Living with myself after the trip
I have a confession to make. I have participated in a short-term missions trip. To Mexico, no less.
Let me explain. I was a teenager, full of good intentions and self-importance. I was involved in church activities and youth group services. When the opportunity to go on a missions trip came up, I jumped at the chance. And I worked hard to go on the trip; I participated in a handful of car washes and pizza-making fundraisers. I babysat myself ragged. But I felt that it was going to be worth it. It was all going to make a difference. I was going down to help change lives.
Now, several years later, I remember more about my team members than I do about the local people. As a group, we operated in a protective bubble. Our team leaders were the only ones in contact with the Mexican people. Why was that? Were we just so focused on “getting the job done” that we had no time to spend on forming relationships? In hindsight, I see now that real change, lasting change, has to begin from a basis of mutual respect and learning. But while we were there, it seems that we were so fired up about serving the local Mexicans that we effectively ignored them.
This is a problem that I have with missions trips: everything becomes reduced to a task. The whole trip is a to-do list. Visit an orphanage? Check. Show “The Jesus Movie” to a work camp village? Check. Give the inner-city church another coat of paint? Check. Hand out toothbrushes and Bible tracts to people on the street? Check.
The framework of the missions trip begins and ends with the question, “What can we do for you?” It sets up “do”-ing as the purpose of the trip, and juxtaposes the “we” over against the “you.” By this very structure, the destination of the missions trip becomes “the other.” Missions has become what we, the well-meaning, wealthy, white folks, do to the hungry, impoverished people living beyond our borders. We want to help them, to make a difference in their lives, to change them for the better.
But could it be that our help actually causes hurt? This is a question that has become increasingly debated as the number of short-term missions trips continues to rise exponentially. One resource that adds to this conversation is When Helping Hurts, a book by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Although this book has evangelical leanings, it makes some thoughtful observations. It notes that short-term missions trips rarely diagnose the situations into which they are going, stating that the trips often pursue the relief-aid approach even when it is inappropriate. The book goes on to say that, in most cases, it is the development approach that is needed instead. The problem with this? “Development is a life-long process, not a two-week product.”
So why then do we keep venturing out on trip after trip, perpetuating a cycle of misplaced priorities? Maybe it is because participating in missions work is valuable to us, fulfilling our need to “do good.” Perhaps it is time to admit that missions trips are more about “us” than they are about “them.”
Also, check out this article by a development worker (my favorite, as it contains a good attempt at balance), this piece by a missions program director (who, ironically, labels missions trips as a “fad”), and this article, originally published in the Washington Post.
Rachel Barber is an editorial intern at Geez magazine