How To Change Your Mindset When Doing Volunteer Mission Work

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Amy Lemstra is an intern with Resonate who was a member of the Cohort program for young adults exploring missions. She recently returned to Canada after working as a volunteer coordinator for Tesoros de Dios, a Resonate ministry partner in Nicaragua that offers therapies and support to children with disabilities, and their families. Here Amy reflects on her experience with visiting volunteers and offers some wisdom on how you might approach volunteer mission work in the future.

Hello, my name is Amy Lemstra. I’ve just come back from 15 months living and serving in Nicaragua as a member of Resonate Global Mission’s Cohort program. My official work was to be the volunteer coordinator for Tesoros de Dios, a Resonate ministry partner that offers therapies and support to children with disabilities, and their families.

Before the COVID-19 shutdown, that meant leading teams and volunteers as they spent time at Tesoros and helping them to connect with the Nicaraguan staff, children, and families there. Through my time with the Cohort working for Tesoros de Dios, my missional mindset grew to a posture of listening and learning, rather than speaking out from my own ideas and culture.

As the volunteer coordinator, I met so many people with good hearts, genuine love for our ministry, and real calls on their lives to partner in our mission to serve each of those children. In the six months I was able to receive teams and individuals weekly, I witnessed how genuinely visiting North Americans desired to help and serve. I also became more and more aware of the cultural divide, and how often cultural misinterpretations would make relationships tense, or those relationships would just not happen at all.

For Nicaraguans, everything comes down to relationships. A Nicaraguan will take the most roundabout, illogical path to completing a task in order to save the relationship, which is always the priority. They love welcoming visitors, and they are rightly proud to share what they have put into creating the only non-profit organization in Nicaragua that offers therapies to children with disabilities, free of charge. When a team can assist in their work or is able to bring supplies, it is such a joy-filled blessing. Since the staff are accustomed to visitors, they are very patient and understanding with the cultural differences, and I’ve yet to hear them complain about the inconveniences of having volunteers.

Yes. There are inconveniences. With the best of intentions and the greatest desires to serve, what most North Americans often forget is the relationships. They come ready to put in a full day of hard labor, and often find instead that what’s desired is time playing with a child, joining in the mothers' devotionals, or having lunch with our staff. And that can be so much more challenging than a hard physical labor project. It can be uncomfortable. It often requires a translator, patience, and a lot of grace from both sides. When the focus is entirely on completing the project, we forget the people we’re there to serve, which can end up being more harmful than helpful, as well as disruptive in their daily work and alienating for the local people. The method is the message. Serving cross culturally must mean serving in a way that interacts well with the cultural expectations and needs of the people you go to.

All that’s needed is a small but powerful change in your missional mindset. Work projects should still happen, but they can happen in a way that doesn’t dishonor the context of the work. Slow down. Don’t just build a house, or a well, or plant a garden. Build the relationships and let the work happen around that. Stop for longer meal times. Ask questions, so many questions! Ask about their family, favorite food, where they went to school, how they became involved in the mission, etc. Learn about them. Learn some local slang. The work will happen naturally, but the relationships are what make it worth doing. 

Despite the restrictions we face in serving cross culturally this year, I hope you are inspired to hear God’s call on your life, and step into relationships in a way that honors and hears the hearts of the people you go to serve. 

Dios les bendiga

Resonate has opportunities for both individuals and church groups to volunteer in mission. Volunteers can serve from one week up to two years. For more information about volunteering, contact Gillian Bruce at [email protected] or you can check out our opportunities here.

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