mission trip update

This is the text of an e-mail I sent out last night to a variety of friends and family members. I got a few bouncebacks, so if you think I might have tried to send you one it might be that I have an out-of-date e-mail address for you in my files.

If you would like to be included in further updates, please let me know and I will add you to the list for future updates.

Friends, family, and mission trip supporters:

I have good news!

First, a little bit of background, because I think I am sending this to some newer acquaintances as well as old friends. (If you’d rather not receive future updates, just let me know.) From 2003 to 2010, I took a series of mission trips through a small, non-denominational organization called LEAMIS International Ministries. I went to Nicaragua, Bolivia, Costa Rica and five times to Kenya. I had already decided prior to the 2010 trip that it was time to give my supporters a break, and then the 2010 trip ended up coinciding with Mom’s cancer – I found out she was incurable on the morning I left for Kenya.

By 2013, however, I was talking with LEAMIS’s executive director and co-founder, the Rev. Debra Snellen, about going to West Africa — specifically, Sierra Leone.

I started raising money, and many of you receiving this e-mail were generous enough to give. But the trip had to be postponed – at first, it was scheduling problems and a family situation involving our host in Sierra Leone, the Rev. Gregory Bangura. Then, the trip was rescheduled, although this time Rev. Bangura was going to bring us into neighboring Liberia instead of Sierra Leone. Then, the Ebola crisis shook both countries (as well as nearby Guinea) and we had to postpone the trip again for safety reasons.

Now, with the Ebola situation finally quiet, we are moving forward, and have set new dates for the trip – which is now back in Sierra Leone. The trip is now scheduled for Nov. 16-30. (Yes, I will be out of the country and will miss Thanksgiving.)

Unlike some of my trips, this will not be a big team trip – just me and Debra. LEAMIS has a program called The Jethro Project (named for Moses’ father-in-law, who gave him some good advice about not spreading himself too thin) which conducts Bible-based leadership training for native pastors in developing nations. Many of these pastors have had only some rudimentary Biblical training, but haven’t had any practical training in leadership skills or principles. LEAMIS’s curriculum uses concepts from recognized authors like John Maxwell, along with tools like personality tests.

We’ll also teach some practical skills which the pastors can share with their congregations in various parts of Sierra Leone and Libera. One of these will be SODIS, a system for sanitizing water by leaving it in the sun in plastic soda bottles, where ultraviolet rays can kill harmful bacteria. SODIS (you can learn more at sodis.ch) only works in cases where the water is clear; muddy water won’t work. But it’s cheap, easy and practical, even in the most remote settings. We may end up teaching some cottage industry skills as well. Debra tells me that Rev. Bangura is more of a type-A personality than some of the host pastors we’ve worked with and will likely make the best use he can of us during our short time in Sierra Leone.

Debra and I have been a two-person team once before, during our 2007 trip to Bolivia.

During my initial fundraising, thanks to your generosity, I turned in $2,100 to LEAMIS, and that money has been sitting in LEAMIS’s accounts waiting for the trip. I never did have a hard-and-fast cost estimate on the trip, and I think at one point I thought it was going to cost a total of $3,000 including air fare. Fortunately, the air fare to Sierra Leone is going to be less than what we were told several years ago, and while some aspects of the trip are still being firmed up it looks like most of what I have to send LEAMIS is already taken care of. There still may be some additional costs depending on how those final arrangements come together.

This next paragraph is not directed at those of you who have already given to this trip. I am not asking any of you to give again. But if you have not yet supported the trip and you — or your church, Sunday School class or other group — would still like to make a contribution, I will probably have some other trip-related expenses between now and November – such as a $160 visa fee just to enter Sierra Leone (that’s three times more than any of the visa fees charged by other countries in which I’ve worked), travel insurance, and so on. Depending on what cottage industry workshops we end up doing, I might have to buy some supplies to take with me.

In order for your contributions to be tax deductible, you can still make them payable to LEAMIS, and I can get LEAMIS to reimburse me for legitimate and documented trip-related expenses. Checks made out to me are not tax-deductible, but that’s up to you.

You may mail your check directly to

P.O. Box 104292
Jefferson City, MO   65110

or give it to me and I will forward it to LEAMIS. If you submit directly to LEAMIS, please let me know so I can thank you promptly.

