Can we reset the paradigm for short-term mission trips?
On our parish mission trips to Honduras, we have always done maintenance, light construction, or painting of the children’s homes at Sociedad Amigos de los Niños (SAN), Sister Maria Rosa’s village for at-risk and abandoned children. In recent years we’ve brought down donations of new or gently used sheets, towels, dishes, cups, pots and pans, blenders, curtains, shower curtains, and more to spruce up each house one by one. We call these projects “Mini-Extreme Home Makeovers.”
I love watching the Tias (housemothers) place the new kitchenware lovingly on shelves. I love it when the makeover is complete and we unlock the doors to invite the kids back in to see fresh, newly painted walls and repaired or refurbished furniture in their home. Then they run to their rooms, where they find new sheets, a colorful towel, new toothbrush, and toy on each bed. (Believe it or not, the kids get excited about new silverware and cups, too!)
There are people who would say that this is too much one-way giving or too much doing for others what they could do for themselves. The authors of books like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts make the case that many short-term mission teams inadvertently do more harm than good by promoting unhealthy dependency and exploiting the power differential between members of the First and Third Worlds. In particular, they note that the short length of the trip often mires groups in relief or mercy work—handouts, quick repairs, one-way giving—when their efforts might be more effective with longer-term developmental projects that hand over responsibility and stewardship to those served.
Robert Lupton writes in Toxic Charity about the toll that one-way giving and mercy work (without justice work) can take on mission travelers:
Mercy is a door, an opening, an invitation to touch a life, to make a difference. But it is not a destination. Those of us who get stuck in mercy ministry find ourselves growing impatient with the recipients of our kindness, wondering why they don’t help themselves more, feeling a growing discomfort with the half truths they tell us to justify their persistent returns for more handouts. Mercy that doesn’t move intentionally in the direction of development (justice) will end up doing more harm than good—to both giver and recipient.
But then there is Sister Maria Rosa’s way of hosting mission travelers. Most adult travelers who come to SAN are returnees from previous trips. On my parish teams, some have come to Honduras three, ten, or even 30 times. What is the enticement? The lure inevitably came from Sister Maria Rosa herself. First she warmly welcomed the groups, saying, “You should come here. This is a good school for you, not in books, but in our children. Every single child is a different world!” Then within minutes she began advocating for her visitors to come back soon, planting the seed of returning even before their mission week is over. This invitation felt intimate and imperative. She reinforced in travelers the notion that each of them is personally vital to her work and that they were sent to this mission by God.
“You are in this work and God is in this work. He wants you here,” Sister Maria Rosa said. “It’s not my fault—I didn’t know you! But He knows you.”
“Frequent fliers” to SAN grow gradually in the knowledge that they are not in Honduras to reform, with superior know-how and attitude, the way the Hondurans build a wall or paint a house. Sister Maria Rosa stressed that they are there instead to work alongside the Honduran adults, play with the children, and forge bonds of community. If the project gets finished, great, but the real priorities are to spend time together, communicate in Spanglish, and weave bonds of friendship, especially with the children.
With her focus on relationships, which take time and commitment, could Sister Maria Rosa provide a new paradigm for short-term mission trips? By inviting the mission teams intimately into the lives of her children and housing them right in the children’s village, she helped them dive deeper into the lives and longterm development of her people. She ushered her mission groups away from quick handouts and toward right relationship with the poor as she schooled them in her own home-grown priority: kinship over aid. Even in times of financial crisis (nearly always), Sister Maria Rosa told her visitors that the most meaningful thing was not the donations they brought or the sweat of their labor. Instead it was their simple presence and the fact that so many of them came back to show the children they care.
Certainly SAN’s mission teams, like any others, can get stuck in relief work, providing handouts of toys and candy. It’s hard to hold back the caring, generous hearts of mission travelers from one-way giving, especially first-timers who often believe they are surely called to fill the material needs of the poor. By emphasizing beneficial human relationships over work and donations, however, Sister Maria Rosa planted in her mission teams the desire to come back, stringing one mission week into many. She opened up the possibility for one short-term mission trip to become a long-term, even lifelong, commitment to her children and engagement with her cause.
So the mission groups might repaint the same children’s homes over the years, but when you know the favorite color, sports team, food aversions, and career aspirations of the children who live in those bedrooms, this project is not just a made-up exercise to fill time. It can be instead a tangible sign of love and affection, offering an opportunity for stewardship by giving these beloved and known kids clean walls to take care of. Likewise, sometimes the travelers can forget the First-World/Third-World contrast for awhile when Hondurans and North Americans work side by side year after year, building a wall or digging a ditch, conveying jokes and stories in Spanglish and sharing photos of their growing families.
For Sister Maria Rosa, the point was always relationship. “Here is what you offer my people: your help, your sharing in our needs and difficulties, and your feeling what the poor feel,” Sister Maria Rosa explained. “Our children think of you, dream of you, and feel they have friends abroad and people who love them!”