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Possibly The Worst Mission Trip Anyone Had Ever Organized

March 20, 2014

It was possibly the worst mission trip anyone had ever organized.

Or experienced.

Oh, I thought I planned it well enough, and Lord knows our intentions were honorable.  I took twelve students from our school in Phoenix down south to minister at an orphanage near Imuris, Mexico.  Our goal was two-fold: to serve God in helping out physically (window repair, painting walls, fixing doors, etc) and spiritually (Bible studies for the children, child care and Christian literature for the toddlers, youth group meetings for the older ones.)  Through the spring months our planning meetings went well, with the students getting organized and raising the needed funds.  I made some early visits to the orphanage in order to do some scouting and see the needs.  Everything should go smoothly, right?

Oh, brother.

The first mistake I made was in timing.  I planned the trip on the very first weekimage after school let out.  The problem here was that since it was just after school let out

a. the students were extraordinarily hyperactive and

b. I was physically exhausted.

We took a caravan of vehicles down the highway toward the border checkpoint of Nogales and within the first hour I was having problems. I had mistakenly allowed a handful of teen boys to independently take the pickup truck filled with construction supplies as one of the vehicles in the caravan.  They packed the front cab – I kid you not – with Red Bull and Pepsi, and were stoking up on sugar and caffeine before we cleared the outskirts of Phoenix.  We lost them almost immediately.  In those pre-cellphone days we relied on CB radios,  but the traffic interference was so bad we added an extra hour or two just to find them along the road.

Then there was the border stop at Nogales.  I was relaxed about this part – we had a sixty-year old national missionary who was walking us through the entry.  He was a native of Mexico – what could go wrong?  We met him about a mile before the checkpoint.

“There’s a growing problem with defiance at the border,” said the missionary, as he climbed into the van beside me.  “We must get there within the next half hour, in order to talk with the proper patrol officer.  Hurry!”

I pulled the van back on the road and stepped on the gas.  “Why the rush?”

“Graft has been getting worse,” he replied.  “Especially against American missionaries.  There have been a lot of shakedowns at the borders for bribes.  The man I ‘m going to meet is the only one who is sympathetic towards Christians, but he goes off his shift in less than thirty minutes.”

We arrived at the border and the missionary walked me into the building.  One of our adults took out a video camera and filmed the location.

“Put that camera away!” shouted the missionary.  “The guards are pointing at you.  Put it away, now!”

We stepped into the building while the group stayed in the vans as guards inspected every square inch of the vehicles.

I sat alone in a small room and waited as the missionary gentlemen went in to meet the sympathetic officer.  The missionary came out after five minutes and looked bothered.  Very bothered.

“Our officer reported in sick today, so he’s not here,” said the missionary, sitting down on the plastic chair and staring at the wall.  “And the staff wants some money or they’re not going to let us in.  I’m not paying them a cent and they’re angry.  This is not good.”

And so he and I sat in that lobby, staring at the wall for forty-five minutes.  We then heard a quick bark from inside an office.

“He said we could go.  Get up!  Move fast!” said the missionary, leaping to his feet.

When we arrived near Imuris, we were ushered to a small camp nearby.  These would be our quarters.  The kindly elderly couple insisted on being our hosts, chefs and caretakers.  We had brought enough food for all of us and indeed for them as well, but they insisted on using their own food and cooking for us.  They knew absolutely no English.  My Spanish is weak at best, and I was thankful for the other adults who were beautifully bi-lingual.  “They’re going to make dinner for us tonight,” said Gayle, translating.  “They’re making tamales, tacos, and a whole menu of great food.”

The dinner was to be served on the outdoor porch.   The stove was right next to us, and the couple would cook and serve us right there.  This could be pleasant, after that long trip…

We sat down that evening to plates loaded with all sorts of delectables.  After prayer we took the first bite.

The beef was spoiled, or something close to it.  There was a terrible taint to it.  I’ve eaten western Mexican food for years, and have even lived with a Mexican family and enjoyed hundreds of meals.  This was bad.  The smell was rotten.  The taste was even worse. Some of the teens started gagging.

“Listen to me,” I said in a low voice while smiling at the couple, who were standing over us and watching us eat.  “I don’t care how bad it is…”

“Doc, this is gross,” choked Jenny.

“I don’t care,” I replied severely.  “This could make a difference on how we are received this entire week.  You’re going to eat at least half a plateful and smile and nod.  Understand?”

The teens gained enough composure to force down at least a taco and tamale.

The elderly gentlemen cook was nodding and watching.  He became so absorbed in our eating that he relaxed and leaned himself against the stove.   He lay his hand on the top of the griddle and promptly burned all of the skin off of his palm.

At night the kids were sprinting to the outdoor bathrooms with their flashlights.

And they were sprinting back.

“The toilets – you can hardly see them,” panted Gina.  “They’re – they’re covered in cockroaches.”

This did not bother my pickup truck boys, though.  In just the first day they had each drunk the equivalent of seven cans of Pepsi apiece along with a generous amount of Red Bull.  They were constipated beyond all hope.  We had arrived on a Sunday.  One of the boys would not use the toilet until Thursday, and even then only under a death threat by our nurse.

The next day I saw that we had bit off more than we could chew. On my previous trips I had not noticed the staff too much.  They had no care about the children, nor of maintenance of the place.  The missionary took me to the side room.  Donated clothes were piled up to the ceiling.  Children were walking around with ratty clothes because the staff would not take the time to organize the clothing and distribute it.

The pantry was empty.  There were eighty children and there was more food in our teacher’s lounge at school than there was to feed the children.  Flies were everywhere and I mean everywhere. I ordered the vans to go back to our camp and bring all the food they could.  When I did, the pickup boys, goofing off, got lost for the afternoon.

