Mission trips come in a variety of shapes and sizes — groups can range from a couple to a couple-dozen people; distance traveled can be several city blocks or several thousand miles; and tasks can vary from feeding babies to building medical clinics.
But one thing every mission trip has in common is that each one can make a difference — even if plans change.
I was part of a 15-member mission team sponsored by Lexington's Second Presbyterian Church that went to Malawi, a small, land-locked country in south-central Africa, in late June and early July.
Our mission was to deliver soccer and school supplies and play soccer with children and youth in Nkhoma, Blantyre and the village of Wanyenba; visit schools and orphan programs; and take part in at least one construction project.
Before we traveled to Malawi, among the things we had learned was the need to be flexible. That lesson came in handy because it became apparent during our first week that a construction project was not going to work out.
But during one of our visits to Nkhoma Primary School, we had noticed many, if not most, students were sitting on the floor. And in one of the classrooms was a huge stack of broken, dismantled, unusable desks piled in the back.
So, in the spirit of flexibility, two members of our team, Stan Kramer and Rett McGoodwin, suggested that because our construction project had fallen through, our team could spend a few hours fixing some of these desks. Soon, with a teacher's permission, dozens of students were picking up desk bases, tops and benches, and carrying them to the front lawn of our guest house, next door to the school.
The next day, after a couple of trips to the hardware store 45 minutes away in Lilongwe, we spent the entire Saturday scrubbing, sandpapering, puttying, painting, staining, drilling and bolting back together 42 primary-school desks.
But the beauty of that project was that it wasn't just our own group doing the work. A handful of seminary students, a theological school principal and several curious kids who'd first spent time watching us were all helping refurbish those desks.
When we finished, Rett said, "Every day of this trip has been different and full of surprises, and today was like a big neighborhood block party."
In the meantime, fellow team members Margaret Seiffert, Kirsten Kramer and Emily Downing were sewing some of the kids' clothes; Adam Downing was fixing shoes; and my daughter, Anna Wethall, and Rebecca Clay Edwins were leading the kids in song.
Amid all this fixing of desks, the acting principal of the theological school, the Rev. Willie Zeze, said, "What you're doing — fixing these desks — is a good thing. But you're also revealing to us what is possible."
What he meant was that it's easy to neglect something as simple as the school's desks, and because of what was being done, he vowed the school staff would regularly check the desks and maintain them.
But I think what Zeze said was even more profound than he had intended. Because what our new Malawi friends revealed to us, the good thing they did for us, was display a profound sense of love, hospitality and community during our entire stay.
And that "good thing that is possible" — that profound sense of love, hospitality and community — was revealed even more movingly a few days later.
It, too, involved desks.
In 2007, our church's first mission trip to Malawi included a visit to the village of Wanyenba, where one of our church members and fellow travelers, Tambu Chirwa, grew up. And during our visit then, we had noticed not desks in disrepair, but no desks at all.
Recognizing that need three years ago, members of our church gave money that provided many desks for Kapalamula Primary School in that village.
So we returned to Wanyenba for a visit and to bring some school and soccer supplies. And out of appreciation for past gifts and for the fact that we were among the few people to visit, we were met with such beautiful singing, warmth and love. It was a scene that we will never forget. I've rarely felt more cherished by a community.
(And that's not to mention the live rooster that was given to us as a gift.)
So we left Malawi with a greater understanding of how such a little thing can make a world of difference.
Such a little thing as a few nuts and bolts, a little putty, paint and stain, can make a world of difference in lifting a primary-school child off a schoolroom floor.
And such a little thing as a warm greeting, loving curiosity, fellowship and working with someone from a world away can make a world of difference in sharing the love of Christ.
But the beauty is this: We don't have to travel 9,000 miles to share in that love, to do those small things that make a world of difference. Whether we're in Malawi, Honduras or West Virginia; at the Hope Center, a Habitat for Humanity house, our workplace or home; or in a pew on Sunday, God reveals to us plenty of opportunities to do that good thing — that smile, that embrace, that simple favor, that simple listening — that can make a world of difference in the lives of others.
People who have gone on a mission trip have said such it can be a life-changing experience. I don't know whether anyone can or will see any difference in me since I've returned. But I do know, through how I've was blessed during those two weeks, that I have a deeper desire to sing more passionately; to greet more graciously; and to be more hospitable, empathetic, sacrificial and loving in every relationship God puts in my life.