The excitement generated by the prospect of taking a short-term mission trip is palpable. What could be more promising than a group of well-resourced, energetic people grappling with the needs of a distant community in poverty? Despite the best of intentions, service learning can fall abruptly short of expectations. Remember the Hippocratic oath: First do no harm.
Short-term service trips owe their popularity to a simple fact: most of us like to travel and everyone wants to know they have made an attempt to address pressing social problems. Whether sponsored by colleges or congregations, the social impact of educational service trips is undeniable. Yet badly implemented, these trips can do more harm than good. Mark Radecke, Chaplain and Associate Professor of Religion at Susquehanna University, catalogues ten “worst practices” in short-term volunteer trips.
Let the volunteer beware.
- Here to ogle. An impoverished community is not a zoo, so before pulling out that smartphone to snap a dozen pictures of those shacks we have come to restore, you are advised to get to know your hosts, hear their stories, and gain an understanding of what it’s like to live here. Otherwise the trip—whether to El Salvador or inner city Detroit—becomes voyeuristic.
- It’s all about me. Whether we recognize it or not, we bring a set of cultural values to our service endeavor. Being so consumer-oriented, we North Americans are apt to commodify our encounters, asking (though not voicing aloud), “How can this help me? How can this improve my character?” Answer: it’s not all about you.
- If this is 2010, then we must be in Tanzania. The best way to develop a lasting relationship is to make a long term commitment to one community, with repeated encounters happening over years. Yet many mission trip sponsors, for the sake of variety, change the destination every year: first Tanzania, then Bosnia, then Nicaragua. If the goal is community betterment, this may not be helpful.
- Ethnocentrism, or “that’s dumb.” On my first trip abroad, I remember being told that whenever you found yourself getting angry, you should ask whether you are being judgmental about a difference in culture. Radecke relates how, on trips to Central America, their team would always give a small gift to the host family. Yet families never seemed appreciative. Only gradually did they realize a cultural difference: the locals were not as prone to effusiveness in such situations. It’s cultural.
- Who am I to judge? Given the complexities of another culture, the opposite temptation is to simply suspend moral judgment. In some cases, this might be going too far. We need to use critical thinking to know when to be accepting and when to demand accountability.
- I see what your problem is. Radecke tells of trip to Costa Rica whose purpose was to lay the foundations of a new church. In order to prepare ahead, the leader sent money to hire someone to dig the foundation trenches before the group arrived. When they arrived, the trenches were still only half-finished. The reason: the host community had hired local workers, not someone with a Bobcat, but a group of locals with hand tools, so that more people would be employed. The lesson: “When we enter into our hosts’ world, we do things their way.”
- I have, you need. Arriving in a poor community and handing out goods—food, toiletries, clothing—from the back of a pickup truck can be offensive and reinforces a pattern of top-down paternalism. Better: bring the goods, but give them to a local service agency or congregation.
- Let’s see some results. One of the hazards of short-term trips is that often the project you are laboring upon—let’s say a small school library being built from the ground up—takes far more than the designated two weeks to complete. As a leader, it’s best to manage expectations about what can be accomplished, and also to report back weeks or months later to show results.
- Where did you go to grad school? Local residents, though lacking formal education, have much to teach even the most educated service project member. Nicaraguan refugees and immigrants living in Costa Rica, without even a high school education, told powerful, transformative stories to one service group about civil war and unemployment in their native country.
- They’ll figure it out. Too often, leaders assume that trip members will gain new understandings automatically as a result of taking part in a work project in an impoverished community. But reflecting on our experience is not automatic. We need to reflect out loud in a group about what happened, especially where it perplexes us, in order to learn and grow.
With planning and a little forethought, short-term service trips can achieve our best intentions, or at least take us a few steps in that direction.
 “Misguided Missions: Ten Worst Practices,” Christian Century, May 18, 2010, 22-23, 25.
Photo: Visions Service Adventure, Group N4-007. Taken Dec. 15, 2010. Flickr Creative Commons.