When we are in the throes of planning our next two or three country visits, Rich and I sometimes say that we are doing 40 short-term missions projects in one year—so no wonder the planning is hard! Sometimes the execution is hard, too. We leave some places with the satisfied feeling that what we had to bring was just what the students, campus staff-workers, and local pastors were hoping for. After two weeks in Moldova, we leave a little sad—we’re sad for the country and its struggles, and we’re sad for the ways our time here, especially our second week, felt like a bit of a miss. I thought one helpful way to reflect on that would be to frame this post as a set of factors to weigh for anyone out there who may be planning a short-term trip. I’ll note four factors, and then a few ways you can muddle through to something good even if all of them are out of whack.
Timing: Our timing was off in a few ways. First, it was the dead of winter, in a country that sometimes can’t afford to heat its buildings, which meant that two events where Rich taught were held in buildings heated only into the fifties. For one five-hour-long session, everyone kept their coats on the whole day. It’s hard to get students or graduates out for days like that, and who can blame them? Attendance and morale were low. The cold also meant we didn’t get to see the beauty that we hear is present in Moldova. We got sick, with hacking coughs and depleted energy, which made it harder to invest relationally. It was instructive for us to learn about the realities of life in a poorer country in the middle of winter, and learn about the work of various agencies to get people the wood and fuel they need to heat their homes, but our timing had its costs.
Another key way our timing was off was that the Christian Fellowship we visited had just had an extended visit from a much-beloved man, his tenth such visit. He had raised over $30,000 to help them purchase a lovely office space near the university where they could hold their English clubs and Bible studies. The group had rallied to give him a hero’s welcome, with many meals, accompanying him to the airport with tears, etc. Trying to rally the students to come to extra meetings for the leadership training we offered was hard at the end of the push they’d just made to honor their previous guest.
Mismatch of Resources: In planning a short-term project, it’s crucial to consider whether the skills, passions, and gifts your team brings are a match for what is needed in that situation. I remember groaning hearing about a certain mega-church pastor trying to get into Haiti on one of the first planes into the country after the earthquake in 2010. Highly trained emergency relief workers were the order of the day; well-meaning pastors simply got in the way. This year, it’s not a huge problem if what we bring isn’t an exact match: we’re in this journey to learn as much as to serve, so no time spent with people is a complete loss if we’ve learned. And the primary goal of many a short-term project is rightly educational and transformational for those who go. Still, when a team can bring skills that actually fit some needs in a country, so much the better. In Moldova, the student ministry is heavily focused on evangelism through various clubs, from fitness to movies to language-learning. There really aren’t a lot of students who consider themselves leaders, so while the office was an absolutely perfect match, our training was helpful but may not have scratched an itch they felt acutely.
An Adequate Language Bridge: Crossing the language divide can happen in a variety of ways. The goers (us) learn it, the hosts know it, or a translator serves as a human bridge. Many of the places to which we travel are mercifully filled with English-language speakers, or at least folks who are eager to learn and so motivated to practice with us. Balti, Moldova, is different. Though the country’s official language is Romanian, Balti has a high Russian population; store signs and commerce in the streets are carried on in Russian. Most of the churches have chosen to work with one population or the other. That’s because these two languages are not close cousins! So where people have made the effort to learn the two languages of their city, English has dropped to a distant third on their to-do list. We stayed in the home of a lovely family who spoke about thirty words of English between them, and let’s just say Google translate is great, but not quite there yet. We are so grateful that Nicolai and Mariana were brave and generous enough to take us on as guests for a whole week, but it was a challenge all around. The students and staff were warm and kind but after a few moments tended to converse among themselves, and we don’t blame them. This led to us withdrawing as well. Between the language issues and our colds, we regretfully opted out of a games night that could have helped us connect with people there.
Your Hot-Button Issues. This one’s a bit of an outlier, but I think it’s important in preparing for a short (or long) term cross-cultural assignment to think through the values you hold most dear, and have awareness of how they play out differently in the country and church contexts in which you will be a guest. For me, that has been my passion for women’s flourishing in ministry, and for women’s rights and equality in a society. It has been surprising to me how much more grating and jarring the sexism has been in contexts like Moldova than in some Arab countries where it is ostensibly more severe.
I have been struck by how male-dominated the culture is. At the theater the sculpture of actors acting depicts three men acting. The government building sculpture of generic leaders depicts two men leading. The pastor we had lunch with yesterday described the 46 men he is currently training in leadership. The man who interviewed us at the university to determine if we were qualified to present on various topics of leadership/communication there asked Rich what his qualifications were and there gave his verdict (not without approval from the capital…) without so much as looking at me. And it seems to be internalized by the women here: I was asked to lead a discussion on women’s issues, and, fishing for a starting point, I asked, “What do you think are some of the pressing issues women in Moldova face today?” In a country from which thousands of women are trafficked each year and thousands suffer domestic violence in their homes, I had expected something along those lines. What I heard from one of the Christian students was, “Women do not submit to their husbands the way they used to. Why, they even earn the same salaries as men! This means they are more likely to consider themselves equal to them and not respect them.” It was hard to know exactly where to go from there, where to find common ground. A young pastor, after explaining why women cannot be pastors, allowed me to hold forth on the exegetical challenges surrounding First Timothy’s injunction against women teaching for a couple moments before saying, “I do not doubt your sincerity, but we have chosen to follow Paul’s words without questioning them,” signaling that the conversation was over. I have had to work hard to maintain my enthusiasm for the ministry as I’ve battled my own emotional responses to conversations like this. It has raised real issues about where we could do ministry long-term, especially in countries where there seems to be no worshipping communities where the whole range of women’s gifts are encouraged.
What Then? What happens when you find yourself in a mismatch situation? Maybe the fault is your own; maybe the communication ahead of time was poor, maybe the situation on the ground changed since you conceived the trip. What do you do then?
Maintain a learning posture and learn all you can. Since various bureaucrats nixed the events the Christian leaders had hoped to sponsor on leadership and public speaking, Rich and I spent a fascinating afternoon at the free Museum of History in Balti. It is fairly humble but we stumbled on an enthusiastic English-speaking guide, who was especially eager for us to know about the thousands of Moldovans carted off to Siberia for crimes such as being too educated or owning one too many fields.
Say yes to odd invitations. The pastor of the Baptist church may have a different approach to gender than we do, but he is a terrific leader with a huge heart for the poor, and his church building hosts the offices of CERI (Children’s Emergency Relief International), a team of social workers doing great work among the many orphans in Balti. Many are classified as ‘social orphans’ because they still have living parents (so are not adoptable), but those parents have often gone to Moscow to work. In a bid for EU membership, Moldova has closed all its orphanages, but failed to put in place a foster care system. Young children were forcibly returned to relatives, and older teens often simply live alone. About thirty of those teens come to a ‘club’ that teaches them basic life skills, held at the church. They don't all come willingly—they get some money as part of enrollment in the program. But, they do come, and since it was near Valentine’s Day, the pastor asked us to share stories of what attracted us to each other. We shared about learning to forgive, serve, and listen well to each other. This was a lovely afternoon, and it let us meet some inspiring Christian social workers.
Treat your Team-mates Well. It’s a shame when the mission doesn’t go well, but it’s perhaps a bigger shame when the team members can’t treat each other well. In the midst of cold and colds, cancelled events and less than fantastic connections with the students in Balti, we stayed on each other’s side, and that counts for a lot as we head on to yet another short-term venture. We leave Balti a little wistful that we didn’t make some of the connections that have made other visits feel more ‘successful,’ but grateful still for all we learned, and that we hung together as our little team in the midst of the challenges.
Rich and Lisa Lamb