Sunday, March 09, 2014

When Short-Term Mission Trips Make a Difference: A Testimonial

Yup. That's me on the right: my first trip outside the USA.
Critiques of short-term mission trips have been in academic journals for many years, and they've recently started to go viral in the mainstream discourse. I am happy about this dramatic increase in awareness; for too long unhealthy practices have continued on unexamined. If you don't know what I'm talking about, then this blog post was not written for you--not yet, that is.

This post is for those who have been reading books like Toxic Charity and Dead Aid and articles like Why You Should Consider Cancelling Your Mission Trips or Rethinking the $3,000 Mission Trip and need to be reminded to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I'm offering my story as a case study.

About two decades ago, The United Methodist Church's South Indiana Conference gave me a youth scholarship to go to the North Katanga Conference (DR Congo). 

What was the mission? My father had been invited to be the keynote preacher at the conference; his words were so appreciated that the bishop convinced him to preach at the Tanyanika conference too. Dad was also there to witness the distribution of the hundreds of bicycles Hoosiers had helped purchase through the fundraising campaign he had led. I and two of my classmates (brothers), however, were just tagging along for the adventure. 

What did I do/accomplish? I had no skills to contribute or even ability to converse in local languages. I was that girl wearing comical braids, souvenir t-shirts and scandalous shorts. True to stereotype, I had even packed a beloved stuffed animal to sleep with, and my journaling was fairly shallow in the reflection department. 

We teens passed the time by wandering aimlessly around the village and entertaining the crowds of children who followed us. I'm certain that what the local church spent on our regional transport, food, etc. far outweighed anything one could argue they gained from our being there. The two brothers never returned to Katanga. It took me 10 years. 

The brothers (one of which is currently a political science professor in Qatar) can tell you their story some other time. As for me, I now had a stamp in my passport and the big wide world in my heart. That trip set into motion the course of the rest of my life. You tell me: Considering I could not have gone otherwise, Was giving me that scholarship a good use of church funds?

My second international short-term mission trip experience was an "alternative spring break" in Honduras organized by my university's head chaplain who had once been a GBGM missionary there. 

What was our mission? To educate ourselves and give some post-hurricane redevelopment assistance 

What did we do/accomplish? We journeyed to a village in the mountains and met people living there. We listened to stories about their lives and the situation in Honduras. We carried some construction blocks up a hill for a bit. We spent a day visiting the Mayan ruins in Copan. We got to have casual intellectual conversations with a couple of our university's international development professors who were on the team. We did souvenir shopping; I bought textiles and splurged on a fantastic carved trunk. I highlight the shopping part because purchasing items from local artisans was my main contribution to Honduras on that trip. I'm assuming that based on who was our leader, our hosts did not suffer financially from our visit. I have not returned since then; I don't know about the other students.  You tell me: Was this a better alternative to spending spring break lounging around in, say, Florida?  

I was recruited for my third international mission trip--offered all expenses paid by the Timmy Foundation for a month in Haiti.

What was my mission? Stick around a few weeks after the main team left to play big sister to a couple of inexperienced volunteers and report back to the foundation my observations about the medical school that they were being asked to assist. Coincidentally, most of the folks on the team were members of a very large United Methodist congregation in Indiana--including its senior pastor. 

What did I/we do/accomplish? I have no medical skills; only some on the team did. The unskilled entertained children while the doctors and nurses opened a pop-up clinic. I am still haunted by the desperate mother who was there each day; she had spent everything she had to save her child with encephalitis. We did not provide the help she sought. Later, we played with kids at an orphanage. (A woman on the team later tried to adopt one of the girls, but her request was refused by the orphanage director.) 

We were hosted by a woman who had returned home to Haiti after earning her doctorate and was trying to get a medical school off the ground. I unexpectedly became a substitute teacher at a boarding school for troubled Haitian-American youth that our host was running on the same compound. Upon my return to Indiana, I reported back the foundation and team leaders that there was something fishy about the orphanage and that the school's founder/director, while passionate and inspiring, had so many projects in the air that she had stretched herself to the point of poor management of all of them. By the time I gave this report, however, the congregation had already resolved to put their support behind the school and dismissed my recommendations as lacking vision/faith and/or proper respect for its director. I've not been back to Haiti; I'm not sure what happened after I walked away, but it appears that the foundation no longer sends teams there, and the congregation is involved in projects in another part of the country.

Ma Tante 
This last-minute joining of the trip occurred during one of the bleakest chapters of my faith walk. I had just completed my MA in international development and was feeling quite discouraged about the state of the world and my ability to change it. Either God didn't exist or God was a jerk; either way, we were no longer on talking terms. That's when Ma Tante (Aunty) walked into my bedroom. Despite her advanced dementia and my limited Creole, she preached to me coherently for half an hour straight, and I understood exactly what she was saying. She commanded me to get on my knees and pray for my faith to be saved. She proclaimed with confidence that God was preparing me for ministry with those who are suffering. She spoke with such authority that she brought me to tears. Later, when I informed her niece, the school's director, she responded nonchalantly: "Ma tante spent years as an evangelist; she probably just slipped back into that role for a moment." Aunty didn't remember me when I saw her again that day, but I still remember her. I've kept her photo prominently displayed for over a decade--a daily reminder to snap out of it, pray for faith, and go do what I've been trained to do.  You tell me: Is the world a better place because of that trip?

If you haven't noticed, the theme here has been the impact such trips have had on the quality of my life and ministry. It's a common theme among those who have been on such trips. In fact, I'm looking forward to reading a book I just heard about: Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience, which appears to make a similar observation. I suppose a better question to be asking isn't whether short-term mission trips are valuable experiences but whether we are being honest with ourselves about who benefits from them and the implications from that.  I assert that we are getting more out of these trips than we are contributing. Perhaps, then, the challenge is to figure out how to do a better job of balancing the equation.

Shameless plug:  Friendly Planet Missiology has teamed up with the NC Jurisdiction Mission Discovery program, the IN UMC Volunteers in Mission program, and IN United Methodist Women to offer a chance for up to 7 lucky young adults (age 18-30) to travel with us to discover North Katanga. Application deadline closes very soon, so drop us a line immediately if you want in on the action. We're sure it will be life changing. 


  1. Thank you, Taylor. I think these stories are important and you tell them well. I actually thought there was a tension present in that piece that went viral about "why I stopped being a voluntourist"... because for the writer, the short-term trip was the beginning of a process of figuring out how she more appropriately fit into a relationship with the international organization she was working with.

    I also re-read "Rethinking Service" by Samuel Wells because you mentioned it, and I think it has wonderful potential for your work on missiology.

  2. Thanks. Your comment made me double check which post I published because I'd been writing another article on mission trips (that hubby convinced me not to publish) that talked specifically about both those articles. It's so nice when someone successfully picks up on the things I leave unsaid.