,” says Letkeman. “We’re going to connect with people we haven’t met, but they are family – brothers and sisters in Christ,” he says.
As a student in the Redekop School of Business at CMU, Janessa Klassen was pleased by the opportunity to learn differently – meeting people who work daily with microfinance and development – on a recent CMU study tour to Central America. “Many loan recipients were thrilled to show us the business that they had built up, and I loved being able to meet them.”
Schmucker first experienced “learning” travel as a 20-year-old Goshen College (Ohio) student spending three months in Central America. “I’ve been so aware my whole life of how transformative that experience was for me,” he says. For 15 years since, he’s continued to participate in and lead tours.
You can go to seminars, go to speeches and peace rallies, hear stories from a missionary who serves in another country, says Schmucker, “but it’s different when you breathe it. It’s visceral, using all your senses; you don’t get that when it’s secondhand. It’s a very intense and full awareness-raising experience.”
“There’s a level of knowledge that comes with seeing,” says Dueck. “Any place you’re in, it’s a being there.” Even on a more tourism-oriented trip, she says, “there’s something real about that.”
Expanding prayer life
Praying on location opens new doors, says Letkeman. “Lots of our supporters are faithfully praying for workers, projects, countries.” However, when you travel to meet those you pray for, “even the little things like smells you experience – everything adds to it. Now, when you are praying, it really heightens that relational connection,…the subtleties of what is God doing, things that we never get into a prayer letter or video.”
Hildebrand’s many different learning tour experiences have “in many ways expanded my prayer life to be praying for people I have been with, particularly those suffering for faith.” Most recently, he participated in MCC’s trip to Colombia, where churches face challenges from government and paramilitaries alike. Soon after Hildebrand’s return, he received news that the Colombian government had indiscriminately sprayed farmland to kill illicit crops, destroying many legitimate farmers’ work as well. “They need to know we haven’t forgotten,” he says.
“Self-sufficiency in North America has blinded us to our need for others, particularly in the global community of faith,” Hildebrand says. “I have the profound privilege of sitting with people in other places. They ask, ‘what is it like to be Christian in your context in Canada?’ They want to know, and they share what it’s like for them there.”
“We’re so blessed in North America, and we think we don’t need the rest of the world,” says Martin. “But we need the rest of world, just like they need us. That’s why we travel, that’s why we’re building these kinds of bridges.”
Schmucker is aware of that privilege: “It is us in the North who can afford to fly to the South; we have the resources to do that. Living with that knowledge, taking it seriously, also adds a level of humbleness and a reality check.” When (relatively rich) Westerners come with authenticity, willing to be taught, he says, they’re received with gratitude and invitations to return.
Turning expectations to expectancy
“One thing you should leave at home is your expectations,” says Dueck. “Once you’re there, the only way to enjoy it is to feel yourself a guest – you receive what you’ve been given in this place where you’re a stranger.”
Letkeman encourages an attitude of expectancy: “Where are we going to see Jesus? Where is God going to show up?”
“Our salvation is bound up with each other in Jesus,” says Letkeman, referencing Aboriginal activist Lilla Watson’s famous words: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” A traveller’s posture needs to have only “us,” no “them,” Letkeman says. “It comes back to the family reunion. If one person is hurting, we’re all hurting. If one is celebrating, we’re all celebrating.”
Following the Spirit
As a tour leader, Schmucker highlights the role of the Holy Spirit in the experience: “You organize well, you’re flexible, and then you stay out of the way.… You step back and let the Holy Spirit work.” Sometimes the unplanned things are the highlight of trip: as he toured MB leaders around Colombia, the spontaneous prayer they offered at each stop “was really powerful not only for us, but also for the Colombians.”
TourMagination counters concerns about environmental impact with a new catchword for their attitude. “It’s true that travel leaves a carbon footprint, but we’re leaving a faithprint because wherever we go, we interact as God’s children with other people,” says Martin. “We’re unapologetic about travel; we’re about spreading and sharing God’s love.”
A learning tour may not be a holiday at all. Yet despite a packed schedule of sightseeing, meeting local contacts, and, of course, gathering over regional delicacies, this intense experience can provide spiritual refreshment.
Schmucker’s tours to politically complex Colombia aren’t a vacation, but he cites his Amish-Mennonite grandfather’s oft-quoted axiom: “‘A change is as good as a rest.’ His point was that to rejuvenate ourselves doesn’t necessarily mean rest and relaxation in the sense of sitting on
a beach, or sitting under a tree with a cold drink.”
Letkeman says, “Pastors we’ve brought with us come home with whole new inspiration for work, ministry, and mission…. Churches thank us.”
How then shall we live?
A learning tour isn’t just a moment in time, but an experience that informs the rest of life. Participants return “with a new vision on life,” says Letkeman.
“One of the things I’ve discovered as I travelled,” says Hildebrand, “is the tremendous gift that every people [group] has. We need each other to understand what it means to be devoted followers of Jesus.”
The biggest challenge isn’t about saving up the funds to go, eating strange food, sleeping in different beds, spending a short-but-intense period with relative strangers, or relating across language barriers; “It’s the ‘How then shall we live?’” (Ezekiel 33:10), says Schmucker. “Now that we know this, how then shall we live? What does it mean for us when we come back to our communities, our churches, our work?”