Now, here’s the fun news. I almost hesitate to mention it, because it makes me sound like a tourist instead of a missionary. But I can’t help myself. You all know that I take this mission work very seriously, as does Debra. But LEAMIS always tries to leave a day at the end of a two-week trip – especially for team trips, but usually even for two-person or three-person trips like this – for participants to debrief each other on the experience, discussing what we learned and processing how our hearts were touched as we unwind a little bit in a pleasant environment before returning to the U.S. Usually, this is done in-country. On four of my five Kenya trips, I had the opportunity to visit wildlife parks on our debrief day. In Bolivia, we visited a city that had a zoo and a beautiful cathedral – although there was a record cold snap on the day of our arrival, which led to a miserable, bit-by-bit 24-hour delay in our departure for America.

But Sierra Leone – much smaller and poorer than Kenya – doesn’t really have a suitable place for us to hold debrief. So instead, we’re going to take advantage of our layover on the way back. When you fly from the U.S. to Sierra Leone, you change planes at Charles DeGaulle Airport … in Paris. So we’ve arranged the itinerary to give us a day in Paris on the way back, and we’ll debrief and unwind while seeing a few sights. Seeing Paris – even though I won’t get to see much of it! – is a bucket list item for me. On my first Kenya trip, we changed planes in London – another city I hope to see one day – and it was so frustrating not to be able to leave the airport!

I just had to share that.

Anyway, please keep me, Debra, and the trip in prayer. I appreciate all of your prayers, thoughts and encouragement over the years.

Memories of Kenya

When I got to Regan Aymett’s class at Learning Way Elementary this morning for my weekly hour of volunteer service through “Raise Your Hand Tennessee,” she and the kids were working on a little story book in which the main character decides to take a trip to Ghana.

I excitedly told Ms. Aymett that I’d been to Africa five times and was planning another trip there this September. I figured she’d just mention the fact right then, while they were working on the book, but instead she suggested I show the kids some photos, presumably next week.

So, tonight, I’ve been digging through photos of my past Kenya trips, trying to pull some that would be suitable for a relatively-secular slide show for second graders.

I have found some good photos. The story book today mentioned African women carrying things on their heads, and I have a photo from our 2005 trip in which the women of the church in Ndonyo carried our luggage up a steep hill to where our van was waiting for us:


I will not, however, be showing the second graders this photo, from the hotel where we stayed during the 2009 trip:


Omar’s missed meal

I blogged about this in 2005 but, after looking back at the post, I may not have explained it very well. And that was eight years ago, so I think the statute of limitations has expired for me to blog about it again.

I’m watching the wacky Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker comedy “Top Secret!”, starring Val Kilmer in his first starring role, right now on VH1 Classic. It’s delightfully silly and tasteless, and I don’t know that the movie itself has any messages or lessons. But the directors’ commentary on the DVD includes a great anecdote which I’ve actually used in mission trip training to talk about cultural differences and misunderstandings.

The great Omar Sharif appears in the first few minutes of “Top Secret!”, and he’s a wonderful sport, getting things sprayed on him and squirted at him and so on. With all due respect to Robert Stack, Sharif was easily the biggest star that Z/A/Z had worked with at that point in their young careers, and they wanted to thank him for what he’d done for the movie. So they invited him out to dinner at the end of his last day of shooting. They made a reservation at the most expensive restaurant in London, where the movie was shot, and the three of them waited for him to arrive.

And waited.

And waited.

He never showed up, and the directors enjoyed an expensive meal which they’d never have paid for just to treat themselves. They later discovered that Sharif had already checked out of his hotel and was on the plane home at the time of their dinner reservations.

Eventually, a mutual friend asked Sharif about the incident. He explained that in Egyptian culture, it is always considered rude to decline an invitation, even if you are unwilling or unable to attend. Even though he knew his plane reservations would prevent him from going to dinner, he accepted the invitation out of what, for him, was good manners.

And before you go clucking your tongue, there are certainly American customs or expectations that seem just as mysterious to people from other cultures. Every culture has its own assumptions and mores and etiquette and expectations, and when you travel to, or welcome visitors from, another culture, there are almost bound to be misunderstandings and confusion. The best you can do is try to be aware and step carefully.

