Not many 14 year olds spend their summer holidays in the interior jungles of West New Britain. But in 1992, that’s exactly what I did, living in a thatched hut for a month with a crew of fellow Kiwis and Aussies. We were there with New Tribes Missions building a house for some missionaries. It was off the grid: wild, primal and dangerous and included scorpions, malaria and crocodiles. OK so there were no crocodiles, but it was still a full-on experience, one I’ll never forget… nor contemplate letting my own 14-year children go on.
It was the first of many short-term mission trips I’ve been on over the last 25 years. Each one has been unique and wild in its own way. My short-term mission itinerary has since included: Indonesia, the Philippines, Turkey and Fiji (and some of these a number of times). As I’ve learned and changed over the years, so too has my understanding and approach to these trips.
So what have I picked up along the way (other than malaria and travellers trots)? What are some of the dilemmas that I’ve faced?
SHORT-TERM GAINS? LONG TERM PAINS?
The bottom line for me is that these trips come out of an immense place of privilege in the world. As a white, middle-class Christian male, the fact that I’ve boarded a plane more times than I care to remember means I’m part of a small percentage of people in the world whose circumstances enable such a luxury.
That’s what these trips are: a luxury, and I have to think about this every time I contemplate such a journey. Much of the world lives in grinding poverty, and I get to hop on a plane and go have a look. Each plane ticket I purchase costs more than most people live off each year. The trip had better be well thought through.
And each time I board the plane I also must remember the environmental impact. Air travel contributes to climate change. I can’t get around this. So again I need to ask honestly: should I be on this plane? I don’t like asking this but when I do, I enter a space that calls me to be real about the impact of my choices. They matter.
Along with these impacts, I think about what it means for wealthy Christians to go to poor countries and share Jesus with the locals. There are so many power dynamics and ethical dilemmas at play! Are we doing things that people can do for themselves? Are we creating dependency? Jealousy? Local rivalry? Are we culturally sensitive? Have we thought enough about what the Gospel should look and sound like in this context? By going are we creating more problems than we solve?
As I ask these challenging questions, the inevitable big one arises… Should we actually go?
MUTUALITY AND MISSION
When I think back over the many trips I’ve been privileged to embark upon, a number of things stand out as gifts that I’m deeply grateful to have received. The global perspective I’ve been exposed to has been life changing. Sitting with the poor in some of Asia’s slums has rocked me to the core. I can’t begin to recount the many stories that have cut so deep, and without these experiences I don’t think I would have made the intentional choices to live in the way I do. Poverty asks me to live with its ever present reality lingering in my mind. I simply have to respond.
The poor aren’t just statistics for me. They’ve been my hosts; they’ve become my friends. I’ve sat at dinner with rubbish picking families, laughed with them and held their children. The gift of friendship is something which stands out as the most enduring contribution of these trips. Friendship creates a sense of mutuality, that in this encounter we both have something to give and to receive.
No matter the country, this has been my experience; there is something sacred in the space created in friendship that transcends cultural barriers. We discover God in our midst. There is something about mutual encounter that creates the space for us to share the stories that mean the most to us: who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going. The Good News is something we discover together, as we find we don’t have all the answers. There’s much to learn from the experience and understanding of others.
The power dynamics that are inherent when Westerners place themselves for short periods amongst the poor can be somewhat mitigated if we go as ‘guests.’ Being hosted by the poor, eating with them, staying in their homes, when done respectfully and thoughtfully can be a deeply mutual experience which empowers the host with a profound sense of dignity. It’s so important for Westerners to experience powerlessness, where we don’t have all the answers, solutions and suggestions to fix the world’s problems. Sometimes it’s best to sit and cry.
So the million dollar question: to go or not to go?
- I’m prepared to be honest about the privilege and impact of such a trip and think about some ways to ‘off set’ (such as giving a ‘trip tithe’ to an environmental justice organisation)
- I can outline how this could potentially improve the situation of the world’s poor
- I’m committed to building mutually beneficial and reciprocal relationships with my hosts
- I’m prepared to place myself in situations of powerless that I simply can’t solve
I’m pretty sure I’ll board a plane to the developing world in the future. But before I do, I’ll take some time to prayerfully consider my own list of questions. If I can answer them honestly, then I can share more honestly with my overseas friends. Treating others with dignity, kindness and respect are signs of the Jesus journey. Such journeys are well worth taking.
Mark is part of a missional clan called Urban Vision. He’s currently based in Mt Roskill with his wife Bridget and three kids.
Identify differences between a trip only benefiting the ‘goers’ and one that will mutually benefit everyone involved.
If you’re going, take time to talk through Mark’s bullet points. Prayerfully ask the question: should you be going on this trip?
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