Medical - Mission - Immersion Trips

Understanding the purpose
Immersion trips take many shapes in Catholic health ministry. Typically, they last one to two weeks, and immerse participants in the culture and history of the people. Opportunities can include introducing participants to families and community-based groups in settings that promote meaningful dialogue, sharing in life and celebrations of the community — especially those that express the meaning and faith that binds the community together, as well as offering service project opportunities for participants such as building repair or maintenance and/or providing needed health services. A primary purpose for an immersion trip is to provide health care leaders and staff with a service-based learning opportunity to deepen their understanding of Jesus' special concern for persons who are poor and a meaningful context for understanding Catholic social teaching. Putting a face on the poverty of the developing world provides critical context for social thinking. When sponsoring an immersion experience, acknowledge formation as the primary purpose, while also being sure to celebrate positive outcomes of service projects.

Planning and preparing the team
Planning an immersion trip is complex. Comprehensive education for participants must be scheduled before the trip and opportunities for reflection should be scheduled after the experience. Relationships must be established and maintained with contacts in the country, allowing for honest discussion about the expectations of both parties — this is a two-way street and we should be open to eliciting needs as well as offering a plan.

Here are some tips:
Partner with an organization that is known and trusted by the receiving community. Ideally this could be with representatives of a religious community and/or neighbor health care organizations. If needed, contact CHA, CRS, Catholic Medical Mission Board or an international mission community such as Maryknoll about their ability to work with you or to suggest partners.

  • Be selective when organizing a delegation. Learn the motives of prospective participants. Can they adapt to the culture and climate of the hosts?
  • Maintain a limit on the size of the delegation. Six to 12 people seems to make the most efficient delegation. As always, strive for diversity.
  • Develop an education plan. Provide pre-trip reading materials and discuss these materials and other important cultural customs and manners prior to the immersion experience.
  • Plan an orientation day. This can include ice breakers, team building exercises and educational sessions about the location, the culture and the goals of the experience, including any service to be completed. You might also arrange a Skype video discussion or conference call with the local partner/host. Also, CRS has a pool of speakers you can invite to talk about their experiences in the country you are to visit. Learn more.
  • Promote open dialogue within the group. All groups have different dynamics, so be sure to have team members spend enough time together so they are comfortable with each other and are able to participate honestly and respectfully in group discussions.
  • Work with your host to anticipate how gifts of money and/or materials will be handled. Predetermining who will offer gifts on behalf of the delegation is critical to community relations. Passing out gifts — even to small children — can result in hurt feelings and divisiveness within the rest of the community.
  • Make sure you have enough people who can speak the language proficiently. Ideally there will be one very skilled translator for every two to three participants. This ratio is especially important when doing any community visits or meeting people in their homes. If necessary, hire local translators.
  • Develop a process of prayer and reflection leading up to, during and after the experience. Provide participants with journals and encourage their use during the trip in addition to group prayer and reflection. Dignity Health (formerly Catholic Healthcare West) developed a reflection guide for trips to Guatemala.
  • Designate "reporters" for the group. So that local families and community workers are not overwhelmed by too many members of the delegation taking photographs and videos, designate only one or two individuals to chronicle the experience. Share the videos and still photographs with all members of the delegation, the organization, local hosts and members of the media or others with interest in the experience.

Here are two additional links to resources:

Access additional resources for volunteering
Access the CRS web page dedicated to resources for immersion experiences

For additional information, please contact Bruce Compton, CHA senior director of Global Health.