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17 Things I Learned on IMMERSION in 2017

DECEMBER 2017

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by Abbie Thiebaut Abbie was a member of the 6-Month Caribbean IMMERSION team in the latter half of 2017. Her team loved the local way in Jamaica, Belize, and Costa Rica from May to November.

I returned home one month ago from the incredible adventure of Caribbean IMMERSION. Now that I’ve had time to rest, catch up on all the Netflix shows I missed, and kiss my nephews a thousand times, I’m left reflecting on my journey over the last year and all it’s meant to me. Honestly, I feel nothing but gratitude for the opportunities that have been afforded to me and the incredible year that it was...but it’s been tricky to really summarize the experience for those who weren’t on the trip with me. As I’ve begun to share my experiences with friends and family, I’ve discovered a few themes and lessons that stood out.

So, in honor of closing the book on Caribbean IMMERSION and the year 2017, I wanted to share 17 Things I Learned on IMMERSION (that you might learn as well, should you choose to go):

1. Bravery
I grew in boldness in so many ways—from being asked to speak in churches to asking difficult questions and holding myself and my teammates accountable to our mission. Let’s face it, on a cross-cultural experience, you face a thousand new and unknown situations every day. Courage is a choice, and boy is it rewarding. While it often felt more desirable to run, choosing to speak, embrace challenges, and love without fear completely shaped my experience and changed me.

6-Month Mission Trips

2. How to Fry a Dumpling
...and boil it, cook it, and otherwise consume it! Living the local way for six months meant not only getting used to new foods, but often helping to prepare them. In Jamaica, that meant eating dumplings with just about every meal. They prepare them in what feels like a million different ways and all of them are delicious! My favorite memories from my trip involve standing in the kitchen with my host moms and learning their secret recipes.

3. To Listen First
James 1:19 says, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” In cross-cultural settings, this became critical. Often it’s tempting to assume we know better, to cut people off, or share our own stories, but then we miss out on incredible opportunities to learn and appreciate others.

By taking time to hear other peoples’ stories, we offer them a service perhaps greater than painting their house, fixing their road, or giving them a meal.

This also created opportunities for genuine relationship and helped us to avoid many conflicts. When we are slow to anger and quick to listen we truly understand others’ hearts and our negative assumptions are left without a leg to stand on. Because of this lesson, I am better able to learn from and love my own neighbors at home too.

6-Month Mission Trips

4. My Limits
Honestly, I learned that, with God, I’m capable of a whole lot more than I think. Over and over again, my team and I experienced “look at God” moments, where we were absolutely sure we were in over our heads with language barriers, tight timelines on travel days, and challenging ministry opportunities. But each time we faced these adversities we found we were capable of so much more than we ever imagined.

5. Baby Powder is Magic
Okay, this is small and trivial, but it is most definitely a lesson I have carried home with me. Living out of a backpack for six months most definitely meant downsizing the number of cosmetics I could use in my daily routine. A bottle of baby powder can work as dry shampoo, face primer, and seriously so many other things. I tend to overcomplicate things and look for big solutions to small problems. My little bottle of baby powder represents an ability to simplify things, look for simple solutions, and honestly just live with less. There was nothing I needed that wouldn’t fit into my backpack!

6-Month Mission Trips

6. Funny Faces Break Down Barriers
When getting to know a new family or community, it often felt a little bit scary or intimidating. I wanted to seem impressive or interesting to my family and sometimes struggled to be authentic with them. The best thing I learned was that humor, laughing at yourself, and making funny faces broke down barriers faster than anything else. I learned not to take myself too seriously and that, at the end of the day, we all just want to connect with others. God gave me a pretty goofy personality, so letting others see it openly allows everyone to feel comfortable being themselves and leads to authentic relationships.

7. Attitude is the Difference Between an Ordeal and an Adventure
Okay, I definitely did not come up with this phrase, and it might even be a little cheesy, but it guided my days and helped me see the craziest experiences in a positive light. When we assume the best in every situation, laugh at ourselves, and seek peace, even the longest travel days, most unconventional ministry moments, and cultural barriers don’t seem so bad. Going through life with others tends to lead to some unconventional experiences. My best memories from the Caribbean—from “strange” buses to unfamiliar foods—could have been viewed as “ordeals” had we not seen them as unique experiences we were privileged to have.

6-Month Mission Trips

8. Trust
I just traveled what felt like the entire world with eight other people who started the trip as strangers. We had to learn to rely on each other, our host families, community partners in each country, and, most importantly, on God.

