Sunday, February 5, 2017

Short Term Missions Trips, or What's in it for the Leper?

If it’s winter, it must be time for short term mission and service trips.

A quick search online shows that groups of Winnipeggers are heading out from churches and schools to places like Mexico, Uganda, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Bolivia and Guatemala.

(Funny how God seems to call Canadian Christians to southern climes in winter, isn’t it?)

Each trip can cost participants thousands of dollars, much of it fundraised. In the evangelical church world, many are undertaken by youth groups.

Service trips by doctors, nurses, dentists or other trained professionals can make a good contribution. But what about other kinds of trips?

Says Robert Lupton says in his book, Toxic Charity:  “Contrary to popular belief, most missions trips and service projects do not: empower those being served, engender healthy cross-cultural relationships, improve quality of live, relieve poverty.”

Adds Daren Carlson, President of Training Leaders International: “I have seen with my own eyes or know of houses in Latin America that have been painted 20 times by 20 different short-term teams; fake orphanages in Uganda erected to get Westerners to give money . . . teams who build houses that never get used.”

Short-term missions, he says are “fraught with problems, and many wish such trips did not exist, at least in the common form today.

Many of the short term mission and service trip leaders I talk to agree that the money might be better spent providing jobs for local people. But what about the effect on the participants—the lives changed by the trip?

No doubt, that can happen. But for most, the effect doesn’t appear to be as long-lasting as hoped.

Research a few years ago by Kurt Ver Beek of Calvin College in the U.S. found there were, in fact, few long-term life changes in the lives of Christian teens following their mission trips—no increases in giving, prayer or spirituality.

But even if some lives are changed, it prompts another question: Is it morally right for people in Canada to use poor people as a means of personal and spiritual transformation?

That was the issue raised last year by American pastor Hugh Hollowell, who operates a ministry for homeless people in Raleigh, North Carolina.

In a blog post, Hollowell wrote about receiving a fundraising letter from a young person wanting money for a short term mission trip to South America.

The key “selling point” in the letter was how the trip would “change the lives of the teenagers that go on this trip.”

When he read it, Hollowell thought back to another encounter between a wealthy missionary and a poor person, many centuries ago: The meeting between St. Francis of Assisi and the leper.

In the story, Francis—a product of wealth and privilege—was riding his horse near Assisi when he came across the leper.

Francis got off his horse and gave the leper a kiss of peace and all of his money. Then he got back on his horse and rode away.

For Francis, the experience was life-changing, setting him on a course of helping the poor. But what about the leper? He got money and a kiss—neither of which he asked for, Hollowell noted. What he mostly got, said Hollowell, was a chance to play a nameless bit part in the inspirational story of St. Francis.

No doubt, some trips do very good things. But unless participants and leaders are very careful, they can also cause problems and challenges for the very people they want to help.

Plus, the trips can put them on morally shaky ground. Will the people they meet just be nameless faces in Facebook selfies and church basement Power Point presentations? Or will they be seen as real people who deserve respect and dignity as human beings?

Those are tough questions that require an answer—before boarding the plane.

“Let me tell you the truest thing I know,” said Hollowell. “The economically poor do not exist to be agents of your transformation. They are not props in the story of you. And if you don’t have a really good answer to the question, ‘What’s in it for the leper?’ I wish you would stay home.”

Image above: St. Francis and the leper.

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