Over the last few weeks, I have found myself thinking back on a mission trip that I took as a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary. While Union does have an incredible travel seminar program, those trips are not actually mission trips. Every few years, however, we do send a group of students on a fantastic spring break mission trip!
During my final spring break in 2014, I travelled to Haiti with five other students and our leader. I could go on for hours about what an incredible experience it was, but the thing which has been sitting with me lately was not the actual trip, but rather the perception of our trip when compared to other groups who were also traveling to Haiti for the purpose of mission work at the same time.
I remember sitting in the terminal in the Miami airport, waiting to board our plane. Looking around, almost everyone at our gate was part of one of the many larger mission groups, all wearing brightly colored t-shirts with various scriptures referenced on them. Most of those groups were composed of white, English-speaking, and seemingly well-off individuals. I bring this out because this is the ONLY time I have seen such an overrun of the “minority” for the country I was heading to, sitting in the airport terminal waiting to board.
Excitement filled the area as youth and their leaders talked about what they hoped to see and do while in Haiti. Groups began to talk to one another, comparing projects and missions. Another “twenty-something” took a break in his group conversation to ask me, “So where will you be working?” I was initially caught off- guard because he knew that I was on a mission trip, but quickly realized I shouldn’t be surprised. I explained that our group was going to play with children, mostly through an organization that served children with disabilities.
“Oh. So, you aren’t building anything?”
“No, like actual building. Who are you saving?”
In that moment, I realized exactly what I dislike about mission trips – groups of individuals going to “fix” life for those who “don’t have” what the group “has”.
In preparation for this trip, the group of students from Union read the book “When Helping Hurts: How To Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself” (Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert). We spent a great deal of time talking about why we weren’t going to be building or passing out Bibles – because before we tried to take what we knew as “right” in our own homes, we needed to learn what was “right” in their home. I remembered the time I travelled to Mexico, moving from laughter to a form of lament as I reflected on how our group actually slowed the work as we took time to learn what to do and then completed the tasks incorrectly, leading to more time being spent as the locals repaired our work.
The lesson I quickly learned…not every mission trip brings a team of needed individuals, or the completion of needed projects.
I am by no means saying that every mission trip is not needed or hurts more than it helps. Many mission projects ARE needed, however they are not always the exotic trips that we seem to love so much. Rather, many of the most appropriate trips for these week-long travelers could be the local ones within our own communities and country. Sorting donations at the food bank, helping communities to clean up after floods and hurricanes, or taking care of those “small” tasks which might be preventing others from completing the “hard” tasks might actually be more valuable. (This was our goal in going to Haiti as we held babies and played with children so that their caregivers could focus on the other work needing to be completed).
I do not mean that we should end all global mission trips – we can and do learn a great deal about God’s children and creation as we travel and find ways to work beside one another. I do think that we would do well to have discussions with our youth and volunteers as we prepare to travel about the needs and our real goals, and even again as we return from our various mission trips both locally and around the world. We must strive to understand those we seek to assist rather than merely deciding what we think they need. Further, ALL trips regardless of location, should be planned and led in conjunction with individuals and organizations who truly know the community being served, and the most appropriate ways to ensure that they are cared for in the most appropriate and helpful ways.
Reflecting on my time in the airport terminal that day, I wonder how the Bibles and physical labor were received from those giving groups we met that day – I pray that their work and words were both needed and received in a way that changed every life involved. I pray the same of our own work and time spent with the children throughout that week. Mostly, I pray that as each of us looks at ways to serve God’s children both at home and around the world, we LISTEN to God’s direction and we strive to learn what each person really needs, and not simply what we think is needed.
What types of mission trips does your congregation take?
How do you prepare individuals for these trips, and reflect upon returning home?
What is the ultimate goal of the trip?
Rev. Jordan B. Davis