Medical mission trips can transform participants open to growth

March 1, 2017


Formation, values, mission and personal call converged for Elizabeth Brophy when she traveled to Guatemala as part of a Providence Health International mission trip. The reflective processes surrounding the volunteer experience made it a formative journey — a goal of  many Catholic health care-sponsored mission trips.


CHA created "A Reflection Guide for International Health Activities" to facilitate profound and lasting personal transformation in volunteers who participate in medical mission trips or other immersion experiences in developing or low-resource countries.

"Personally and professionally there's not a day that goes by that I don't speak about my experience in Guatemala," said Brophy, who directs communications for population health at Providence Health & Services. "I have a deep sense of gratitude in what I received during my experience."

Brophy traveled to Guatemala with Providence Health International, part of Renton, Wash.-based Providence Health & Services. Providence Health International partners with other U.S. nongovernmental aid and development organizations that have permanent staff in Guatemala to provide needed services in and around  Chicamán, which is about 150 miles northwest of Guatemala City.

Brophy volunteered for a public service trip, a category of immersion experience where the volunteers take on infrastructure development projects that address root causes of health risks for adults and children. In collaboration with Medical Teams International in-country staff, her group went into the homes of villagers to build clean burning stoves.

As the mother of a 3-year-old daughter, she was moved by empathy for those she met.

"Through this experience, I got the opportunity to connect with other mothers, who loved their children the same as I love my child, and want to make sure they are providing the best environment they can for their kids," she said. "I went to serve, but got much more back in return."

Channeling that sense of appreciation and a desire to do more is something Catholic health care has been discerning more thoroughly, according to Bruce Compton, who leads CHA's international outreach initiative.

"Our members who sponsor trips to low-income countries understand the transformative power of these experiences," he said. "These experiences do form the hearts and minds of those who participate, and so trip leaders must be very attentive to helping volunteers process what they experience, how they relate to it and what comes next after being exposed to a different worldview."

Leaders of Providence Health International's mission trips integrate readings, reflections and questions into their orientation meetings. The intent is to "really plant seeds for that journey within some of the reflective elements," said Brittn Grey, program manager of international volunteers for Providence Health & Services. She accompanies mission groups, leads teams and prepares team leaders.

During orientation sessions, volunteers learn the strategic intent of Providence Health International's mission work as well as what motivates the organization to sponsor the trips. They also hear about the dovetailing missions of partner agencies.

"We take time to look at our role as volunteers and as foreigners coming into a new place and how we can respond appropriately and responsibly to the needs we are there to serve as well as any additional needs we see," said Grey.

Martin J. Schreiber, vice president of mission at Mercy Hospital Fort Smith in Arkansas, is helping shape that organization's strategy for international development work. He served on CHA's International Outreach Advisory Committee and helped develop CHA's new resource. Schreiber said mission work can renew the sense of calling and humanity in health care professionals.

He said that often during an immersion experience, the extreme poverty people witness transforms them and how they relate to "the other." "Once you wake people up it is hard for them to go back to sleep," he noted.

Conscious reflection can promote this type of awakening and help volunteers integrate their experience into everyday life when they return. "We need time before, during and after to generate a practice of self-awareness," he said.

Schreiber gave the example of a physician whose mission trip experience changed his approach to patients. On the trip, the doctor had to wait for each patient. "He was used to having everyone wait for him," Schreiber said. Further, the doctor did not speak Spanish, so he had to observe each patient intently and listen fully as the interpreter related the patient's words. The doctor told Schreiber the exercise causes him to see each patient as Jesus. "His way of being a physician changed on the return home. He now finds moments of pause to reflect on who might be sitting in front of him," Schreiber shared.


CHA publishes reflection guide for international health outreach

"A Reflection Guide for International Health Activities," CHA's spiral-bound booklet and journal guides readers through the arc of a mission trip — from deciding to commit to a trip to returning to daily routines at home. It contains prayers and reflections for:

  • Examining motivations and reasons for wanting to participate in a trip.
  • Checking predisposed assumptions about the people and resources of the host community.
  • Processing a foreign culture and encountering conditions of poverty and lack of access to health care.
  • Explaining the experience to others once back home.
  • Channeling the desire to do more for those encountered.

Exercises and journal pages in the guide prompt readers to take stock of their motivations, preconceived notions and in-country experiences, said Martin J. Schreiber. He is vice president of mission at Mercy Hospital Fort Smith in Arkansas. Schreiber helped CHA prepare the guide, which is now being used by his Mercy co-workers.

Bruce Compton, who leads CHA's international outreach initiative, said CHA developed the guide in response to requests from members for a tool to help people contribute the most and get the most out of the mission experience. "Our goal is to guide volunteers answering a personal call to help our brothers and sisters around the globe and to help them process that experience," said Compton.

"A Reflection Guide for International Health Activities" is available for free as an electronic download.

Order the booklet at



Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.