I went to Madrid for my exchange from December 2019 to March 2020.
Initially, I applied for exchange with three friends, but everyone ended up going to different parts of Europe.
I was so scared to learn that I was going to be alone! I’m quite shy, so I wondered if I could even make friends there.
Many people were also concerned for me because they knew that pickpocketing is rife in Spain. And I was going alone.
There were many things stopping me from going like the fear of being robbed, the fear of being alone without friends and the fear of being homesick.
I felt the peace of God to go ahead with it, but I still struggled. So I told God, “If you really want me to go, please make sure my parents are okay with me going to Spain.”
Miraculously, my parents were absolutely okay with it! My mum encouraged me to go and learn to protect myself, and my dad (who was funding the trip) told me to just go and that God would provide.
I saw God’s hand in my preparation
While I was preparing for the trip, there were a few hiccups which made me wonder if I had heard God wrongly.
For example, I initially couldn’t get my visa in time because I didn’t have the documents they needed on hand.
But in the end, those documents ended up not being needed anymore, and I got my visa in time.
While planning, I also couldn’t find a suitable place to stay.
However, I eventually found a place that was much nearer to school than all my other options and cheaper even though it was in Madrid’s city centre.
When I saw the actual accommodation in person, I was stunned because it was so good for the price!
My room was even cleaned, and I had my own toilet despite it being a student residence.
It was so weird, it could have only been God. I felt His assurance then that He had already gone before me, and that He would be with me.
One important thing I learnt during the preparation process was to be wise and discerning about the things people said to me out of concern.
If I did not make the effort to guard my heart, many of these comments would definitely breed fear in me.
They would say things like, “You’re so small! Somebody can just snatch your phone, or cut your bag and take out your money!”
I had to be wise to know that not everything they said were things I had to hold on to.
I was very aware that being on exchange wasn’t just a time for me to play, but to also discover God’s heart for me, and God’s heart for Spain.
Of course, not every open door is a sign from God. And not every time we feel at peace is the peace of God.
During the whole process, I really, really, really spent a lot of time seeking God.
So it was with fear and trembling that I took open doors as opportunities that God had given to me.
As I did not want to shirk the responsibilities I had in Singapore, I also sought wise counsel from my mentors and the people I was serving with to see if they would give me their blessings to go.
Ultimately, there were many things that were aligned: the blessing from my parents, mentors and fellow leaders to go, the peace from God, as well as the hand of God during my preparation.
God inspired me to love my friends His way
When I got there, school wasn’t a big deal. I only went to school when I needed to. Instead, my exchange was focused on building my relationship with God.
Because I was alone, I wasn’t distracted by responsibilities or people. I could rely on Him and I had a lot of space to be with God.
For example, every morning, I would pray and ask God to protect me, and ask Him who He wanted me to reach out to that day.
I was very aware that being on exchange wasn’t just a time for me to play, but to also discover God’s heart for me, and God’s heart for Spain. I was very intentional about that.
As a result, I grew a lot in intimacy with God. This exchange helped to build my foundations in God, so when the circuit breaker hit when I was back in Singapore, I was not very affected because I was already used to spending time alone with God.
I also grew more sensitive to the Holy Spirit during this time. He guided me to people He wanted to minister to, and He revealed things that I hadn’t realised about myself.
An example of how God revealed such things was when I connected with an acquaintance who also went to Spain.
I realised that I was being very judgemental in my passing thoughts as I talked with him. Later, I tried avoiding him.
But after that, I realised that I wasn’t extending the love I was supposed to. I had this thought: “What would Jesus do?”
And I knew Jesus would immediately say something like, “Yes, I’ll be your friend. And I’ll love you the way that I’ll love everyone else. Even if you make me uncomfortable.”
I also felt God reminding me, that making one more friend is equivalent to one more soul that I can win for Him. As such, I went to meet him and we had a good time.
There was also another friend who came to visit Spain.
And when it was our last day hanging out, I was so happy because I thought I could finally have time for myself.
But he happened to have time between checking out of his hostel and leaving for the airport, so he wanted to hang out with me.
Honestly, I was so disappointed when I heard that!
But God impressed on my heart that this is what love looks like: it can be inconvenient and demand the sacrifice of things that are dear to me like personal time or solitude.
Knowing that God is pleased with hospitality, I chose to be a good host.
