SURVIVING MISSIONARY TRAVEL
There is definitely a romantic view of living on the road and traveling to exotic locations. People enjoy watching travel shows and programs about people relocating to a new land. It’s the less seedy side of reality television.
I have not relocated to one new location, but to many as my wife Mombo and I continually travel around the world working with a phenomenal movement called Youth With A Mission. We live in a different location every week. We meet the most amazing people–missionaries who welcome us when we arrive and share meals and stories with us as we work with them. It’s really beautiful.
This photo was taken before we downsized our suitcases. Everything is carry-on now!
It is challenging to live out of our small carry-on suitcases, but when we sold our house and everything in it several years ago, we knew we were taking on a radically different lifestyle. Cutting loose from the umbilical cord of comfort we had in America was disorienting at first. “What, there is no Barnes & Noble in Samoa?” In each country we don’t know exactly what to expect so we keep adjusting our expectations which is a skill in itself.
In each location, we spend hours training seasoned missionaries and new young missionaries who are following the call of God to take the gospel to the nations. It’s amazing work and like any kind of work, can be exhausting. As soon, as we wrap up our time at one missions campus, we hit the road to travel to another one. There are over 2,000 YWAM bases in over 190 countries, so we have no lack of opportunities to serve.
As much as we enjoy this different kind of life, it also takes a toll on the mind, emotions, and physical body. The lack of familiarity in daily existence is very interesting initially, but on a continuous basis has strange effects. I am writing right now with a very foggy brain and weary body as we travel doing ministry throughout the South Pacific.
Mombo crashing on the floor of an airport in the middle of the night
Fatigue is real, and in the midst of busy activity, is hard to measure. It’s only after much busyness that your whole being starts to relax (or collapse!). Lack of sleep or stiffness from a subpar mattress doesn’t help. Eating strange food can affect your digestive system and exercise opportunities are few and far between. A friend of ours wisely told me that now that I am in my 50’s that I can’t live as if I am in my 30’s, so I understand that I have to try to pace myself. When my face starts twitching, it’s a sure time that we are overdue for a break.
It’s fascinating how much our minds get wired up from interaction with groups of people we are training, so much so that our dreams are replaying those messages, conversations, and songs we sang each night. At the same time, I often wake up much earlier than is needed due to my mind buzzing with thoughts of tasks we need to tackle on this new day. It’s not odd to wake up 3 to 4 times per night wishing our pillow was familiar and trying to remember which way to go in the dark to find the bathroom.
WHERE ARE WE AND WHAT ARE WE DOING?
The mental and emotional toll can be the hardest. When you don’t feel like yourself and can’t function at your best, it is disconcerting. Along with fatigue, the lack of rhythm constantly throws you off as every day can involve a different schedule. Trying to find enough time to recuperate is difficult, as there are no weekends at home to recover. There is no home. Knowing exactly how much time you need to recuperate is even more difficult. Finding a good place to recharge is a continual treasure hunt. Each new location requires you to restabilize. Constant questions exist about securing basic needs like food, shelter, medicine, wifi and good coffee.
One of my 6-hour bus rides through Cameroon, Africa with no air conditioning and no bathroom on the bus.
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Along with the normal wear and tear of travel, the unexpected happens. You arrive in a major city to discover that because of a cyclone recently, no rental cars are available. The insurance companies scooped them all up after people lost their cars to flooding. You have to buy a car in a foreign country in order to make it to all of the ministry dates that have been scheduled. A month later you plan on putting that car on a ferry to travel to another island where you are scheduled to speak and discover that the ferries have shut down due to the mechanical failure of one boat and massive winds preventing the other boat from leaving. They say “you are stuck here for 2 weeks” and you have nowhere to go. Flexibility is something missionaries talk a lot about because of the constant unknown that we face, but adaptability is even more important. We pray and we pivot constantly.
“We pray and we pivot constantly.”
This isn’t a 9-to-5 kind of life. Sometimes we work from morning until night doing our ministry work, and then have a backlog of administrative work to catch up on concerning the next teams we will be working with or the many travel arrangements that have to be made like booking airfare and lodging. It’s tricky to handle this in other languages and with unfamiliar currencies and exchange rates. Of course, as missionaries, we also want to do a great job communicating to the many partners we have who pray for us and give so that we can bring the gospel to the nations. We are constantly emailing newsletters, recording podcasts, and posting photos and videos of what God is doing through our partnership. Little encouraging notes from friends back home telling us they are praying for us are like manna from heaven. These relationships are a lifeline we cling to regularly.
IRREGULAR HEART RHYTHMS
We try to create daily rhythms of having coffee together in the morning, reading the Bible, praying, and spending time listening to the voice of God. These are disciplines that help us to keep our eyes on what is most important and keep life in perspective. We fight to keep up these habits because travel constantly disrupts continuity. Red-eye flights take a few days to recover from as well as time zone changes which throw off your equilibrium. Time changes make it confusing and difficult to communicate with family and friends in the United States but we somehow figure out how to connect with our kids and granddaughter on weekly video calls.
My guardian angel watches over me on the road.
TRAVELING BY FAITH
The human brain craves structure, but walking by faith means trusting the Holy Spirit to step into the mystery. Sometimes we think we came to teach, but he brought us somewhere to listen and learn. Instead of training big groups, it may turn out that individual leaders need mentoring and nurturing. This is freelance ministry that requires discernment, presence, patience and walking in the Spirit. Fortunately, this is built into the very DNA of YWAM so we can confidently follow in the footsteps of many who have gone before us. We don’t always know what we are doing, but can trust that the Lord does know and will guide us in all things.
Besides the Holy Spirit, the greatest asset I have when living on the road is my travel companion who is also my ministry partner and wife, Mombo. We lean on each other heavily and utilize our different talents to navigate our lives. It’s inevitable that we become irritable sometimes due to the demands of life on the road, but we always find ways to lift one another up when the other is dragging. Stress and obstacles reveal the depth of your maturity and perseverance does build character. We recognize problems as growth opportunities. Mostly, we press into God and his grace when we are the most challenged. He reminds us that it is okay to be human.
Do I miss having a home to return to sometimes? Yes, but I’m sure we will have a home base again someday. For now, we are finding our home in the Father and in each other. Every day brings new questions about how to unwind and truly rest so that we can live a sustainable lifestyle. It’s not a glamorous life, but it is fulfilling. Our spiritual family keeps growing as we make new missionary friends in each country we visit. Our marriage and our personal walk with Jesus continue to be the anchors that keep our sanity secure. As we maintain those most important relationships, somehow we are able to cope with all the other upheavals of life. Maybe that is true for everyone everywhere in every situation. Keep your relationships with God and people as top priority. Beyond that, just pray and pivot.