I met with my co-leader for the India trip last week to finalize details. Because he was added to the trip just a month ago, we hadn’t really sat down to talk until that afternoon. I think Tom and I will work together really well as co-leaders for this trip. We only have seven students, and our main responsibility is to make sure they are stay safe and are able to process the things they see and experience in Kolkata.

I’m trying to think back to the positive lessons learned by the leadership of my trips as a teenager. I may have written an entire book about the conflict caused in my life by the terrible teachings that came out of those organizations, but I still have a lot of respect for several of the people who led the individual trips.

When I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, I couldn’t wait until I had the chance to lead a missions trip myself. I idolized the people in charge of the trips. I wanted nothing more than to be like them–to be part of their elite group. I dreamed about making decisions, leading prayer time, taking care of missionaries under my care. When I swore off short term missions after my last trip to India in 2001, I thought I had lost that chance. I used to say, “Well, I’ll do short term missions again, but only if I get the chance to be in charge. I just can’t stand being under all those rules again.”

But the longer I spent away from those organizations, the more I realized that I was a terrible fit for them.

I didn’t want to evangelize. I didn’t want to lead praise and worship sessions. I didn’t want to tell teenagers that their job is to save the souls of the lost around the world. I didn’t want to be a part of the evangelical subculture that youth mission work is part of. I didn’t want to be complicit in messages sent to teenage Christians that art is bad, gays are bad, sex is bad, the world is bad, and people of other religions are bad.

Now I have the chance to lead a trip that is much closer to what I’m interested in doing. No evangelism. No strict rules. Just service. We will be bodies in motion, working physically to alleviate the suffering of others.

As co-leader Tom said when we talked, “I told the students two years ago that if they think they’re bringing God to India, they’re wrong. God has been there since the beginning of time.”

Thinking back to those people I idolized as a teenager, I still have much to learn from them.

I’d like to take what I learned from Kelly and Anna, the two women who were in leadership when I first went to Kolkata, and offer constant encouragement to my team via handwritten notes and spoken words. I’d like to remember that Faith, who co-led my team in Nepal, was always quick with a hug when it was needed most. Trish inspired confidence in her team by reminding them of all of the things they were capable of–even the nervous fifteen-year-olds like me.

There are other examples, of course. I went on five short term trips, sometimes up to two months long. I can’t name every leader here, although I hope to take things that I learned from them with me.

I won’t be facilitating evangelism in the way they were, but I can still use the example of the kindness of their leadership to help my students process their experiences.

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