Mission Trips? Spreading Christianity? Religious Tourism? Huh?
A large part of my life has been traveling on these stigmatized things called “mission trips.” But they’re not….Yes they are. But wait, are mission trips different than work camps, or missions trips, or evangelical missions? Or vacations? And do they actually do any good? You know, maybe these trips are really just a guise to smuggle me out of the country with some well-meaning religious folks to avoid having to decide my future. …Ha. Ha. Ha. (Maybe).
What I do are Mission Trips, and often I change the name to Service Trips. Not going to camp with the intent to work, not changing the missions of others. Nothing anywhere near evangelicalism. And not vacationing. I understand the underlying worries though — religious tourism is an actual phrase and it is something I am uncomfortable with every time I take a trip of this sort. Because why on earth would a small group of well meaning individuals spent thousands of dollars to travel to a hot sticky place to “help” some people when we’d do a lot more good by simply mailing that money to them instead?
First, I know that I personally may not cause lasting impacts on the place I go or the people I meet. I know that I’m paying money for a plane ticket that could be put to use creating the community the people desperately need. I know that my culture is drastically different than the one of the people I will be working alongside and that we may not have even remotely the same values. I know that to the rest of the world, I must look like some sick tourist, trying to make the rest of the world more westernized and materialized. And because I know these things, I can accept them and move towards becoming the opposite of them.
Second, I know that truly I go for myself. To satisfy the little piece of myself that wants to get out of the structured material world I live in, to do something not 100% focused on myself for a change. To stop thinking about which pastry I want as a snack between classes, and start thinking about the people who work for their every meal around the world. To satisfy the voice in my head that won’t let me rest because each month I spend in the same place with no end in sight makes me feel a little more claustrophobic.
To minimize the danger mission trips may cause, here are my top 5 things to aim for before committing to a trip.
1) Work and Connect With Locals
This can mean anything from connecting with a local church directly and asking what can be done in their community, to working with an international organization that pairs teams with local non-profits. While working alongside locals, I’ve found that teams really get to know people from other cultures instead of just hearing presentation after presentation about them. Teams also get to see the human side of whatever problem they’re working to relieve. Poverty is just not real until you’re staring into the eyes of someone exactly like you and realizing that they don’t have a private place to take shelter from the blazing heat like you do.
2) Accept your Incompetence
If Sally is the founder of the local non-profit that you’re working with, and she has hundreds of people receiving aid, do you think she’d rather spend an hour cleaning her bathroom or applying for a grant that keeps her organization running? If you weren’t there to clean her bathroom, she might loose the grant and those hundreds of people might loose hope. While this may be an overstatement, it is imperative to understand that while we may jump into trips wishing to do something huge and tangible, sometimes what is needed most is simply a conversation or a cleaning hand.
3) Open Minds Open Minds Open Minds
This is something that is said over and over again, and yet I am going to say it three times more. Coming into a new place with a goal already in mind is dangerous. What we think a place needs may not actually be what is at the top of their list. As stated before, sometimes the things a community actually needs aren’t the things we really wanted to give.
4) Religion and Service
As someone who’s not very religious, I suggest watching out for organizations or companies that promise a certain kind of work for each team, or promise a specific type of spiritual guidance. While these trips may be great for spiritual reflection, they tend to be heavy on the free-time-for-reflection and light on the hands on work that helps the community. To maximize the impact we make on the people we work for, we need to put ourselves aside and focus on them.
5) Stay Connected
When the trip is over, it’s incredibly easy to mold back into the version of ourselves that we were before the trip, forgetting everything about the place except the stories that we embellish to win us admission to prestigious universities and the ears of our family members. I believe that one of the biggest problems with short-term mission is that they become not only short-term, but short-lived. With the internet, it’s easy to keep in contact with individuals and organizations that touched our lives, and it’s important to at least put in the effort to do that. In the best case scenario, we would take what we learned about the world’s challenges during the trip and use the knowledge to shape ideas that could eventually remedy the problem.
So really, why do missioners go? We might go because we support the organization we work with. We might go because we love the group of people we’re going with. We might go because we truly love taking cold showers and hauling cement, sleeping on hard ground and getting very little sleep. Or, we go for a combination of those things, backed by a selfish desire for more in our lives.
The important thing, is simply that we go — for whatever reasons. Because any helping hand or foreign smile is better than no interaction at all, for all parties involved.