Friday, September 12, 2014

Why I (Mostly) Hate Mission Trips

Back a few years ago, prior to a trip to Africa, I stopped by my pharmacy to pick up some anti-malaria pills. Cathy, the pharmacist (our boys played baseball together), gave me a cheery wave and said, "Going to a mission trip?"

"Nope," I said, equally cheerily. "I'm going as a tourist."

Cathy looked perplexed. I live in the Baptist Bible Belt, and mission trips are pretty common here. But I mostly hate mission trips. I'd rather be a tourist any day.

Here's what I do as a tourist: I come into the country because seeing it has value to me. I spend money at hotels and restaurants, which helps the local economy. I hire local guides. I try to understand the country as a whole, not just from the tourist sites--I've been to a one-room school in Costa Rica, a cattle farm in Botswana, several black townships in South Africa--respectfully, seeking to learn and understand.

Here's what I might do on a mission trip: I come into a country because I think I have value to the people there. I spend a lot of money to get there, none of which reaches the local economy. I preach Jesus, probably in English, to people who probably don't speak English, and I build a school or paint a building or perform some other job which could be equally well done by the people who live there. I come to teach, not listen. I don't learn anything about the culture, except that they are poorer than me but still manage (gasp!) to be happy.

It makes me full crazy when church groups of 20 people spend $2000 each to go to a remote place and impose their will on poor people. That's forty thousand dollars which might have been transformative in the lives of those in that hard place, spend hauling a bunch of privileged white folks there to spend a week learning how blessed they are. Amen!

Which is not to say that I think tourism is the only answer. The people and places most in need aren't in vacation hot spots. Rwanda, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Haiti. Not going to those places any time soon.

Which brings me to a "mission trip" I do support. Help One Now, an organization I've loved for a long time, has sent a group of storytellers to Ethiopia, to meet the organization they support there and spread the word. (Believe it or not, one of the women from Duck Dynasty is there. I don't watch DD, so I can't tell you more than that.) You can read about it here and here for starters.  Or here.

Help One Now partners with local leaders in the countries where they work. They find men and women who are already transforming their communities, and fund them. In Ethiopia, as in Haiti, they're working on a simple program of orphan prevention. Several years ago HON told a community leaders that they only wanted to spend their money on orphans, not on poor children still living with their parents. "Come back in a year," they were told, "and all these kids will be orphans, too." Meaning that their parents, unable to feed them, would surrender them to the orphanage.

Yesterday on the Ethiopian trip, the HON storytellers met an HIV-positive widow with 5 young children. Unable to care for them all, she'd put one daughter in an orphanage. Now, with HON's support, she has found a job, gotten a cow to provide milk for the family, been able to start anti-retroviral medicine, and brought her daughter home. Her children are in school and have enough to eat. Her family has been transformed.

In America our societal problems are often complex. Abuse, addiction, mental illness. In developing countries the problems can be simpler to solve--but not easier. If you have no shovel, and no hope of buying a shovel, you can't dig yourself out.

Help One Now is trying to get 300 sponsorships for 150 vulnerable families in Ethiopia. Each sponsorship costs $42/month, or $504 dollars per year. You know, about one-fourth what you might spend on a mission trip to go paint someone's church. Instead you'd keep a family together. How about it?