…can short term missions be done well?
So much evil has been justified in the name of ‘missions.’ One can take a quick jog through recent history to find that in the name of Jesus Christ, many white North American Christian missionaries forced assimilation while disrespecting the cultural values of indigenous peoples. We preached a message of repentance mixed with messages of nationalism, patriarchy, and white acculturation resulting in damage especially to those people, but also to the integrity of the Gospel.
I went on several mission trips as a youth and wanted to be a missionary when I grew up. It might have been better if I just expressed my love of travel, adventure and different cultures from the beginning. But, God used short term missions to shape me; in the Mexican migrant farm workers camp of Mt. Vernon, WA, my heart was opened to embrace others from a different background for the first time. A summer with our evangelistic European choir and drama team made the world come alive; I dedicated my whole life to ministry to God.
That was then…
Now, about 20 years later, I’m the Youth Director. I desire those profound cross-cultural experiences that shape and wreck us- but not at the price of a communities’ well-being. Some say it can’t be done at all, their Facebook rants say to take your thousands of dollars and give them to a local Church or community development organization. Changing the name from a “missions trip” to a “Service and Learning Trip” is not enough, but it indicated a start.
I risk it, researching, interviewing short term mission agencies until I find a satisfactory model – it’s not perfect, but headed in the right direction. The agency is connected to a community who invited them. Within, everything is led by the indigenous leaders of the community; the local church leads the ministry for kids, they are linked with a local non-profit doing long term community development and are partnered inter-faith with Catholic nuns who run an orphanage for kids abandoned because of HIV. Our team is a hybrid of inner-city Latino boys and white suburban girls – the fruit of a purposeful blended youth ministry borne of deep relationship and commitment to the vision of mutual transformation at home. For 2 months we hard-wire our youth with our theme. We go to serve. We go to learn. This is not a vacation. God is already at work in Sumpongo. God is there. We go to serve. We go to learn.
And we were blown away by the raw beauty of God discovered in the acts of serving others and listening and watching. We found the natural state of our soul and dared to share it with each other. We heard the tender whisper of God’s love; we saw the magic of the Gospel at work. Every night, tears. Daring to pray out loud. Daring to dream a bigger dream. Daring to live like God existed and that we were called.
An Aboriginal woman of Australia said to some Western missionaries a time ago, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Truly, not until we discover that our liberation is bound up with another, are we truly freed to live out the wholeness of the Gospel.