More Than Just A Trip

“We owe Christ to the world--to the least person and to the greatest person, to the richest person and to the poorest person, to the best person and to the worst person. We are in debt to the nations.” 
― David PlattRadical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream

Over the past few years, people have started questioning and re-evaluating short term mission trips. Since most things can stand evaluation, this is good. Time gives insight and new perspective, if we let it.

I've been on a number of short-term trips and now, of course, have been living overseas for the past three and a half years working full-time as part of a permanent missions community. When asked, I have to say that short-term trips, even ALL mission work, has it's pros and cons. It can be done well, creating a pathway for people to find God and receive help and hope, yet it can also be done poorly, creating habitual dependency, even jealously of the Americans who come in with their resources and supposedly better ... everything.

Two summers ago, a church from the States sent a huge group of people - mostly teens - to Ecuador on a mission outreach. They were not involved with the ministries I work with; I encountered them because someone heard about the EsperanzArt jewelry ministry and asked if jewelry could be brought to their hotel for them to purchase. (This is a good thing, because the girls at Casa Adalia are paid per piece they make, so we need avenues to sell the jewelry to pay the girls and purchase materials).

Yet as I set up the table of jewelry, I came across some personal road blocks. First of all, their hotel was one of the ritziest in Quito. I walked in and knew that even in the States, I would be hard pressed to afford a place that grand. Next, everyone on the team was participating in Wacky Hair Day, because I guess making everyone create crazy hair styles bonded them as a group? That's cool, have fun. (kids these days). They were also preparing to do street evangelism using goofy costumes and skits, which I hope can reach people for Christ yet have personal hesitations about. I rolled with everything until a woman stood and gave a long presentation. She spoke on a Bible story and gave illustrations which frankly, I don't remember. What I do recall was how she talked about her Sleep Apnea machine and how now that she can actually get a good nights sleep sleeping will become her new ministry, ha ha, and that she was a sort of traveling evangelist speaker person who was happy to come to your church if you told your pastor to hire her. Then she talked about how next year the church would be sending a team to Haiti, and by golly everyone needed to sign up for that trip right away because (and I quote), "That is the trip which is going to break you."

I stood in the back and thought, "Really? This trip isn't even over, and you're practically dismissing it by saying that the next one is the really good trip? The trip which will really make YOU grow as a disciple of God from everything YOU are able to experience and give to those poor people in need?" I may have had a problem with that woman's statement. Bless her heart.

I've seen some incredible things happen on short-term trips, including clean water wells being dug for communities drinking from the same dirty river they bathe in, churches built from the ground up, and evangelism in remote villages who have never before opened a Bible. Those things are awesome and should absolutely keep happening. But if I'm 100% honest with myself, I should admit that on those short-term trips, I usually received more than I was given.

I think this is alright, as long as we're honest about it instead of magnifying what we actually gave. Going on those trips stirred my heart to do long-term work, work which I was qualified to do. Because I went on those short-term outreaches, I clearly felt God calling me to do more, until here I am, over halfway through a five-year commitment to working with at-risk youth in Ecuador. Short-term is how most long-term mission workers end up in the field. It's an immersion into another culture meant to shape and define you; the question is what we do after the trip. That's where it often counts the most.

However I've also heard of teams which repaint the same church walls every summer, even of the church telling the congregation to purposefully dirty the walls so that the US team will have something to do, because they don't want to stop the yearly flow of actually needed donations such as shoes, clothes, school supplies and food. Painting a wall, holding babies, and returning home thinking about what a blessing it all was; in truth, shouldn't there be a better way to enable the community to be able to buy the things they need on their own, and not be reliant on a yearly team? The world doesn't need more dependency. It needs more entrepreneurs who can enter a community and say, "Let's use the resources you already have available to better your community and your way of life."

One thing I love in working with the boy's home, Casa Gabriel, is that I am one of only two North Americans here. There's Phil the Director, myself, and then the rest of the team - house-parents, tutor, psychologist, and relief house-dad - who are all Ecuadorian. Phil is careful to blend any of his American ideas with Ecuadorian culture and tradition. He hopes that if he leaves one day, the ministry would continue to thrive.

I may sounds cynical about some things ... and I guess I am. We Americans and Europeans DO have a lot of resources, yet even with the best of intentions, the sincerest compassion, there must be evaluation. Are we helping, or hurting? Are we doing this for them, or for us? Churches, please keep going, giving, and praying. Be involved in something bigger. Just be humble. Be honest. Don't simply  be a band-aid. Take in the big picture, partner with locals, see the beauty and strength and resourcefulness of a community, and not just the poverty and sadness. If you go on a trip "that breaks you", do something with it. Be changed by it so that in turn you can make a lasting change in others, whether an overseas community, your own, or both. Don't let it just be a one-time feel-good memory. Do.