A long day

It’s been a long day but (for the most part) a good one.

The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration started yesterday, but the evening classes – which are the big, showy, public part of the show – began tonight. I had to run out to the show grounds early this morning to drop off a USB drive for the official photographer to put some presentation shots on, and so while I was there I naturally had to stop and bring back a dozen world famous Optimist Club donuts. I had to wait 20 minutes – which was a good thing, because it means I got donuts hot from the fryer. They were still hot when I got back to the paper. I had one donut myself and wandered around giving out the other 11.

But that’s nothing compared to what my co-workers did for me a couple of hours later. We had a fund-raising luncheon for my Sierra Leone mission trip. My father and Ms. Rachel attended as well. We raised $580 in donations, which is wonderful. I need to see if Debra’s made any progress with the airline tickets; I need to know what the final cost is going to be so I know exactly what my target is.

Tonight, of course, I was at the show. I went down to an empty box on the rail to get a picture of the flag horse, and I saw a couple of people waving at me, trying to get my attention. Not to drop names or anything, but it was a Grammy-and-Dove-Award-winning Christian music power couple. I stopped by their box a little later to say hello; I wish I could have stopped and chatted a bit, but I had other stops to make and wanted to let them enjoy their first show on their own. It thrilled me to death that the recognized me and wanted to say hello.

The Celebration is controversial, of course. The difference of opinion is whether or not the bad trainers – like the one in that video that “20/20” showed a few years back – are the exception or the norm. I know people who have horses, and I like to think that the bad trainers are the exception, and that the industry has made progress in the last couple of years in dealing with them. In any case, the Celebration is a big community event, a major fund-raiser for a lot of our school and civic organizations, a chance to see and be seen, and I always just love being there.

Ms. Rachel has had a box for years, and I went and sat with her and Dad for a while.

I had to use my phone to take video tonight. It’s still going crazy. I’m hoping the warranty replacement arrives tomorrow. They will check the phone I’m sending back for water damage, and I worried about having the phone in my pocket tonight when I was so sweaty. I swear, they raise the press box by 20 feet a year, and I had to climb all of those stairs, up and down, three or four times tonight.

I was anxious to see what my Fitbit recorded in terms of flights of stairs and total mileage walked. Unfortunately, at some point in the day my Fitbit seems to have left me. I’m not panicking yet – it may turn up in my car or at the office tomorrow.

Other than that, though, it was a really nice day. I think I got some good video, even on the sick phone, and I’ll post it to the Times-Gazette web site tomorrow morning.

Turkey after all

Our last plan for the Sierra Leone trip involved leaving the U.S. on Thanksgiving, which I reminded Debra would a terrible day to be at the airport. (I would also miss Thanksgiving dinner, but that had been my understanding ever since I first agreed to go on the trip. I just didn’t think we’d be leaving that day.)

Debra agreed, and she asked Pastor Gregory if we could push the trip back a week. So now we’re going to leave the U.S. on Dec. 5, which should be a lot better.

Now, I just have to get my vacation days changed. Everyone at the paper has been terrifically supportive – they’re having a luncheon for me in another couple of weeks. I still feel sheepish that this is the second or third time I’ve had to change my vacation request.

Best of all, this now means I’ll get to have Thanksgiving dinner with the family.

The binder

I was looking for something else tonight and, in passing, decided to grab the three-ring binder from my last foreign mission trip, in 2010, in case there was some information in it that might be relevant to the trip I’m taking this November to Sierra Leone.

I found two things in it I wasn’t expecting.

One was my yellow vaccination card. I’d already gotten the Vanderbilt International Travel Clinic to replace it. They were really nice about it, but the replacement only listed my yellow fever vaccine, not any of the other vaccines I got there in 2002 and 2003 when preparing for my first and second trips. The yellow fever vaccine is the one that you’re most likely to have to show to immigration officials.

Some of those vaccines probably need boosters (which may be why the Vanderbilt clinic didn’t put them on the replacement card), but the clinic has gotten way too expensive and won’t take insurance (or wouldn’t the last time I went there). I need to find an independent doctor who does travel medicine.

