1. Mission trips aren’t poverty vacations for wealthy white people. So often that’s all they are. It’s expensive to go on mission trips. The bulk of the cost is eaten up in airfare (for overseas trips). Churches and individuals have to raise boat loads of money to go on these trips and it means that those who have access to or have the time to raise such funds are the ones who end up going. Typically this means the wealthy and the privileged become our missionaries to the poor. Often times the people with skills to help, (whether medical, linguistic, or construction workers) don’t have the cash to put up or time to raise funds. Thus, only those who can afford to go on trips end up going and many of those aren’t the best qualified to meet the needs of the people on the ground. Are there exceptions to this, yes, you bet. Are the exceptions the norm? In my experience, no.
2. Mission trips shouldn’t exploit the people you’re being sent to serve. Hold back the urge to take photographs with local people and post them all over Facebook or Twitter. Whether you’re in Haiti, El Salvador, Africa, or in the Appalachian Mountains, it sends a message of exploitation and reinforces the economic disparity between the missionary and the host culture. The show and tell picture of “here am I with a local” should have died out some time in the 1950’s. There are better ways to tell our stories and frame new narratives than recycle the same images that reinforce economic stereotypes and racism. No matter how well-intentioned at the outset or whatever you want to do with a powerpoint presentation later on, there is no way for pictures like the ones I’m describing not to be demeaning or racist. It’s like Will Farrell’s character Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights. No matter how many times he says, “With all due respect”, it doesn’t make it ok to be disrespectful.
3. How would you feel if people from another country drove up into your neighborhood, took pictures of your home, gave their hand me downs to your children, walked through your home, did shoddy renovation jobs on your churches, schools or home, and told you they felt bad for you having to live “this way”? This is the scenario I want you to imagine. If these well-intentioned, God-fearing people from white billionaire/millionaire land flew into our white lower middle class island, this is what might occur. We residents of lower middle class land think we are making it. “This way” is all we have ever known. We have good days and bad days. Our kids make it to school. Most can read and write and a few even go off to college. Sometimes our church roof leaks. It’s a struggle but we manage to put food on the table. Our choir robes aren’t the best. But we do alright. Then once a year, people fly in from the wealthiest place on Earth and make us feel like we have nothing. Then we hear one of the wealthy missionaries say to another, “I think I get more out of this than they do.”
4. Mission trips (or projects-foreign or domestic) aren’t something you give yourself an award for simply because you want other people to know you’re involved in missions. The purpose of mission work isn’t to take photographs so you can share them and receive recognition from fellow church members and be rewarded for your involvement in mission year after year. It’s a self-deluded lie to say you simply want to “share the good work and talk about what you’re doing with others”. No, you want people to see how much you care over and above everyone else because you chose to fill out a form and take a few pictures of you smiling with poor people. If the work can stand on it’s own two feet it doesn’t need the publicity of a video, brochure, or a round of applause at a denominational gathering. If that’s why you’re in mission, you should stop. In fact, don’t do it for any credit or recognition at all. We don’t do mission for any kind of honor or recognition. Isn’t that how Jesus would have it?