Short term missions trips have gotten a lot of flack the last few years (see here: here, here , here) and I really could not be happier about it. Let’s ignore the exceptions here—the cases where the trips are really actually good and beneficial to local communities (like doctors visiting remote villages, for instance)—because those trips are exceptions.
Most short term trips are bad news. They encourage an attitude that divides the world into haves-and have-nots, and, especially overseas trips, encourage a white savior mentality. White Saviorism, a cousin of colonialism, says: “You have problems! We’ll come fix them!”
Unfortunately, far too often, the real local needs are neglected or ignored, along with the root causes of these issues—which can’t be fixed with a hammer and a weekend. While there is a place for lending a hand, we overlook systematic injustice, unfair international contracts against debt, and our own consumerism that contributes to poverty, and meet the short term “need” of new shoes or a school notebook. This often sets back local economies—people who make sell notebooks or put on roofs for a living— wreaking more harm than good.
Many of these trips end up being self serving. Well meaning. But self-serving. Giving away shoes feels good. But instead of giving away shoes, wouldn’t it be better to ask deeper questions about the inequalities of the global economy and why people can’t afford shoes in the first place?
I’m not a hater. Well, not completely. I get the impulse behind these trips. To help hurting people. Exposure for church members, especially youth, to people in need. To widen perspectives and encourage a spirit of thankfulness and generosity. To obey the command of Christ to serve the weak, the poor, the hurting. This is a good impulse.
However, if our actions affect the lives of others, a little due diligence should be at least a minimum requirement. A heart in the right place simply is not enough.
If we focus only on “loving on” the people we go visit abroad, we miss a lot about what Jesus’ directives were about caring for the poor. It’s easier, more fun, and more adventurous to care for neighbors far away. We don’t need to be in relationship with those people. (And if we think we are after a few weeks-long trip, we’re wrong.) Their social network and governments are much different than ours, and because of that it’s easier to separate ourselves from the systems keeping them oppressed or in poverty.
When we involve ourselves with the ones next to us, it forces us to look at our social fabrics, our governments and systems, and the broken systems and injustices in our country that keep people in poverty. It’s messy and awkward and there is more opportunity to see where we get it wrong and make mistakes in trying to help people (conveniently not afforded to us in 2 week trips), and the self-esteem boost of helping others is therefore more difficult to achieve and maintain when it’s done on a continual basis. It’s a lot easier to care about people far away, and judge the ones outside our door. Because to acknowledge brokenness around us, we’d need to acknowledge that something needs to be done. And none of us are looking for more to do.
I am writing this as a person who has been living overseas for the last six years. I recognize the seeming contradiction in what I’m saying (stay home and love the poor), as a person who has chosen to go to a place and a people far away. The difference is relationship. Investment. Empowering local people. And knowing I don’t know. I have spent lots of time learning local culture and language. I spend a lot of time asking questions and evaluating if what I’m doing is helpful or harmful. I am constantly trying to to better and be better at learning how to actually help people in a way that is meaningful and truly helpful, from people who actually live in poverty. People that I have built relationships with over years.
I do not think that going overseas is wrong (obviously!). I think that caring for poverty and injustice anywhere in the world is the right thing. As believers we need to be broken for the things that break God’s heart wherever they are. But we do need to evaluate what the best solutions for these things might be. We need to research. We need to build (long-term) relationships. We need to ask, we need to listen, and we need to act. Acting against injustice and poverty is one of God’s highest callings for us. But it has to be done thoughtfully and with care. Otherwise there are unfortunate, and sometimes horrific results. (Further reading: When Helping Hurts, Further (highly recommended) watching: Poverty, Inc.)
The Western church needs to be better at seeing the marginalized people around them. And acknowledging that we have an obligation to those people. We have to stop judging, we have to see that Christ identified himself with suffering people all around him and we’re supposed to do the same thing. If we rely on mission’s trips for our youth (and even some adults) to be exposed to poverty, and the lasting generous spirit that is supposed to come with it, we are neglecting opportunities nearby and, sometimes, conditioning people to only care about (or acknowledge meaningfully) the poor who are far away. This is tragic.
If we only show we care for the poor by way of short term trips, canned food drives, and special times of the year, we neglect the obligation we have to anyone who is in need or marginalized around us. We have an obligation to stand in solidarity with anyone who might be considered on the out.
Wherever we find ourselves, we’re commanded to care for the poor. And, unfortunately for our comfort zones, I think this means constantly evaluating our lives to look at how our attitudes and actions, our spending, and our elected officials could be contributing to injustice and poverty–however near or far. I think this is a necessary practice for believers. And it’s really hard to do alone. We need the church. We need to be in communities that actively seek out people and peoples who are marginalized, understand that it is up to us as the Body to care for these people, and then be willing to listen more than speak about how to best address those needs and injustices. And then do it. And don’t stop.