We all jumped into the trip with a blind “Yes,” trusting that God would make good on his plans for us...and guess what? He did.

I trusted that God would make good on my decision to quit my job, leave my apartment, and the community I loved so much for this experience and it was so so worth it. God followed through, and now, after IMMERSION, I now have a place to live, a job I love, and I’m back in my community with all of these incredible experiences to share.

9. The Spanish Language!
Remember when I said with God I was capable of more than I dreamed possible? This was especially true with communicating in Spanish! I took a few classes in high school, but didn’t think it was worth much at the time. We took a few classes from community members in Belize and Costa Rica, and I look at all that I was capable of communicating with my family and friends in Costa Rica and I know that God gifted us all with a sense of supernatural understanding through this learning process.

6-Month Mission Trips

10. How to Effectively Navigate
...planes, trains, buses, taxis, ferry boats, and just about any other means of transportation! Traveling to New York City, then Jamaica, Belize, and Costa Rica meant encountering just about every mode of transportation there is, and not always with the American ideal when it comes to posted scheduling and explanation. But now, it’s safe to say my teammates and I can confidently travel just about anywhere and know how to ask for directions, find the right bus, or maybe hop on a ferry to see some Mayan Ruins—true story!

11. Stillness
Many people that go on IMMERSION come back saying they learned how to “just be,” meaning they learned their presence is enough and how to be together with others without feeling the need to always be “doing.” This was all true for me, but more specifically, I learned to “Just Be Still.” I learned to sit in discomfort, I learned that peace will always come, and that the Lord is always fighting to make good. No amount of “doing” will accomplish my goals if I’m not resting in God’s mercy and grace.

6-Month Mission Trips

12. To Just Say Yes
Many of the invitations my team and I received felt unorthodox based on our culture and our need to have a whole plan. But I never regretted saying yes to invitations for walks, hikes, and drives where I didn’t always know what came next. As long as you’re in the presence of people you can trust, why not just say yes to a crazy plan? By asking for a bulleted list or an itinerary for the day we would have missed opportunities to see God work. As I return back home, I’m learning to let go of my plans and just say yes—to the plans God has for my life, even when they don’t seem to add up just yet.

13. The Meaning of Mercy
I had never really focused on the idea of mercy before IMMERSION, but this five-letter word shaped my experience and will most definitely shape my life moving forward as well. To me, mercy is the above-and-beyond good things Christ has given to us, and that he calls us to give to others. It encompasses and expands grace into blessings. It’s opportunities to see the world, a fresh tortilla dipped in a warm plate of beans, a hot cup of coffee, and an unexpected opportunity to reconnect with friends and family. It’s saying yes to requests that seem inconvenient and going out of our way to share Christ’s love for others. From this day forward, I want to be aware of Christ’s all-encompassing mercy and share it freely.

6-Month Mission Trips

14. Hospitality (in its Truest Form)
I just spent six months living in the homes of strangers who became my family. They never counted costs or inconveniences when it came to sharing their home, and they freely loved my teammates and me. I learned that hospitality is more about creating a space for others to share themselves than just cooking a good meal or having a nice guest bedroom.

15. To Always Be Prepared
The Boy Scouts know adventure best. This motto has meant being prepared for spontaneous adventures all the time. To never leave home without my water bottle, a comfortable pair of shoes, and a sense of adventure. On IMMERSION, I always had these things in my day pack and now I carry a few of them in my car at all times...because it’s just more fun when you have the freedom to say yes!

16. God is Bigger
...than cultures and communities and theologies. In each country, my team and I focused on the idea that we serve the same God as our friends and community partners, even if that service might look different in each place. God is still true and present in the mountains of Jamaica, the streets of Costa Rica, and the fields of Belize in the same magnificent way that he is in my home in Fort Wayne, Indiana. While we often felt far from home, we could find common ground in worshipping the same God, who is bigger than all of us.

6-Month Mission Trips

17. To Fall on My Knees
Each church we attended had its own unique spin on worshipping. Some worshipped in bold ways through dancing and shouting out to God, and some by bowing in reverence. I learned to appreciate all of these forms of worship. I learned to be vulnerable in my expressions of worship, and I learned to fall on my knees and cry out to God in community with others who are completely different than me. God is more real to me today than He was six months ago because of the time I spent learning to pray with my brothers and sisters in Jamaica, Belize, and Costa Rica.

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