For the North American student, the short term mission trip has become a rite of passage. High school and college students on fire for Jesus travel to the farthest reaches of the world, usually on spring or summer break, to paint churches, teach Bible camps or play soccer. However, closer inspection of these “vacationaries” has caused many to question the ethics of these trips.
“What if I told you, we don’t need your missionaries here?” Costa Rican lawyer and professor Javier Arguedas said.
“What if I told you were doing more harm than good?
Examples of “missions gone wrong” include the case of a church in Mexico that was painted six times in one summer by six different mission teams. The Mexican church didn’t want to disappoint their Western guests although the volunteers were unskilled and didn’t speak Spanish. In Brazil, a North American group accidentally built a wall on a children’s soccer field that was taken down after they left. A more tragic example was in Monrovia, Liberia, when missionaries built a school to their standards rather than the criteria of the Liberians. When monsoons hit, the school collapsed, and two children were killed.
The amount of money spent on short term missions is also a negative factor. The average cost for one student to volunteer abroad is $1,500. A Peruvian national working full time can make half this sum in one year. A one week trip will be five times more than the average salary in Zambia. These numbers only take into account averages. Many nationals are living well under the poverty line.
Often receiving churches will yield to the wishes of their wealthier North American counterparts because they don’t wish to offend them or lose support. However, this can lead to unequal levels of partnership.
Mission trips can reinforce patterns of paternalism: the idea that Westerners have a moral obligation to “modernize” locals. Many teams are ignorant about the diverse cultures, history and geography of the countries they are visiting.
“Missionaries come in and say all these things about God being good and then kill our culture and take our land and destroy our resources…” said Gloria Mayorga, indigenous leader of the Bribri tribe in Cost Rica. “It’s 500 years of the same thing.”
Karina Vargas, a Costa Rican who has worked with Latin American nonprofits and has a degree in theology from Fuller Seminary in California, is also skeptical.
“It’s like these groups are saying “oh look at me; this is my sacrifice to God being in your country. They come here with the incapacity to see their own problems with their own families, faith and country. It’s almost a way to escape.”
However, many say volunteer trips can have positive effects as well.
“I’ve seen relationships established. Although we’ve had problems in the past not every experience is bad,” said Britney Villhauer, a former employee of a study abroad program in Guatemala.
Vargas acknowledges the benefits of intercultural exchange but many mission teams come to Costa Rica thinking they can solve her country’s problems in a week’s time.
“I like it when people come to visit, but they don’t try to understand the problems, only bring solutions…
How can you understand everything in a week? A year? A lifetime?”
Vargas encourages Western missionaries to recognize their own needs and issues.
“They come in with the idea that they will save us without acknowledging their own brokenness,” Vargas said. “Missions is for everyone. We all need God.”
“The key is coming in as a student and learner rather than savior. Jesus is already here,” Villhauer said.
Some suggestions for churches or students who want to volunteer overseas are to first work on long-term partnerships with churches in other countries. Invite those churchgoers to visit your country and volunteer in your community. Work to establish a partnership that acknowledges the history and culture of both churches.
Another idea is to reach out to international students, immigrants and refugees in your own neighborhood. Many internationals have left their home countries due to persecution or to find better economic opportunities and need help assimilating to American culture. Become involved in teaching ESL or invite a foreign exchange student for a traditional meal in your home.
Finally, churches are encouraged to learn more about unfair structures that keep people and countries in systems of poverty and work to use their influence to change them.
North American missionaries and Latin American Christians agree ethnic exchange is important but not at the expense of one culture over another. Many quote the ideas of indigenous leaders like aboriginal activist Lilla Watson.
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time,” said Watson at a United Nations address in 1985. “But if you have come because your liberation is bound with mine, let us work together.”