God also led me to love the homeless in Spain
I was walking home one day thinking about what to have for lunch, when a Spanish word came to me.
I didn’t know what it was, so I went to Google to find out. Turns out, it was the name of a street that was a few streets down from where I was.
Then I had this image of a man outside on the streets.
I felt God say, “Go and eat with this man.”
So I walked to the street, which was very quiet and empty, and I saw a homeless man sitting outside the bank.
I felt in my spirit that this was the man that God wanted me to reach out to, so I decided to buy food for him.
I walked around looking for food, but there no shops that were open!
The only shops that were open were little bakeries, but they didn’t sell warm bread, only little snacks.
Not gonna lie, I was very tempted to buy those because they were cheap. But then I reflected that my love should not be cheap.
I told God, “I really want to buy a warm meal for this man. Can you lead me to a shop that’s open that sells bread?”
Right after I said this prayer, I turned the corner and and I found a shop that sold hot sandwiches!
So I went in, bought two baguettes, and walked back to the homeless man.
I was so nervous. I used Google Translate to type, “Can I eat with you?”
Then I went to him and said, “hola” (the only thing I know how to say) and played the Google Translate.
He immediately replied, “Si, si, si!” (yes, yes, yes!) and he patted the cardboard that he was sitting on.
So I sat next to him, and we ate our baguettes in the cold.
I asked him questions with Google Translate, and he would answer me. Though I could only smile because I didn’t understand him.
Before I left, I told him “Deos te ama” (Jesus loves you). And he affirmed that, saying, “Si, si, si!”
Little encounters like this one made my exchange experience feel more meaningful, almost like a solo mission trip rather than than one merely involving study and play.
Our posture matters to God
What really helped me grow in intimacy with the Lord was my posture towards this exchange.
Every night, I would make it a point to journal, and think of the big things and the small things I could give thanks to God for.
A heart of gratitude really helped me draw close to God, as I was more aware of His goodness and faithfulness in my life.
I also grew to recognise that everywhere is my mission field.
It’s not about where I am or who I’m with, but it’s about God who loves all people from every nation.
If I love God and man, then the question to ask is: How can I love God where I am? How can I display His love?
It’s very easy to make exchange very self-serving, since I was no longer bound to ministry in my local church.
But I still wanted to serve God while I was there, so I always started the day with asking God how I could serve Him.
God would then lead me to people like classmates, the homeless or even church members.
I also wanted to be anchored in prayer, so before I left for Spain I went to find the Burning Hearts equivalent of a prayer room there.
I was really blessed, because I received my call to missions there. I was in a prayer room, when a pastor came to me and said, “Hey, can I have a word with you over coffee?”
So we went out to the little café outside the prayer room to get coffee.
The pastor went on Google Maps, and asked me where I was from.
When I said that I was from Singapore, we began to explore Singapore through Street View.
Then he said, “Let me bring you to the Southeast Asian countries.”
We went over to Cambodia and the Philippines, and explored their slums with Street View.
After that, the pastor showed me the whole world on Google Maps. And he said, “These nations belong to God, and God wants them. Are you willing to win them over for Him?”
I replied, “Oh! I mean, if He calls me, sure.”
Looking at me, the pastor said, “Everyone is called to make disciples of all nations.”
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
At first, I took all his words with a pinch of salt.
However, through conversations with other people whom I met and seeking God in prayer, slowly I began to see that maybe reaching out to the nations is really something that God wants me to do.
To this day, I still don’t know in what capacity God would want me to reach out to the nations, but I’m more open to the possibility of doing missions.
To the student going on exchange
If you’re going for exchange soon, I encourage you to seek God first in everything! It sounds so cheesy and basic, but it’s really the most important thing.
Seek God. Where’s this country that He wants you to go, if He even wants you to go? Who does He want you to reach out to? What does He want you to do?
Also, talk to people and get connected so that the enemy cannot get to you in your loneliness and solitude.
Don’t forget your local communities too, because they’re the ones who really know you and can keep you accountable when you’re overseas.
Study hard, but also open your spiritual senses so that you can partner God!
P.S. Get Google Translate and study some Duolingo before you go! And if you’re going to Europe, carry your bag in front of you!
- What is the point of an exchange programme for you?
- What might God teach or show you through an exchange programme?
- What are some practical ways you can be intentional in growing spiritually during exchange?
- Who is someone who can you keep you accountable on these goals and your walk while overseas? Speak to him or her today.