The Danger of Mission Trips

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="336"]danger_2 from Flickr via Wylio © 2007 openDemocracy, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio[/caption] By The Rev'd Curtis Farr As we washed cars for the umpteenth time to raise money for our mission trip/pilgrimage to the Dominican Republic, a man pulled up in his SUV, rolled down his window, and asked me a question I was not expecting to hear. "Are you bringing guns on your trip?" "No," I said. "We're not packing heat on our church mission trip, dummy," I thought. "Don't be foolish," he said, "not everywhere is as safe as the United States." I smiled as I thought about all of the gun deaths that occur weekly just a few miles down the road in Hartford. But maybe this fellow had a good point; mission trips can be quite dangerous. In fact the Caribbean is now seeing a rise in cases of the painful chikungunya virus, passed by mosquitos. But viruses aren't what make mission trips dangerous. Mission trips can be opportunities to feel and behave as if entitled to a specific experience of self-congratulation. "I went to Ecuador for a year, sacrificing a part of my life and sharing the valuable gifts that God gave me. Aren't I wonderful?" A church mission team might swing into a developing nation for a week and do whatever they want however they want even at the expense of the hosting community. A seemingly noble cause can result in more headaches than the work is worth. The Onion, a satirical news outlet, published an article entitled, "6-Day Visit to Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman's Facebook Profile Picture." The questions at the root of this piece of satire ask: Do mission trips change anything more than the resume of those who go on them? What purpose(s) do they serve? Can't these people paint their own damn buildings and dig their own damn wells? In our case, yes...yes they can. There are some organizations and trips that provide services or products that are otherwise unavailable or unobtainable, but often mission trips are more appropriately distinguished as Global Voluntourism, a term borrowed from the linked article (which is worth reading). I don't think, however, that the efficacy of the trips' specific projects is the problem. No, the problem is the mindset that "we" are the saviors and "they" are in need of saving. We are not the calvary in an old western film, and quite often the sentimentality with which we approach mission trips and most kinds of ministry is so transient that our involvement shifts from project to project to project without ever changing the dangerous culture of making someone less than, outcast, or other. I once heard Madeline Albright say something like, "Americans are very compassionate, but we have incredibly short attention spans." We get caught up in this trip or that cause, but once we feel that we've checked off a box we pat ourselves on the back and move on. Remember the Nigerian girls who were kidnapped awhile ago? Wonder whatever happened to them? It was never resolved, but the World Cup happened, so we stopped tweeting #SaveOurGirls. There is, of course, nothing wrong with believing in and participating in a cause. No, the challenge is remembering that cause long enough to allow our perspectives, attitudes, and behaviors to be so changed that we persevere in making things better and resist the temptation to think of ourselves as saviors. The last time I checked, Christians, at least, believed in One Savior. Our belief in the God who creates, redeems, and sustains ought to move us into authentic and wholehearted relationship with those who might at first seem quite different from us or quite in need of our help. But "they" are not living a failed attempt at being "us." Remember and recite that mantra: "They" are not living a failed attempt at being "us." This mantra is difficult to remember, and because on mission trips we are physically moving from the comfort of home to a place that seems strange and not up to our standard of living, mission trips are especially dangerous. If we're going to go on a mission trip or participate in any kind of ministry at all, we've got to be forthright about our motivations, intentional about our behavior, reflective of our experience, and consistent with our learnings as we return home. Will we allow not only our Facebook profile pictures but ourselves to be transformed? And if this kind of transformation is one of our primary goals, how will we talk about mission trips in the future? Our group has intentionally added the somewhat clumsy descriptor of "pilgrimage" to our week in the Dominican Republic. We are seeking some personal/communal/spiritual transformation, while at the same time doing some good work. There is definitely an aspect of pilgrimage in this trip. Acknowledging this does not make us more awesome than those other mission trip teams; we have a lot of work to do if we want to serve not only ourselves, but others and God as well. We recognize that we are not going to save anybody, and many of us are well aware that we will receive from those we meet more than we could ever hope to offer them. Our hope is that by meeting those currently considered "other," we might encounter new brothers and sisters. Our prayer is that by building these new relationships, we might find an experience of the Living God that will transform our perceptions, attitudes, and future behaviors. When you pray for us or for any person or group engaged in any kind of similar endeavor, pray that the God of All would keep us safe from the danger inherent in ministry and mission trips--the danger of a savior complex. Also pray that we don't encounter any gun-toting church mission teams and that no one catches the Chikungunya Virus. Thanks.