The other thing I found was tucked into the plastic cover of the three-ring binder.

It was one of Mom’s hospital bracelets. She was suffering from her pancreatic cancer at the time of that 2010 trip, and I’d saved one of her hospital bracelets from right before the trip and tucked it into the cover of the notebook as a point of contact.

I’ll think about that bracelet at Relay For Life next weekend.

Pomp, circumstance, bison and visas

I got my first-ever passport in August 2002, while preparing for my first-ever foreign mission trip, to Nicaragua in January 2003.  Passports are good for 10 years, and mine expired last August. Fortunately, you don’t have to renew right away; as long as your passport is less than five years out of date, you can use the renewal-by-mail form. If it’s more than five years out of date, you have to apply in person and use the same form as new passport applicants, which requires a $25 payment to the local office that accepts your application over and above the $110 passport fee.

Now that I’m planning a mission trip to Sierra Leone in November, I had to bite the bullet and renew. A couple of mission trip contributions made directly to me (instead of to LEAMIS, which is where people would normally contribute) paid for the $110 renewal fee plus the cost of new passport photos.

The application, along with my old passport, is now in the hands of the State Department, and it may be weeks before I get my new passport. They also return the old passport, with a hole punched through it to indicate that it’s no longer valid. That’s a good thing, because the visa stamps in the booklet are like little reminders of all your previous trips. It’s also great for showing off when you make mission trip presentations.

As I said, my old passport was from 2002. I’ve been reading up on the new passport design introduced in 2007, about the same time they started implanting RFID chips  with your passport number and information into the passports. The new design was, I discover, almost universally reviled:

Marketplace: ‘I don’t want an ugly American passport’

CBS News: ‘An embarrassingly patriotic passport’

New York Times: ‘Stars and Stripes, wrapped in the same old blue’

Here’s a quote from the NY Times story:

“It is like being given a coloring book that your brother already colored in,” said Michael Bierut, of the design firm Pentagram in New York City.

The complaints seem to be that the passport design is too garish and/or busy, and that it’s a little over-the-top in patriotic imagery. After all, say the critics, its primary function is to be shown to immigration officials from other countries, who are likely to be less-than-impressed by the Preamble to the Constitution, quotes from U.S. presidents, or imagery of bison on the Great Plains.

What little I’ve seen of the new design online doesn’t bother me that much. I do sort of understand some of the complaints – when you travel internationally, you’re proud of and grateful for your home country, but you try to avoid being the Ugly American who tries to shove the red, white and blue down everyone else’s throats. But I think immigration officials are probably too busy to take in, much less be offended by, the graphic design of any country’s passport. Their impressions of foreign countries are probably much more influenced by the behavior of frazzled and irritable travelers as they go through line.

The old passport book had the blank pages divided into quarters. I used to be a little annoyed that Kenya’s visa stamp was large enough to fill a whole page, which I considered wasteful and arrogant. My old passport wasn’t quite full, but it was getting there – and having the State Department add extra passport pages, which used to be free, now costs $82. $82! For blank pages! You can, if you think you’re going to be traveling heavily, order a fatter passport in the first place, and that is actually free.

Sorry, I was starting to ramble. At some point between my first three Kenya trips and my last two Kenya trips, the full-page rubber stamp was replaced by a full-page label, which features images of the “big five” – the five animals that give you bragging rights in terms of a safari. (I have seen all of the big five, but not all on the same trip.) The Kenyan visa label is not unlike the new U.S. passport – a celebration of the country’s heritage. I don’t see anything wrong with it. I still don’t think they should be taking up a whole page, but I have to admit the new label is more of a conversation piece.

Another thing that took up space in my old passport has now been eliminated. For a while, U.S. immigration was stamping your passport when you returned to the country. I don’t think they did so on my last couple of trips, and I’m not sure why they ever did.  I’m not sure exactly what that stamp was supposed to document which isn’t already documented elsewhere.

Anyway, the new passport pages are not specifically divided into quarters, because of the artistic background imagery. I can understand the people who find the new imagery a bit over-the-top, but I don’t think I agree with them, at least not from the photos I’ve seen online.

Ask me again when I get my new passport.