From the four corners of America to the mysterious reaches of East and Central Africa… Professionals, students, moms, and every variety of church lay-people pack their bags and brave the vaccinations. They come to Africa on a mission. For some it is a repeat journey, but for most it is the very first time. Their mission is often well planned and clearly defined, but what lies ahead is pretty much unknown. Maybe that’s part of what draws them here each summer, the teams of volunteers, coming to give something of themselves to a land they know very little about. The uncertainty, apprehension, and lack of control are all part of the package. But, even at the onset, there is a suspicion that what a person takes away from two weeks in Africa will be much more than what he leaves behind.

If there is any doubt about what to leave behind, however, the general consensus is… A LOT. Medical teams bring hundreds of pounds of medicines. Work teams carry enough tools to start a small ACE hardware out in the bush. If they are working with kids, then eighteen suitcases of candy should suffice. In addition, it’s apparently customary to bring stuff for the missionaries on location. Myself, having been one of those missionary hosts who appreciates a small blessing from WalMart, I have no particular objection to twelve pounds of OREOs. (Neither do my kids.)

These overstuffed suitcases, humorous at first sight, are simply manifestations of overflowing hearts, and at that, I can only smile. Packed in and around all the stuff team-members bring for their work are just a few personal belongings, which they will probably leave behind as well. And of course, enough bug repellent for a year.

At some point in time, all of the planning and packing comes to a juncture on the ramp at Wilson Airport in Nairobi—as the team circles around the plane for a group photo, and the bags (minus the three that British Airways sent to Australia) are weighed. The team will gather here bewildered and jet-lagged, so far from home, but so excited for what’s ahead. It’s a mix of joy, fatigue, and some small concern that the pilot for this harrowing flight into the African bush looks like he’s sixteen and just got his pilot’s license yesterday.

As I meet them at the plane, the tool of my ministry, I introduce them to the idea of a pilot who is a missionary. We work together to get all the baggage aboard while I entertain questions… “Yes, I’ve been here awhile… I’m actually thirty-three… from New Jersey… Well, I haven’t lived there recently, so that’s why I don’t talk funny. Yes, I’m married… Here’s a picture of my wife and kids. It’s a Cessna… About 700 horsepower, No, the weather won’t be a problem.”

In the process I find out that they are from a church in west Texas, or that they are students from different schools across the country brought together for this trip. I discover that some of them are still a little apprehensive, and I try putting their fears to rest with a confident word and a pre-flight prayer. The copilot seat is then offered up, as a bonus of sorts, to someone in the group who has always wanted to learn to fly, or to the one most unsettled about small airplanes perhaps. This front-seater gets a photo at the controls, a headset, and a new friend from north Jersey.

I am optimistic for these new acquaintances and kindred hearts because I know some things that they do not yet know. For instance, I know that the plane will indeed pick them up in two weeks from the little unreachable corner of Kenya or Sudan that we dropped them off at. And I know that they will most likely come back a different person. They will be appalled, and amazed at what they see there. They will lose some sleep under a mosquito net, imagining every manner of stinging, crawling thing in God’s creation. They will sit with lifelong missionaries and discover that they are not all that different from themselves. They will come to love the African people there, and the children will especially capture their hearts. They will cry because of the world that these children grow up in—for the first time in their lives having a picture of “what it means”: What it means to need, what it means to suffer, what it means to fear. They will take a moment sometime in those weeks to examine their own lives and their own faith. And they will inevitably fall short.

After fourteen days or so, the airplane will arrive overhead a mixed blessing. For it is the sound of relief: the sound of a good meal, a hot shower, and a decent night’s rest. But also the signal that this is goodbye. In sweat and time and love they have given everything they had to give. And now they know for sure that they could never give enough. The flight back to the city is different from the one out. My passengers are looking tired. Most are quiet; gazing out the windows, writing in a journal, or fast asleep. One is up front with me on the headsets again. I query him about the trip and am encouraged. And then I hear him say it—words I have heard so many times, in so many ways: “I come away with so much more than I gave.” I smile and nod and think, “I know what you mean.”

Some say that short-term missionaries really don’t make much of a difference. That these “weekend warriors” of foreign missions spend massive amounts of money on a minimal return for the investment. I guess that some people have different ways of measuring a return, because I see something else from the left seat of my Cessna. From here I see God working a compounding miracle. In the short-term mission teams God is bringing more hands to the task and more support to the effort, all the while secretly engaging in the greatest recruitment scheme ever seen. Because nobody goes home unchanged… and some come back for good. I should know. Twelve years ago I was one of them—one of the volunteers.