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Mission Trips: what should you strive to do?

Mission Trips: what should you strive to do?

Outreach Magazine published an article by Dan King called “Why You Shouldn’t Build a House on Your Next Mission Trip“:

That might sound like an unusual thing to say to a missions team on their way to a construction project that they’re funding. But why else do you go on a mission trip? You go to work, right? You send your own (and other people’s) hard earned money to buy supplies, add a little extra to cover your plane ticket for a little overseas travel, and you arrive to do something awesome that apparently the poor local people can’t do for themselves.

I know this might sound overly simplistic, but that pretty much nails it on the head for most of our church’s mission trip projects. We are a results-oriented culture that feels like we’re not making a difference unless we have something tangible that we can point to and say, “Look at what we did!”

King’s point is so true: our “need” to leave something tangible behind…to have somehow bettered things by our presence…often counters what may be helpful. King writes about the goals of the Mission Trips led by Chris Marlow and his non-profit “Help One Now”. Their purpose is to break the cycle of poverty.

The goal of the organization is rescue orphans by meeting the immediate need created by extreme poverty, restore their hope by meeting basic needs through child sponsorship programs, and renewing their communities through long-term, sustainable growth.

When a team goes on a mission trip, each person is responsible for raising an extra $500 over and above their actual cost for the trip. The extra money is used to fund housing and other building projects, but not so that the team can go down there to do the work, too. More importantly, the money is used to hire locals to do the work.

The goal is to create jobs. And quite honestly, if we’re doing the work, then we’re taking jobs away. That only creates a reliance on our help and doesn’t actually break the cycle of poverty. We think we’re doing a good thing, and we get even more excited when the locals come out and volunteer their time to help us on this “charitable” project.

Breaking the cycle of poverty means that people need jobs, not volunteerism. They need opportunities, not handouts. Creating a job means that you’re giving someone the means to spend money, which also means that someone else has the opportunity to make money.


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Linda Grenz

The Episcopal Church used to have an Overseas Development Office (where I served as Associate Director) which had a fabulous process of working with our Anglican partner churches (and was greatly respected by the NGO community and national governments). The goal was to build capacity at the church-wide level: ability to get grant funds from governments and NGOs, ability to manage fund and projects, and the ability to develop a network of diocesan development officers who in turn created a network of trained parish development teams. The actual “work” was done at the local level — our role was to provide training at the national level and the funds they could use to develop capacity (training and small “practice” grants) and to leverage to get additional funds from donors much larger than TEC (e.g., one diocese in Kenya was getting $5M/yr in development money).

The decisions were all made collaboratively — with the locals being 75% of the decision-makers. So we were at the table, but they decided who got the money and they evaluated the projects. Even today there are still many Anglican Provinces that are benefiting from that work.

What I learned from that experience is the value of offering what we had (mostly money) without doing the work or making the decision. We really were partners at the table and not the “donors” determining what happened to our money. We risked putting our money on the table and then taking a minority role in deciding what happened to it. And that’s what made this capacity building. Our partners were able to make decisions (and sometime make mistakes and learn from them). But THEY determined what was done, by whom and how it was done. They evaluated the results. And in doing so, they learned the skills they needed to continue the work long after we and our money were gone.

Working this way is counterintuitive….and hard. Especially for those of us from the US who LOVE to lead, direct and DO things. Having to sit by, be outvoted and watch people make mistakes is hard. But, on the other side, discovering that you were wrong is good — because sometimes the local people are right and you are wrong. Only if you operate on a true partnership level will you come to appreciate that local people have something really valuable to bring to the table. And it isn’t just their faith, joy, hope, etc. in the face of adversity. Sometimes (often) they really do know that this project will only work in this way — a way that seems odd or even wrong to you. But they know their context, and they know what is needed to make it work. One reason so many of our “projects” are long-term failures is because we inflict our “wisdom” on people around the world. I can’t tell you how many pumps and buildings and dead projects I saw — all done by well-meaning groups in the US who “knew” that the village needed water so raised the money for a pump….which couldn’t be repaired the first time it broke. Meanwhile, the local people figured out a much cheaper way to get water — and one that employed the village youth, giving them funds for their school fees. And it cost us a whole $50 which the national team granted them — and which they asked for (and got) returned to them a year later.

There are other models of mission trips besides going to do things for people. that model makes us feel good….makes them feel “taken care of” which ultimately reinforces the image that they can’t do it themselves. We have a great history that we could draw on (and I think ERD may be doing some of that). It would be great if we could use the lessons from that work done by the Overseas Development Office to help congregations and diocese do mission that empowers the local people instead of just inspiring us.

Kurt Wiesner

Some nice, thoughtful comments here!

Mary’s point about resisting a reflexive “good or bad” seems to be what David is echoing. Relationships and working with communities to break the cycle of poverty is likely what most mission trips want to do (even if the agenda is to build a house). I think movement towards educating good souls who are giving their time, effort and money about what is possible beyond building a tangible thing to leave behind can be done without judging past and current “building something” mission attempts as bad or shortsighted. Most people truly want to help, and are more than willing to do what is most effective. And if some you know say “We build a house on a Mission Trip”, it is still right to rejoice with them and learn about their experiences and the meaning it had on their lives.

And Adam’s point is also critical: every Mission trip can use a leader who can help translate and unpack experiences, and point out the relationships and parallels beyond the specific action. My goal with every Mission Trip was to help teens see that the call to justice and compassion was ultimately needed in their own communities, and not just a place far away.

(Mary: thanks for the props on the Courtney Martin post. I really liked her thoughts as well.)

Dave Paisley

It would be interesting to know how much actual mission work the critics have actually done – is this just armchair quarterbacking (as so many of these articles are), or attacking a simplistic straw man?

And actually doing something is preferable to the most prevalent Episcopal model – checkbook mission, funded via ER&D.

Youth (and adult) mission trips are many faceted, and all the churches and groups I know are committed to a long term relationship with the areas they choose to serve, and the objective is rarely to simply “build a house”. Sometimes it’s to fix up a local community center or something else that’s useful to the community at large, and often it involves local labor and partnerships with local faith organizations.

So please don’t stereotype mission trips any more than you would stereotype people.

David O'Rourke

We are looking at how we can start doing mission trips in my parish, and one idea I have been mulling over is to establish relationships with partners in the “mission field” where we can also invite members of that community to come and visit with us as a way to establish mutuality in the relationship. This might work better in a domestic setting, say with an Episcopal congregation that is in a reservation area so travel for them would not be as expensive or require things like visas.

Adam Spencer

I do think someone (so that = me) should put in a good word for the formational reasons for missional pilgrimage as well.

At least for me, growing up, doing service work and going on service trips was a lot (looking back) about forming me as a person who valued service, cared about justice and had compassion for those less privileged than me. I can sit here and have conversations about stuff like the article above and care in a deep and involved way about doing what’s best for folks BECAUSE I was shaped by my experiences as a teen.

I think that’s an important value that gets sometimes neglected when we only focus on the results of service work.

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