Becoming a student of the world

Mission trip experiences left me with lots of questions. Where was the mission trip “high” everyone talks about? I expected a 360-degree change in my life, but I came home feeling no different.

While traveling to Malawi with his dad, Toby Bartlett was supposed to sit in a church classroom listening to his dad teach church leaders and pastors, but the sight of children playing soccer drew him outside.

“Mission trip” is a phrase that brings excitement, adventure, passion and sometimes fear of the unknown. I was feeling all of those emotions when I went on my first mission trip to Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2014 at the age of 14. I was part of a team of eight people, including doctors and nurses, and the goal of our trip was to provide basic medical needs for people who couldn’t afford it.

Bolivia: Joy and contentment

We set up five clinics all over the city, from school sites to somebody’s front yard with sheep and goats. We helped mostly children, giving them medicine, toothbrushes and toothpaste, knowledge about what was physically going on with them and help knowing how to use the supplies that we had given them.

My job was to hand all the kids either a toy or a balloon animal that I would make for them. I was tremendously impacted by the joy on the kids’ faces and the happiness that it brought me to give them a little transformer or a tiny doll.

We went to an orphanage one day, and as I was playing soccer with one of the kids he called me el missionario blanco (the white missionary), and for the rest of the trip that was my name. I saw how happy the locals were by the way that they loved each other, cherishing every meal and every soccer game they played with the best manners and great sportsmanship.

I was also confused by their happiness. I thought they should be angry about their predicament. I was certainly angry for them, fighting with God about how the orphans should be in homes with parents that loved and cared for them. I spent long nights lying in bed thinking to myself that I should feel bad for them, and that because they didn’t have the things that I had that they should be unhappy.

I talked about this with one of the team members who had been there for a few months.  He assured me the children were happy. He kept telling me that the people were making the best with what they had and that they were content without the latest Xbox, laptop or huge TV. This confused my 14-year-old self. On one hand, I was amazed and overflowed with happiness for all the locals. But on the other hand, I was confused about why I had come and why I didn’t want to give everything away to help these people who seemed content.

I thought I would come home from Bolivia a different person. From my experience growing up in the church, most people who went on mission trips came back a new person with a fire for the Lord and enough passion to star in Passion of Christ. I came back the same and was disappointed that I didn’t get the “mission trip buzz.”

To me, it seemed the people of Bolivia were happy with what they had. Why should I go in, guns blazing with the Holy Spirit, to try and fix something that wasn’t broken? Was I a bad Christian for feeling like I had been on a glorified vacation and not a mission trip?

I thought to myself, “Next time it will be different.”

Playing soccer with orphaned children in Bolivia caused Toby to ponder the reasons for contentment. Photo provided by Toby Barlett

Turkey: Stories and sadness

My next chance was in 2016, when I was lucky enough to accompany my dad and his Tabor College class to Turkey. We went all over the country, meeting many refugees and experiencing many things. From Istanbul to Ani to Aleppo, we spent much of our time listening to stories, including stories about Syrian refugees who were trying to escape to Europe through Turkey. They poured out their hearts to us, and it was sad. We went to an orphanage for Syrian children whose parents had died in the war. We tried to provide encouragement to these people, but we knew little to nothing about what it was like to lose a home, family and friends like they had.

We also spent lots of time going to missionaries’ houses and speaking with them. It was hard to listen to stories of how they and others had been threatened by the government for being Christians. We concluded the trip with a visit to an inner-city office where we heard from elderly women who set up a care place for refugee women and children to come for food as well as practical necessities. The women had so much strength and love in their hearts and presence that it was almost tangible.

On the flight home I was asking myself the same questions that I asked coming home from Bolivia. My heart went out to all the refugees that we saw and talked to. It broke me how so much hate can be in the world.

On the other hand, I was impressed by the way the Turkish people had religion in the center of their lives (and also how delicious the food was!) My heart was confused, and I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how. And when I got back to the States, I still hadn’t gotten that mission trip “high.”

It wasn’t until my next trip that I realized I was looking at my cross-cultural experiences all wrong. My dad and I were very fortunate to hop onto a trip to Malawi, Africa, in 2016. I was along for the ride while my dad was there to teach.