While we were working on construction, one of the adults, Howard,  smashed his thumb with a hammer, breaking it.  Sara and Lori got into a tiff, and both were crying on either end of the building.  Some of the older teens started teasing the younger ones.   Jared was doubling over in pain from constipation.  Stan and Jake had accidentally locked themselves into a room while repairing a door.  I was counselor, organizer, physician, and disciplinarian that day.  Our Bible study was weak because the teens forgot to bring the teaching materials.  Emily was laboring gallantly with her first-year Spanish with another class and she was so bad we had the classroom of kids looking at each other wondering why she was talking about trucks and yellow bananas instead of about Jesus.

That night was the worst.  Tom and Stan, despite the warnings of the missionary, wandered off of the campsite right into an acre-wide field of marijuana… with an armed guard standing on the perimeter.  I heard a gunshot and saw the boys running and sobbing back into camp.  “We didn’t mean to, we didn’t mean to,” they blubbered.  “There’s a man out there, chasing us.”

I looked at the missionary in alarm.  Was the camp a safe haven?

“This is not good,” said the missionary, looking ashen. “There may be consequences for what they did.  we may get a … visit tonight.”  While the now-repentant boys fell on their faces praying aloud in a far cabin with their newfound come-to-Jesus moment, the missionary, camp director and I stayed up all night in an uneasy vigil, watching over the teens and readying for a confrontation.

The visit never occurred, thank Jesus.

However, I was spent.  More bad food in the morning, an argument between an adult and a teen, and three students who kept wandering off.   That afternoon while the teens painted a fence on the campsite, arguing and getting more paint on themselves than on the fence, I hit my limit.

I picked up a metal chair and walked to the far corner of the camp, facing a line of hills.

And I sat and looked.

And sat and looked.

And sat.

And looked.

I was too exhausted to pray.  I was spent.  Why was God making this trip so miserable?

“Dr. Zockoll… you okay? ” It was Jeremy, one of our seniors at the high school.

I glanced over at him.  “Uh, well… why do you ask?”

He squatted next to my chair.  “You’ve … uh … been sitting here facing those hills for over two hours without moving a muscle.”

I lowered my head  “It’s a mess, Jeremy.  Nothing’s going right. We have bickering, injuries, all kinds of problems.”

Jeremy looked out at the hills.  “Hey, let me pray and let’s see if we can find out what God want to do with the last part of this week.”

We did.

The next day started pretty much the same way.  The girls had lost the crayons for the children.  Stan spilled paint all over himself.  The pickup boys were sulking because I had disciplined them.  The side room was so hot I had to stop the Bible study early.

In frustration I looked at Jeremy. “Run over to the van and get me the soccer ball.”

He retrieved it and booted it my way.

You’d have thought I just dropped a million dollars in the back field of the orphanage.  Children’s eyes lit up in joy as they ran toward the ball.  They were shouting and cheering.  Our pickup boys responded – they were all high school soccer players – by starting a circle passing drill.  The girls carried the babies out to the edge of the field.  It was almost like a festival.

I stepped back and took a breath.  Maybe things were going to go better…

…and that’s when I saw Esteban.

Esteban was a serious little nine-year old boy who hobbled around on two short metal crutches.  Esteban had lost one leg up past the knee, his pant leg pinned up against his thigh.  I never did find out what the cause of his amputation was, but I did notice that he was often pushed back to the rear of the pack at any meeting.  The pecking order of the orphan children had sent him to a lower status due to his handicap.  He bore the humbled status stoically, with a grim face.  But something happened when that soccer ball came out.  He exploded in sheer joy and happiness.

To our wonder, he pushed his crutches forward, extended himself in lightning speed and intercepted the soccer ball, holding it to a standstill.  He then measured up Stan and threw his body backward against the crutches.  He leaned forward and fired a missile that zipped right past Stan and Jeremy.  The children cheered and Esteban beamed.  They chattered and pointed to him to do it a second time.  He gathered the ball to himself with deft moves with his only foot.  He leaned back on the crutches – and kicked a ball in the opposite direction, scooting past Brenda and Sara.

My heart melted for this little fellow as I saw him throw himself around the field, his metal crutches glinting in the sunlight.   The words of Matthew’s narrative came to me:

“Jesus said, Let the little children come to me, do not hinder them…” 

And then I knew why this week was the worst mission trip I’d ever attended.

I forgot why I was serving God.

I was into organization and travel.  I was possessed by discipline and construction work.  I forgot about the little ones – the very reason we were in Mexico.

I learned, though.  We all did.

We pulled together the rest of the week and saw God energize the ministry.  We ate the meals.  We forgot the cockroaches and used the toilets and showers.  We gathered in prayer.  We hugged and cuddled the children.  We  acted out scenes of the Bible – and included the kids.  We witnessed and sang and saw the love of Jesus rain down on the orphanage.

And I realized that the worst week of missionary service was a necessary lesson for me.  I had a change of focus that day.  It still continues with me.


If you are looking for great Christian books, I’d like to ask that you take a moment and consider looking at Mustard Seed Resources.  My very good British friend and fellow Christian Barbara Hyde runs this website, and promises prompt and efficient shipping anywhere in the world.  This is not a paid ad – I want to help a fellow Believer who has a great testimony and a wonderful heart of service to the Lord.  Please click here and browse around:

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  1. Brent permalink

    Love these stories! Always interesting. Tks Brad. Qq

    • There are so many memories we had, Brent! A ton of stuff still to write about, but if you have any family memories I hadn’t discussed yet, tell ‘me to me, bro!

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