Short term mission trips are good things, in my opinion. Yes, I know the critique that they do little to address the long term, systemic issues that necessitate the need for the short term mission trip in the first place. But you can’t tell me that the work Short-Termers do isn’t beneficial. I just had a friend return from building a Habitat house outside of the US, and as Martha Stewart would say, “That’s a good thing.”
Yet, there is one thing about these trips I wish we could change. It’s when the team returns home to give a report to the congregation and that one person says, “It was such an amazing experience. They actually helped me more than we helped them.”
Please, tell me that’s not the case.
One of the greatest gifts that the late Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz gave to the Church was the reframing of ethics in light of “friendship.” When you think of your relationships with your friends, you will do whatever you need to do within your power to help them out. If your friend says, “I need help with Thus and So,” then you do whatever you can within your power to help with Thus and So. That’s what friends do.
But do you know what friends don’t do? They don’t make it about themselves. They are not thankful that Thus and So existed just so that they could see just how good they have it. They are not grateful for an opportunity for a maturating self-awareness. Good friends sacrifice for their friends. But most of us seem to make “self-sacrifice” just another way for our egos to prop themselves up.
If I use my friends as a way to make myself feel better then I’m not a very good friend, am I?
I know this doesn’t sell well in our consumer driven, North American context. I know that we should be glad when people’s eyes are opened. But, you know what? Just once, I’d love to hear a returning Short-Termer say, “That was terribly inconvenient and not very fun. But I met some good friends, am happy that that we were able to help them, and wish that our help was not even needed.”
Self-sacrifice is not, and cannot be, about us. To do otherwise is to miss the point of the Gospel.
I think I get your point, but there’s a difference between (1) doing a project SO THAT I’ll benefit and (2) discovering after the fact, with a significant measure of humility and chagrin, that I have benefited–that I have been changed by the experience. I’m not grateful for any difficulty–others’ or my own, but standing with someone in the face of evil should change me. If I’m not open to being changed by serving another, I’m not really giving myself to the other. I’m just the person wielding the shovel or making the cup of tea. (I wish you and I could have a long conversation over a cup of coffee about this!)
“If I’m not open to being changed by serving another, I’m not really giving myself to the other.”
I totally buy that.
Also, my students say this after every trip, and I never challenge it. Developmentally, this kind of sentiment in adolescents is a positive marker of maturation, an ability to take another person’s place and experience life from another perspective. But even in adults, the ability to allow those we serve to serve us and to give to us goes a long way towards making these trips less about the powerful and well off condescending to the needy and more about the emergence of mutuality and partnership. It’s not enough, but it’s a start. So, I get the irritation, but I’ve come to accept it as a healthy building block. Also, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Or whatever.