The end of 2007 was fast approaching. Kenneth Weiss, Maranatha Volunteers International vice president, was supposed to close the year running a project building an education and evangelism center in Galapagos, Ecuador, over the holidays.
But this time would be different.
“We decided it would be good to go as a family,” remembers Kenneth’s wife, Brenda. The Weiss’s eldest daughter, Adrienne, was 9 at the time, and twins Ashton and Corbin were just 4. “We also invited my mom and dad to join,” Brenda explains, “and decided 4-year-olds could put in four hours a day on the job site. Part of their work was refilling water bottles for volunteers.”
Adrienne, now 22 and a chemistry major at Pacific Union College in California, still remembers that first mission trip over Christmas. “For us, it was an opportunity to see what Dad does and better understand why he was constantly traveling. It was also an opportunity to expand our world even as young as we were,” she says.
But it was not all work. Following the Galapagos project, the family visited tortoises and blue-footed boobies, albatross nests, and curious seals. Back on the mainland near Guayaquil, they visited Maranatha’s worksites in poor communities and saw open markets and shantytowns that looked nothing like home. “When we returned from Galapagos, our children looked around our house and said, ‘Mom, we’re rich,’” she shares.
Brenda says that they were right. “We may live in the smallest house on our block, but we are so blessed with material things—clothes, a roof over our heads, bicycles, cars, more than enough food, shelves full of books, computers, the Internet, and hot running water,” she says. “We decided that to take our children on mission trips was a good thing and that we would be doing more.”
That experience of service changed the Weiss family approach to Christmas. They began to see the season with new eyes.
“We had so much fun serving together over the holidays that a traditional Christmas with mounds of presents did not fit,” Brenda explains. “We worked as a family to figure out how to make Christmas about service and celebrating Jesus’ birth instead of about gifts and busyness. We tried leaving out the decorations and have settled on less.”
Brenda says their new approach helped them to look less inward and to reach out more.
“We have gone through our neighborhood ringing doorbells and playing instruments for neighbors on Christmas Day. We bake cookies and give them out. A few years we provided music, food, and cleanup services for friends’ Christmas Day celebrations. We host a family dinner and invite friends who don’t have somewhere else to go, making our own new Christmas family of friends who join us when they and we are in town.”
The Weiss family also started a Christmas Day tradition. They make lists of their blessings. On Maranatha’s 2019 Christmas Family Project in Peru, volunteers made paper chains of things they were thankful for. Then they strung them from the ceiling.
“We read the Nativity story and act it out if we have children visiting. We create costumes from lengths of fabric and have used a Frisbee for an angel’s halo,” Brenda shares. “Instead of shopping for presents in all the Christmas madness, we find pictures of the things we will spend time selecting during the next year. We wrap pictures and exchange them as promissory notes.”
The family’s conscious decision has changed their approach to Christmas. “We have chosen to play games and enjoy each other’s company instead of purchasing, wrapping, and unwrapping presents,” explains Brenda. “We have become more focused on others and less self-centered through service and through changing our celebration. We make it a point to go on mission trips regularly to help us keep life in perspective. On our mission trips we have seen people without many things who are happy and willing to share their lives and what they have with us. When we set out to help other people, we find that we are the ones who are blessed.”
Through the years mission trips have left a mark on the Weiss family history. This includes not only social adventures but spiritual ones as well. Adrienne was baptized during one project in Nicaragua by Kenneth’s father in 2012. Ashton and Corbin were baptized during a project in Kenya in 2016. “It was in a tank of water we couldn’t see through, although the truck was labeled ‘clean water,’” Brenda remembers with a smile.
Their last Christmas Family Project—so far—was in Peru in 2019. Ashton, now 17, remembers how their perspective changed while serving over Christmas that year. “We saw people living in tiny houses mostly made out of tin and cardboard scraps,” he shares. “The pure joy and happiness they had when you gave them anything and just prayed with them; it makes you realize how blessed all of us are.”
“We had 150 bags of panettone and toys to give to families living in [a slum],” Corbin adds. “On Christmas Day, volunteers were driven up the mountain in buses too wide for the streets, and my family’s bus stopped around halfway up. We got out, and as I handed over the panettone, I suddenly realized what we were doing. We were showing these people Christ’s character,” he emphasizes.
For Brenda, spending time with volunteers and locals is a joy as they connect with others who make service a priority. “We revel in the work because we can see how it changes people.”
For Kenneth, this is much more than just about money. “It’s not the money but the relationships; it’s not the money—it’s the changed hearts. When people go on a mission trip, they have their values realigned, they have a closer relationship with God, they’re not as materialistic,” he emphasizes.
Brenda agrees. “After returning from Zimbabwe in 2011, I wrote about how I went for my kids, but I was the one who returned changed. We decided as a family that we needed to go on mission trips regularly as an inoculation against our culture of materialism.”
She believes it is an inoculation that transforms lives for good. Brenda quotes what Adrienne wrote after a mission trip to Zambia, where she helped coordinate activities for children some years ago. “Throughout that trip I learned about myself,” she confessed. “When I got back to the United States, I missed Africa so much that it hurt.”
Marcos Paseggi is senior news correspondent for Adventist Review.