Missions trips have impact on Bob Harris
By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY — Bob Harris’ passport is filled with stamps from countries in South America and Africa.
But he didn’t get them from exotic getaways with family and friends. They came from mission trips to build churches, schools, medical centers and homes.
Harris traveled to Honduras for his first mission trip in 1980. During that trip, his group built a church in a week. But Harris said he didn’t do much building.
“They let me carry empty buckets,” he said with a chuckle. “The next year, I got to carry buckets with concrete.”
But Harris does much more than carry buckets these days. He’s oftentimes the leader on mission trips with First Presbyterian Church.
He’s been on about 50 mission trips in the 31-year span, including 10 to Brazil, four to Belize, four to Honduras, three to Africa and one to China.
Harris has also been to Panama, Mexico, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia and Belgium.
He’s averaged two trips a year. Some years he takes as many as four. Others he’s only squeezed in one.
And he’s done it all while working full time.
“You prioritize what you’re going to do. That’s where my faith comes in,” he said. “I think it’s more important to do this than to do cruises.”
It’s the friendships that have enticed Harris to devote so much of his time to missions work.
“The relationships that I’ve built have been just as meaningful as the physical work,” he said.
He’s made connections with the locals as well as those from his own church.
“You can sit in the same sanctuary with them for 20 years and never know them,” Harris said. “But if you spend one week with them you feel like you’ve grow up with them.”
Harris said his favorite trip was a recent 18-day mission to Brazil with his 18-year-old granddaughter, Lucy Owen.
“She’s a vegetarian so I became a vegetarian for those 18 days,” he said. “We still have a tight bond because of that trip.”
When he first started doing missions, Harris said, he thought he was just going to lay some bricks and come home.
“Early on, I let the building interfere with my relationships,” he said. “I had to grow into a balance.”
During his first trip to Africa, Harris was shocked to learn the Africans thought the people in his group were angels.
Harris said the missionary they were traveling with told him the locals believed they were angels because they had never seen white people do manual labor alongside them. They had only seen white people as doctors, missionaries and tourists.
“So in their minds, we had to be angels because we weren’t real,” Harris said.
But Harris said he was struck with a similar feeling.
“Normally, we had enough people to do the work ourselves, but this time we had twice as many Africans working beside us,” he said. “That was new to us.”
Harris said that trip was particularly rewarding because they got to work side-by-side with the people who would reap the benefits of their work.
Harris said language has never been a barrier. It’s body language that’s more important.
“If you humble yourself and smile, people will help you anywhere you go,” he said.
While working in Africa, one of the locals ventured away from the work site. He showed up about an hour later.
“He had gone to learn enough English to tell me, ‘You are a hard worker,’ ” he said. “So when there is an important message to be communicated, we find an interpreter or we learn the language.”
Harris said the locals are almost always standoffish at first, but that typically doesn’t last long.
“They are only like that until they realize that you are treating them as equals,” he said.
The mission trips have changed Harris.
He said they have made him a “kinder, and gentler” man.
“I have built strong relationships with folks who have encouraged me in my faith,” he said. “They know me well enough to point out my shortcomings and I respect them enough to respond to my shortcomings.”
But his personality isn’t the only thing that’s changed. His perception of the world has been transformed.
“You cannot comprehend the world need without seeing it, smelling it, touching it,” he said. “What you see on TV does not have the same impact as showing up in person.
“You’ve got to go to really know.”
No matter how many trips he makes, Harris said he always comes back home with a “heightened sense of gratitude.”
“Half the world lives on $5 a day per person. We just don’t comprehend that one Big Mac is what a person lives on, including housing, travel, clothing and food,” he said. “We are all wealthy here, even those we consider poor, because many of them have TVs, air conditioning, clothes to wear and food to eat.
“It just renews my gratitude.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.