This summer, for the ninth year in a row, I will take a group of high school students on a mission trip.
I know from experience a few things will happen:
- Too many double stuffed oreos will be consumed
- Someone will forget their shower supplies
- At least one person will come down with a horrible cold
- I will never actually get to read an entire chapter of the book I bring
- We will make NO marked change in the community we are welcomed into
I am the lay minister at a predominantly white, upper-middle class, suburban episcopal church.
When I began my ministry, I myself had never been on a mission trip. A cradle Episcopalian born and raised in the Diocese of Hawaii I was keenly aware that mission trips were for ‘other’ Christians in ‘other’ places. Poverty, social inequality, the working poor, immigration; these were not words thrown around our parish to discuss outreach, they were words we used to talk about ourselves. It was only after moving to Virginia where I begin my ministry and hearing the town’s uproar over panhandling that I realized not every church had a transient population sleeping on their campus each night, let alone worshipping in their pews.
Short-term mission trips are for the benefit of those who attend them. Short-term mission trips are for the privileged. If we believe that we are headed out on a short-term mission trip for the welfare of anyone besides ourselves we need to take a good look at what we believe we are capable of doing. Short-term mission must be about discovery and not deliverance. Learning about the systems that perpetuate poverty, waking up to the ways that race and gender interact with privilege and oppression, seeing how people are living missionally in their own communities… these are the benefits of a week away wearing matching t-shirts and stuffed in minivans.
That first year as I began looking for a mission trip site, I quickly discovered that not everyone offers week-long mission experiences speaking to these truths. Google quickly revealed that my students could have an exotic getaway with a side of construction and a new profile pic featuring a young child I’m guessing without a photo release) for the price of my first car. As I delved into the depths of short-term mission options it became clear there were a plethora of trips that lent themselves to perpetuating the white savior complex and instead of insisting we check our privilege, capitalized on it. If my goal was to support my students in living into their baptismal covenant to ‘seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself’ then I had to give them the chance to actually meet their neighbor and not stay in a hotel down the road and paint the school that the group three weeks ago had just painted.
So as a community, we created criteria that any short-term mission organization and site would need to meet for us. These were the things that were right for our community. If your parish is contemplating short-term mission I encourage you to pray and discuss and argue and hash-out the things that are critical for your community.
For us, the non-negotiables were:
- We will not partner with any organization with goals or belief statements centered around ‘saving souls’
- We will stay within the United States & within driving distance
- Organization must be LGBTQ+ affirming
- Organization & site partners should be rooted in the community and support it year-round.
All of this.
All of this learning and self-reflection and stepping out of our communities and comfort zones and previously held beliefs… for me it’s all with the constant prayer that short-term mission experiences become part of the narrative of my student’s missional lives. On my first trip nine years ago, two of my girls found an empty drug baggie in a garden they were weeding. They asked me, “what kind of snack fits in such a small ziplock bag?” Once I realized they were, indeed, serious, and I finished laughing, we had a quick Drugs 101 lesson. Spoiler alert: they didn’t need to leave town, or even their high school, to see such a bag. We live in a loud and busy world. It’s a privilege of the privileged to turn away from the brokenness that does not directly affect us just as it is a privilege of the privileged to go on short-term mission.
I do believe we must be so very careful about the kind of short-term mission work we choose and who we choose to do it with. Day in and day out there are people in communities all around the world living missional lives; being Jesus, being church, being love in this broken and beautiful world. When we give students a chance to witness God working through Her people, when they are given an opportunity to bear witness to what is happening in communities to love and lift each other up and fight against the injustices that are inflicted by the structures of society, each other, and *gasp* religious people we also give them a chance to reflect on how they will live out their baptismal covenant.
Teenagers have more hope, more energy, and more willpower than any group of people alive on the planet. One of the beauties of being in youth ministry for 127 years (isn’t that what 9 years in one church as a youth minister is in human years?) is watching the fruit ripen. The missional lives that germinated in short-term mission are now serving in the Peace Corps, running local non-profits, teaching and feeding and lobbying and not standing comfortably in their privilege but instead using it to push against the systems that created it with the hopes of one day watching it crumble.
This, this is why once again I will spend a week sleeping on a floor and wearing shower shoes. It has nothing to do with those six days… it has to do with a lifetime.