A few years ago, I met a woman I will never forget. Sally Savery was a waitress in Wamego, Kansas, who had recently gone through a divorce and bankruptcy. Through a twist a fate, she had met a missionary from Brazil and was inspired by the woman’s story to travel back with her. After saving up the money to travel to Brazil, Sally worked at the mission, serving local poor children.
When Sally returned home, her life had changed forever. She resolved to raise money for those poor children and returned to Brazil a year later to continue serving them. Through Sally, those children received medical care, better food, love, and encouragement. But through those children, Sally saw her own life in a new light.
I can speak to something similar. In 2003, I visited the refugee camps in Darfur, Sudan. The refugees I met were victims of the brutal war of extermination the Sudanese government continues to wage on its citizens. The children I met — seemingly at peace and full of joy, despite the devastation — amazed me. They sang and danced and were joyful and smiling, teaching me a great lesson: Joy is possible even in the face of unthinkable evil.
Those images and those faces have stayed with me. You can’t come back from a trip like that without realizing how much you have compared with those who are suffering. Your heart grows larger, with a greater capacity to love.
Once you see it, you realize you’ve got to do something. This is why I encourage people to take “impact trips” to parts of our country or the world where there is hardship. While foreign aid is vital and necessary, Americans taking impact trips can make a great difference, for others and for themselves.
You can take a cruise or a ski trip, and a fleeting memory will remain with you. An impact trip to Rwanda, however, will change your life forever. It will give you a profound sense of the reality and immediacy of the need of others. You will also discover that, in serving, one experiences a profound sense of joy.
In my opportunities to visit with so many wonderful people in my state and across our nation, many have expressed a desire to do more for those suffering from the harsh realities of disease, religious persecution, lack of clean water or adequate food, and genocide. Young people especially show immense interest in the causes of suffering and are eager to find solutions. They are the most effective agents of change. The idealism of youth is a great gift; they are impatient for a better world, and they understand that they will be the ones who achieve it.
While we may not all be able to go to Darfur, there are places we can go. You don’t have to commit two years of your life to the Peace Corps to make a difference, although it’s a wonderful thing for those who are able. Even a relatively short trip can help those in difficulty in our cities or in rural poverty — while giving us the opportunity to help people build a better life for themselves, to interact with local community members, and to get a chance not to only see another culture but to understand it on a much deeper level.
In my family’s case, we have made a point of setting aside time on our vacations to work together on building a house with Habitat for Humanity or volunteering in an inner-city service project. Our help was small, but its impact on our family was significant.
When you live with people for a while, you begin to understand the challenges they face and the ways they try to alleviate them. Make no mistake, what you will see will be challenging, but it will also profoundly change your perspective.
Impact trips ignite a passion for service and a greater solidarity with the downtrodden. These trips humanize the suffering people we hear so much about but often feel so powerless to help. Few vacations provide a way to bond so closely with local cultures and peoples in so short a time. It is an opportunity to step beyond ourselves, to bring change to a dire situation.
“There is joy in overcoming self to serve others,” as Mother Teresa once said. A friend of mine says, “If you save a life, you save the world,” because you can never know the limitless potential of the human spirit. One child whose life is saved may one day develop a new technology that makes the world a better place. Every life is so incredible; that’s why the best way to serve God is to serve others.
In fact, in serving others, the life you end up saving may be our own.