Malawi: Soccer, a brick and orphans

I was supposed to spend my days sitting in a big classroom in a local church, listening to my dad’s lectures. However, there were a lot of children outside, so being young and full of energy, I went outside to see what was going on. I saw a few kids playing soccer. Nothing wrong with that, until I looked closer and realized that they were playing with a brick. I accessed my knowledge from anatomy class and concluded that kicking a brick probably wasn’t the best for one’s feet!

So, I hurried into the classroom and grabbed a soccer ball that we had brought. Some in the class raised their eyebrows at that. Once I took the ball outside, the game began almost immediately. Two kids kicking a brick grew to 15 of us playing late into the afternoon. That was how the rest of the trip mostly went. I certainly left Malawi having played more hours of soccer on that one trip than in my whole life.

One day we went to a small village where previous cross-cultural work had been done with the youth, who were orphans. In that culture, the oldest child is expected to take care of and provide for any younger siblings. ZOE (an organization) gives them jobs so that they can support their family. It was hard to see people my age working full-time to support their brothers and sisters because their parents had died from HIV/AIDS. I couldn’t imagine what they were going through, and my heart went to them. They were fighting for not only their lives but for the lives of their family as well.

This village wasn’t the only place that this happened. Children all over the country were having to take care of their brothers and sisters, regardless of the circumstance. They were forced to find jobs at young ages and to work long hours to bring home food and other necessities. It broke me down.

On the plane back, I was talking to my dad about the trip. This time it was different; I looked at the experience differently. This time it wasn’t about what I did during the trip, which is how I thought about things in Turkey and Bolivia. I wasn’t doing great and amazing things on these trips: I gave out toys and listened to people. At the time I thought nothing of it and did not feel any great accomplishment.

Coming home from Africa, the conversation was how this experience had shaped me. Once I started looking at it like that, everything clicked. When my dad asked me to think about how I was shaped, I realized that all the trips I had been on had formed something in me. Once I started looking at how the experience had shaped me, everything clicked.

I realized that giving out toys to children at the clinics in Bolivia had taught me to appreciate the little things and going to the orphanages had given me a deeper love for my family than I could imagine.

In Turkey I learned how to fight for what I believe in. I believe that violence will not solve anything, and that peace and reconciliation are the keys to a happy lifestyle for all peoples and nations. All the stories I heard in Turkey fueled this fire.

In Malawi I learned first how to play soccer better and second that strength comes from within. That the outcome of perseverance and hard work is always rewarding, from big impact to slight change.

This type of thinking changed the way I saw everything and prepared me for my next trip—this time to Colombia.

Traveling to Colombia with the Tabor College ministry entrepreneurship and innovation (MEI) program, caused Toby Bartlett, front right, to think about the attitudes one can adopt when faced with challenges. Photo credit: Tabor College Wichita

Colombia: How was I shaped?

In 2017, my mom and I went to Colombia with my dad’s class. We stayed in a convent in Bogota for the first couple days. We spent the first days learning how Colombia has been in a 50-year civil war between the government and the FARC and how many people suffered as a result.

We visited a farm which had been barren during the time of military occupation but now was an organic farm, producing bananas and coffee. We listened to the farmer’s story.  He had organized multiple farms into a corporation and the farmers all sent their fruits to a drying company that only hired single women, special needs workers and others that couldn’t find jobs. We spent the next days in the rainforest and the Chaco region. We went to multiple churches to encourage them in the good work that they are doing.

On the plane ride home I was ready for the question I knew was coming: How did this trip impact you? Colombia taught me to always look for the good and to not focus on what is going wrong but on how I can change it for the better.

I realize now that although I never got the stereotypical mission trip “high,” I got something much greater. I learned how to learn. Through my experiences, I learned to look for things that aren’t obvious and to explore them with curiosity. I was asking the wrong questions in the beginning and was waiting for an emotional experience that would change my life radically. I didn’t get that and that was okay. I’m happy with what I did get—the world student experience.

My advice? If you go on a mission trip, don’t focus on what you do, but instead focus on what you are learning and how it is shaping you to be a better Christian or person. If you do get the mission trip “high,” that’s amazing. God works in wonderful ways. But if you are like me and haven’t had that 180-degree life change, then take a step back and see how this trip has helped create another a student of the world.


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