The summer going from my sophomore to junior year in high school, I went on my first serious mission trip. Our group was originally slated to go to China, but things fell through and we ended up going to Nepal for two weeks and then Manila in the Philippines for another two.Our team was an evangelizing one – not so much “giving to the poor” as “spreading the good news.” We would sing songs and do a small passion play to draw the crowds in, and then one of us, through an interpreter, would share the gospel.
And to be sure, we must have done some good. One afternoon, I was the one who gave the Gospel presentation, telling the locals about Jesus. And I remember a woman afterward smiling and running towards me. She was quickly stopped by an interpreter who continued to talk to her, I imagine, about the Christian faith.
But mostly, looking back on that month away, I have to admit, I wonder if it was worth it. I know that’s a cynical thing to say, but understand, the entire trip cost me (or I should rather say those who funded me) over $3000. I heard later that many Christians living overseas often wished young, fervent groups of short-term missionaries would stay in the states or wherever they came from and send money. It almost wasn’t worth it if they didn’t stay for at least six months. It was a hassle for local churches to accommodate Westerners. I remember the nice, three-story home we all stayed in, overlooking beautiful rice patties on the outskirts of Kathmandu. I remember the beds we took up in Manila in the compound that ministered to street children. How much did it cost to feed all of us? How many plans or routines were disrupted to accommodate us? How much food could have been bought or how many local workers could have been hired to help in the ministries with the thousands of dollars it took all of us to take our “life-changing” trips?
Even on a less expensive scale, it’s easy to imagine other people doing a better job for less other than teenagers. Our high school every year would go down to Mexico, just across the border in Tijuana, to build a house no bigger than a typical American living room for a needy family. Again, helpful, to be sure, but I have this memory of a construction worker showing all of us the ropes. He started nailing down a piece of wood with such speed, and would have continued doing it, but one of the teachers informed him that this project was for us to accomplish. I thought later that he and maybe three or four of his construction friends could probably have built that house in half the time it took the 10 to 15 of us to do it.
When I was younger, these mission trips were seen as sacrificial. They were what the super Christian’s did. That was dashed pretty quickly for me. I remember wishing for some spiritual experience traveling to Nepal and the Philippines. Mostly I got homesick and was ready to return by the second week. Actually serving people is a lot harder than having an ecstatic experience clapping and singing “Yes Lord, yes Lord, yes yes Lord” at youth group.
So was it all pointless? I never became a missionary, and my impact over there was likely negligible. I suppose, if it had been a choice between staying at a five-star hotel in Canada, or going on the trip, I made the better choice. I was free labor for a few weeks, and that has to count for something, right? But more good would have probably been done by sending funds to the local churches we actually visited instead of ourselves.
But before this post becomes a total downer, there’s another way to look at these trips – a way that isn’t quite so romantic, but still valuable. There is something intangible that I gained on these trips – or any trip to another country. I remember vividly the summers I spent as a child with my relatives down in Argentina, playing soccer barefooted with the local kids. I realize now that because of these experiences, I can’t see the world the same way. Seeing the slums we visited, I began to realize how precious little I really have to complain about in my nice, suburban home, in my relatively safe neighborhood. I began to realize that people really can live with less and still be happy.
More than that, the faces of poor people needing help or illegal immigrants I see on TV are not just random people being thrown at me. If I let them, they remind me of the faces I saw in the slums in the Philippines or the happy, and humble people I met in Nepal. I close my eyes and see the children running around in the dirt in Tijuana and the wide smiles of the family getting their new home no bigger than my room. How eager I would be in their situation to rush over the border if it meant I had some chance of giving my children a happier life – away from the plywood shacks, muddy roads, and dirty barrel water.
I suppose missions trips are not pointless after all, but not because the people who go on them actually accomplish anything lasting. It’s the way they open our eyes to our neighbor just across the border or just across the ocean who is getting closer and closer to us every day – with every new advance in technology and every cheaper flight. And now, more than ever, with so many groups here and around the world splintering, growing defensive, and turning inward – the conservatives, the liberals, the nationalists, the supremacists, the progressives, the poor, the rich – there is a vital need to see others as actual people and not stereotypes.
If we can get all that for $3000, it might be worth it.