I’ve been to Panama twice with Bridging the Gap. Both were life-changing experiences for me. Below is an account I wrote while on one of the trips. If you’ve ever thought about joining a missions trip, maybe this is the year to take a LEAP of faith! Bridging the Gap is taking multiple trips this year; you can get more details here.

I’ve been in Panama only a few days and already I am aware of the blatant differences between here and my home in America. Being in a place where you are the minority, don’t speak the language, view the landscape as unfamiliar, and worry that your ability to sense what is safe or appropriate is not always accurate is challenging. It makes you feel vulnerable and rely on others around you to help you navigate your surroundings.

It is also exhilarating to experience something new and different. The food is different, the smells, the shops, the people — all allow for experiences I would never have tucked safely in my home. It stretches me, and that’s okay. There are several reasons why I’ve realized everyone should go on a missions trip:

Panama City

  • It will push you outside of your comfort zone. By coming to an unfamiliar place, I have to step out of what is comfortable. I engage in activities I may never have done before; I meet people I do not know and I see things I never have. It disrupts the norm of what I know, opens my eyes to new things, and affords me the opportunity to see things differently.
  • It will make you realize how good we have it in the United States. When you come to a place that has no social programs to protect the country’s children, no programs to offer assistance to women and children who need it, no protection from abuse or neglect, you realize that no matter how flawed you believe our systems may be, at least we have something in place to help people. We have assistance programs that can help people find food and shelter, however limited those resources may be. And for most of us reading this, you realize that just by having a roof over our heads, a little money coming in (however small it may seem), and food on our table means that we are BLESSED far beyond many others around the world.
  • It will motivate you to offer compassion and friendship to people back home who may be foreigners or immigrants. As I sat in a Panamanian café this morning, unable to communicate beyond pointing and hand gestures, I realized how many foreigners and immigrants live close by to me — and I wonder if I’ve been kind to them, a friendly face. Or I wonder if I have just ignored them, going about my business in a place familiar to me. Being here has challenged me to reach out to those around me who may feel uncomfortable or unsure of their new home.
  • It affords us with opportunities to experience new things. Some good, some bad. We’ve gone to school assemblies that give us the opportunity to interact with students in a very different way than we would in America. We’ve helped gather supplies, sort things, and serve meals. We’ve interacted with locals at shops, cafes, and hotels. We’ve helped set up and run a girls conference. All of those activities are things we have never done in the States. Kyle and I have found some amazing new things to eat. I’ve had some of the best food of my life in Panama…except maybe plantains.
  • It will make you realize how different and yet how similar we as people really are. For as many of the differences you realize there are when you arrive, and for as much as you can read about or watch television that shows the variety between people groups around the world, when you interact with people face-to-face, you realize we’re really not all that different. Everyone experiences fear and joy, pain and happiness. And when you start to engage someone, even when they do not speak the same language, there is a connection that we make. We acknowledge who they are, and they acknowledge us. And when that happens, you realize that differences are nothing to fear; in fact, our differences can be embraced. Because our differences speak to our amazing ability as human beings to live uniquely, thousands of miles from one another, and yet share similar experiences. Challenges. Hopes. Dreams.

What some only see through a screen or read on paper you experience in real time. In real life. The sights, the sounds, the people become a part of your very experience. And your world expands. Your compassion and perspective enlarge. You realize that God is not just your God, or the God of America. But he is the Creator of all of this — across the world, far beyond what you know or could ever experience in just one lifetime.

He is here. As he is at home. And it is awesome to behold.