Monday, April 22, 2019

Short Term Missions - Good, Bad or Ugly?

I've heard a lot of negativity about short term missions trips recently.  I even had someone message me and ask me how in  the world I could justify taking a team to Mexico every year just to harm orphans.  (Seriously.)  I've read When Helping Hurts.  I know about RAD (Reactive Detachment Disorder) and other attachment issues.  I know that orphanages are harmful to children.  I also understand the idea that the money we spend to get down there could do a lot of good down there.  I get all that.  I really do.  But, I take a team anyway.

A lot of missions trips have done a lot of harm.  Phrases like "glorified vacations" and "poverty tourism" didn't come from no where.  Neither did people's fear and dislike of short terms missions.  Even in the valley that we visit there were numerous organizations working which had unintentionally created a lot of dependency.  (This is changing through communication and cooperation.)  Well meaning people giving their lives to the people of the valley.  And harming the people in the process.  So how do you avoid hurting the people you want to help?  And why go at all?

1.  Go with a reputable organization that is living and working with the people.  There are lots of agencies that organize missions trips to place they aren't intimately involved with.  Missions Trips are big business.  Make sure that you are going with a well-established organization that knows and understands the values and pitfalls of short terms missions trips.

The organization that we go with has made quite a few changes over the last several years to make sure that they are not creating dependency, participating in poverty tourism or harming the children in their care.  It's a balancing act of knowing and understanding the people and the needs there while honoring the people of the valley and their way of life.

2.  No one, not even someone who runs a children's' home will tell you that orphanages are good places for children.  Children need to be with families.  But, the systems in other countries are far behind ours.  (And ours are far from perfect!)  Many cultures don't believe in foster care or adoption.  At this point in history, there are tons of children living in orphanages for a variety of reasons.  It's a fact.  Family preservation is great.  Services to the families are great.  But they don't exist.  So, we have to work within the system as it exists right now.  Not the ideal situations that may exist 10 or 20 years down the road.

I have to believe that a well-run, private orphanage is better than a large, government run institution.  Sure.  There are bad private orphanages but, overall, private is better.  Especially when that private children's home includes family-style homes for the kids and education through college.  The key to breaking poverty is education.  A free college education gives kids a chance to break out of the cycle that previous generations were in.

3.  Yes.  We spend a decent amount of money to get there as a team and stay for a week.  I work very hard to keep the costs down and it actually costs less than the vacation I just took with my daughter.  But, yes, we could send the money down there.  However, the mission stays alive and thrives because of their visitors.  Visitors make donations to the mission to cover room and board.  Visitors spend money every week in the community (mostly restaurants) which allows some of these places to stay afloat.  And, visitors are the ones who end up sponsoring kids or missionaries and making future donations to the mission.

People are more likely to give to an organization that they trust and a need that they have seen.  People like to give to something they have a connection to.  Someone spending some money to go visit the mission could lead to a lifetime of donations from that person.

Also, many of the staff at the mission started out as visitors.  I visited in 2003 and 2004.  I was then on staff during the summers of 2005, 2006, and 2007.  I took a year off of teaching and went to the mission during 2008 and 2009.  I started an English program for some of the kids with disabilities that came to the special education center.  Someone else took it over when I left.  At least on  of those kids is now teaching English to help support their family.  All because I went as a visitor.  The executive director of the entire organization also started as a visitor with her church.  (The non-profit organization that runs the mission bases is US based and must have a US executive director.)

4.  We don't go to "love on kids."   We go to support the full time staff that are living and working in the home and in the community.  Our jobs might look like renovating an apartment or bagging beans and rice.  We do the behind-the-scenes so the staff can work with the children and the locals and build relationships with them.  We go into the community to help out with Bible clubs run by Mexican nationals who are in the communities every week bonding with the kids and building relationships with the families.

We get to meet the kids in a controlled environment on Monday night.  We are not care-givers.  We are visitors.  I know that this can be a fine line and I have mixed feelings about it.  Personally, I keep my distance from the kids.  But, I know that a lot of these kids end up with sponsors based on these evenings.  Sponsorship is a huge part of the children's' home budget.  It's what keeps them afloat.  Sponsors can choose to send letters but I think most just send checks monthly.

I think the key is being conscious of what you're doing and why you're doing it.  I know that the mission leadership has become much more conscious of the good and the bad of short term teams in recent years.  I'm conscious of our team and what they are doing and my motivations.  (I could probably have more detailed conversations with my team members about their motivations.)

Are all trips good or bad?  Nope.  

Is it a fine line?  Absolutely.  

Should we scrap all short term trips because some are bad?  No.  I don't think so.  

If you are personally against short term missions trips, that's ok with me.  Don't go on one.  Don't give to one.  But don't villanize everyone who thinks and feels differently than you do.    

I welcome comments and questions that are honest and productive.  I enjoy a good conversation and even debate if it's polite and respectful.  

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