By Jill Koskitalo
Before Elaine Sham started her fourth year at McMaster University in September, she decided she needed a short break. After speaking with friends and doing some research, she settled upon where she wanted to spend the rest of her time off.
Sham organized her finances, packed a single bag and hopped on a plane for the trio of a lifetime—two weeks in the countryside of war-torn Bosnia.
“It was such an eye-opening experience,” Sham says. “Just hearing the stories of those people—someone whose husband was shot, or the couple that got married during the war … It really puts a face on the things you see in the news.”
At 23, Sham is a typical university student. Full of energy, the French major throws herself into school and activities such as the campus Christian group and the drama club. But unlike many of her contemporaries, Sham’s life has taken a spiritual direction—her trip to Bosnia was one step on her road to becoming a full-time missionary. When she finishes her degree she plans to study international development in graduate school.
Raised a Christian, Sham says contemporary mission work is a far cry from the usual notions people have about missionaries.
Gone are the days when robed Jesuits wandered into the jungle, bringing Bibles to the heathen masses. While Christians still work around the world to share their religion with others, their methods now focus on building relationships.
Many students who go on overseas missions choose service-based trips where the objective is to serve the community they visit rather than pure evangelism.
“I personally find the purely evangelical trips a lot more self-focused,” Sham says. “You go in saying, ‘We’ve got the way,’ when these people are struggling just to survive. You tend to get more out of it than you give to the community.”
Sham says building a strong rapport with the people she serves is the first step in sharing her religion.
“When people see how Christ works in my life, then they may want to learn more,” she says. “That’s the way Christ ministered—he healed and served people and they asked him questions.”
Going on a mission is rarely an easy task. In Bosnia, Sham was responsible for distributing food and clothing. Her team had to fend off hundreds of frantic war victims who clearly stampeded to get supplies.
“In some cases the people had nothing, but they didn’t think twice about grabbing things away from others,” Sham says. “Sometimes you had to wonder if you were actually doing any good.”
Aside from being mentally prepared for the challenges of working in the field, physical stamina is also necessary. Exhausting hours and heavy lifting are part of working at a centre distributing supplies.
On a mission to Belize, in Central America, two years ago, Sham divided her time between construction work, park maintenance and environmental education seminars.
At one point, a miscalculation by kitchen staff left Sham and her companions without food for two days.
“Going with only one loaf of bread and a can of beans for the weekend, for the whole team, was not fun. But it certainly taught us what hunger was like.”
Eva Varvas can sympathize with Sham’s difficulties. The fourth-year toxicology student at the University of Guelph went on a mission to St. Petersburg, Russia, in October, 1998.
“Everything was grey. It was so dismal and there was such a military presence. As we were landing you could see camouflage helicopters, guys in full military garb with guns. It was pretty scary.”
Varvas spent three months volunteering at a drop-in centre where street kids could spend the day. It was the first time she faced such poverty and desperation up close.
“We’d feed the kids, but they had to agree to stay in the program for the whole day. Otherwise they’d just come for a free meal and then go off and do drugs or prostitute themselves.”
To qualify for a student visa, Varvas went to weekly lessons to learn Russian. But communication was still a barrier.
“It felt pretty cut off, not being able to make to most people,” she says.
“There was usually at least one person with me who could speak enough English to help me get by. But growing up in North America, sometimes it seems that people speak your language everywhere. It was often very frustrating.”
Planning the trip can be a complicated order in itself. Missionaries fund trips themselves, often through community and church donations.
Their training depends on where they’re going and what they’ll be doing. But first they need to find the right mission.
Jessica Zeyl, a theatre technical production student at Ryerson, is using the Internet to help narrow her search.
“I want this experience,” she says. “I think as Canadians we’re really sheltered from the realities of the world and I want to understand what’s going on. Missionary work is putting your total trust in God. You don’t have modern comforts, you don’t speak the language, you’re alone. I want to put myself through that test.”
Those who want to stay close to home can find missions within Canada and the U.S. But for those who feel the pull of foreign langs, few things can compare to an experience overseas.
“I could take a month off and go backpacking around Europe. But after a missions trip, it gives you a whole new world view,” Varvas says. “Now just traveling for the sake of travelling seems pointless to me.”