Vacation with a Purpose
By Greg Asimakoupoulos
What were we doing in Nome, Alaska? Wendy and I both wondered the same thing as we stepped off the plane and set foot on the frozen tundra. After 17 hours and three flights, our family of four (including a 4 year old and 18 month old) arrived at our destination. For six weeks we would call Nome home and claim the title “short-term missionaries.”
I was approached by our denomination to help out during a staff crisis at a missionary radio station that serves Eskimo villages on the Bering Sea in Alaska (and Russia).
After being greeted at the airport, we were escorted to a plain but functional three bedroom house where we would stay. Once we finished unpacking, we were driven around a town famous for a 19th-century gold rush and the Iditarod race. We were quickly introduced to wild blueberries, dried salmon, and powdered milk. Although we never did try the Eskimo delicacy of muk tuk (whale blubber), our spiritual expedition allowed us to develop a taste for the following:
Exposure to a different culture. My wife, Wendy, grew up in Mexico as a missionary kid, and it's been her desire to introduce our children to life in other parts of the world. True, the folks in Nome are U. S. citizens, but their lifestyle is far removed from the suburbs of San Francisco where we lived. They have Mushers and sled dogs, and unpaved streets. The front yards are cluttered with junked cars, worn-out washing machines, and garbage. They have 90 percent alcoholism and unemployment. They have 22 hours of daylight in the summer (reverse for the winter). Our two daughters, Kristin and Allison, played outside at
midnight with the neighborhood kids whose eye slant and skin coloration aroused their curiosity.
Real community. The radio staff of ten welcomed us with open arms. We were a contact with the “outside world.” Nome is only accessible by boat (in the summer) and by air. Instantly we felt a connection with our new friends. Within a couple days, Wendy and I detected that the staff related on a level we were not accustomed to back home. There was an air of refreshing candor and vulnerability meeting other people in the community. We discovered that the quality of relationships among the staff permeated the people who claim the permafrost as home. Their shared experiences of risk, isolation, and a hearty existence resulted in a depth of belonging that we had not seen before (or since).
Satisfaction of simple living. The house where we stayed had a radio in the kitchen and a black and white TV that received one fuzzy station. Initially we worried about how the kids would be entertained, but our walks to the local library amid the gold-rush remains were more exciting than watching Sesame Street. Our family played Dominoes with Eskimo townsfolk who gathered at the local church. We walked the beach, learned to sail, and picnicked on the treeless tundra with those we hoped to influence with Jesus’ love. A simple life of grilled cheese suppers and blue jean fashions began to grow on us. It was eye opening to see how little “stuff” we need to be filled with contentment.
Meaningful family time. It sounds crazy to suggest that we needed to travel to the border of Russia to experience meaningful family time, but it was true. My job in California kept me going upwards of 70 hours a week. Our lives were fragmented, but in Alaska we were together almost all the time. We had agreed to go on this trip to reach out to others with the message of God’s love, but in the process we discovered new ways to reach out to each other. Because we were there to encourage the radio staff (my job was to spin records and read the news) and witness to those we met in the villages, we reminded our kids in our daily prayer times what a privilege it is to spread God's word.
The joy of sharing our faith. Our Alaska expedition taught us that the ideal summer vacation doesn't require a luxury hotel or an exotic location. By the end of our six weeks, we didn't want to go home. There is nothing as rewarding as serving others side by side with your spouse and kids. According to Dan Prout, Executive Director of Sierra Ministries International (a family missions organization), such adventures lay a solid foundation of Christian discipleship.
“A family mission service trip builds a pattern of service into children at an early age,” says Prout. “Having visited other nations and cultures, they have lessened fear of different ethnic groups and heightened gratitude for the blessings of their own surroundings.”
Dale Lusk of Merge Ministries runs family trips throughout Mexico and Guatemala. He loves the way little kids minister. “Young children are excellent missionaries. They are not intimidated by language, dirt, or other things that inhibit adults and youth,” says Lusk. “It doesn’t help to further the gospel by sheltering our children from what the world is truly like. It will also bond children to their parents in unexpected ways.”
Popular Christian author and speaker John Trent agrees. Last summer when John took to the road for back-to-back weeks of speaking commitments, he and his wife, Cindy took their two daughters, Kari, 14, and Laura, 10. The first week was at a beautiful, five-star resort in the mountains. The second was a family missions trip to Tijuana, Mexico, with Amour Ministries. “Guess which trip our kids can't wait to do again?” John asks with a wry smile. “The one where we slept in tents, took showers out of buckets, and got to work alongside other families from across the country building homes for the poor.”
More than a decade after my family’s expedition to the northland, the seeds of missions planted in the tender hearts of my girls continue to germinate. When the youth groups at our church have announced summer missions trips, both Kristin and Allison have enthusiastically signed up. Their desire to serve the poor and disadvantaged in the inner city of Chicago, the hills of Appalachia, or the Native American villages of the Southwest suggests that it's never too early to expose children to leaving their comfort zones to serve others in Jesus’ name.
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