While I am not an Honor Academy Alumni, I feel that my experiences as a Global Expeditions missionary in ‘04 and ‘05 have majorly effected the way I see Christianity. I was twelve when I first went on a junior trip to Costa Rica, and having earned the two thousand dollars required to go all on my own, I was so proud and excited to be apart of God’s work. I was going to be a “world changer.”
On my first trip, not many red flags came up. I loved doing street ministry, liked my role in the drama “Rag Man,” and felt very close to god the whole time. There were “small” issues I didn’t think much of at the time, being only twelve and not knowing any better, like the lack of decent nutrition. We mostly ate rice and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (mine were just peanut butter because I was allergic to the strawberry jelly and was offered no alternative).
Only one thing stands out in my mind from that first trip, something I will probably never forget, seeing as I still feel ashamed when I think about it.
My group was sent to a nursing home about halfway through the week, and we were set to perform the Ragman, along with offering testimony to the group. During our performance, most of our team noticed that there was a teenaged girl in the audience with severe physical and mental disabilities. The muscles on her legs were atrophied, and she was not able to speak. The second we were released to talk with the residents, a huge group immediately gathered around the girl, ignoring many people who actually wanted further discussion. At one point, I noticed that two girls were speaking in gibberish, and looking really pleased with themselves. When they saw the confused look I was giving them, they told me that they were speaking in tongues, and that the truly godly were actually able to do it. A Missionary Advisor watched this entire exchange and didn’t refute what they said, instead continuing to pray over the girl (who at this time, our translators had discovered was a daughter of one of the facility’s nurses).
When the girl never started talking or walking, members of the group physically lifted her from her chair, and moved her legs in stepping motions over the ground. The young girl had no way to say if it hurt or not, no way to tell them if she didn’t want their hands all over her…I was appalled. I felt sick to my stomach. It only got worse when the girl who had taken on this “mission” first declared the girl healed, and had the rest put her back in her chair. That night at the evening service, everyone was talking about the miracle, and I had a knot in my stomach that wouldn‘t go away. However, I tried my hardest to push this memory out of my mind. Convinced that if she wasn’t healed, it was because of my own doubt.
Overall, I felt really great about the experience, and with the exception of what happened at the nursing home, I felt excited to go again the next summer.
Over the course of the next year, I built up a core group of great friends through my youth group. I convinced five of my friends to join me on another trip to Costa Rica, and after discussing the idea with our parents and minister, we began fundraising.
At the halfway mark before our trip, we found out (not through teen mania directly) that our trip had been overbooked, and that the first people to meet their trip balance would be the ones able to go. We were all horrified at the threat of losing “our trip” and got the rest of the money as soon as possible, but this was the beginning of the end of my faith in TM.
When we got to Garden Valley, we spent three days in physical hell. Between twelve hour rehearsals for our drama, and spending our first night in those domes (I often thought I saw racoon eyes reflecting back at me), we were all exhausted. One of the girls in my group was getting sick, and was almost sent home before we were even out of the country.
Once in Costa Rica, we found out the phone that had previously been at our residence was no longer there. Because of this, we were unable to call home for our first week in Costa Rica (though we and our families had been promised contact within 24 hours of our getting “in country“). Our parents were horrified that their daughters were out of the country and completely unreachable, and Teen Mania had no information about our individual well-being. Many parents did have reason to worry, seeing as two or three of our missionaries ended up in the hospital from severe dehydration. If I’m remembering right, there was also a concussed boy from a different group hospitalized overnight.
There were also lots of issues with the Team Leaders (TLs) and Missionary Advisors (MAs). It became apparent fairly early on in the trip that some of the younger missionaries where having trouble socially, and just weren’t reading cues as well as others. For example, there was a boy who asked lots of questions, all the time. It was obvious he was just doing this because he felt out of place in this environment, but the MA’s were incredibly short with him, not seeming to care that they were making the kid feel terrible. Likewise, for one of my more progressive Christian friends, the relationship with her MA was very hostile. She was regularly forced to discuss her “disobedience” with our team leaders. I’m pretty sure all she did was ask “why?” to some of the rules that didn’t make sense to her.
My worst issue came during a street outreach session. As we were leaving the street that we’d been witnessing on, a man who had been standing in the back of the crowd came up and kissed me on the cheek very suddenly as I was getting on the bus. An MA (the one my friend had issues with) furiously told me “never to do that again.” I hadn’t done anything! When I discussed how upset I was, she said, “Why are you telling me?” and I told her I thought she might want to know, she gave me a brisk, “Um, no” before walking away.
This issue with adults hadn’t been much of a problem in Garden Valley, where I had actually received a fair amount of attention for recruiting five of my friends into the missions field.
The food situation didn’t get better this time around, and when I came home from my trip, I was considerably lighter than when I had left. Once back in Garden Valley, I remember the speaker telling us over and over that people back home didn’t understand the change in us, or our experiences, and how we were to talk to our parents to ensure that we were able to come back again. Even after all of this, I still steadfastly believed that the trip had been a great experience.
But there are scars that came from both of those trips that have effected my identity as a Christian ever since. Once I no longer had the spiritual high that came along with daily services, concerts, etc. I felt empty. God felt very far away, and Teen Mania did nothing to reach out and see how I or my friends were adjusting post-trip. The strive for perfection that TM ingrained in me from 04-05 left me feeling insecure about my faith, and incapable of believing that my perfectly natural urges and feelings were ok. Sexual feelings? No! Worldly! Disagreeing with something written in the bible? What? No! Worldly! Secular music? Worldly! This led to lots of self loathing, over a long period of time, because I thought that I was constantly failing God. Eventually, this led to a complete break with Christianity altogether, which has only recently (since having my son) begun to mend.
I hadn’t really discussed these experiences much before watching “Mind Over Mania.” Since watching it, I actually began work on my final paper for one of my college classes, centered around the damage I believe TM is causing kids. As I began writing the paper, memories of the trips came flooding back, sometimes in a very painful way, and I eventually decided to submit my story. My hope is that in sharing my experiences, other Global Expeditions Alumni dealing with the same issues will feel understood.
Note from RA: After reading Sophie’s story, I asked her what her 5 friends thought of the trip. This was her response:
After the trip, we all actually kind of went our separate ways. One of the girls and I moved out of state fairly soon after getting home, and because of some serious schisms in our own church, most of us lost contact. Before all of that, though, we almost never talked about our trip. The only time I remember talking about it is one with one of the girls several years ago. She pretty much said, “That trip changed us all for the worst” and that was the end of the conversation.