When initiating a short-term mission trip overseas, the most important decision may be the first: where should we go? Here are two possibilities:
- Take advantage of a personal connection. This may be someone who knows the community because they have been there, either as a tourist, as part of a mission trip, or because of a professional connection with the community or region. When I traveled to Nicaragua several years ago on a mission trip, for example, we visited a program that assisted persons who lived in and near a municipal landfill. How did our mission leader learn about the project? It turns out he was a good friend with a North American woman who founded the mission years ago after she stumbled upon the need while visiting as a tourist. This often seems to be the case.
- Look for an institutional connection. If your congregation is part of a larger denomination with global reach, ask them for help. They may have institutional ties with non-governmental agencies in the host region or country. One advantage: the denominational office may be able to help with logistical arrangements as well.
So which is better, the personal connection or the institutional one? Most congregations, at least in my experience, rely heavily on personal connections. They find a passionate individual, like the woman who discovered the poor living in a Nicaraguan landfill. But here’s the potential problem: it’s called “side-of-the-road syndrome.”
What is “side-of-the-road syndrome?” Laurie Occihipinti, an anthropologist who has studied short-term missions and development, describes it this way: Everybody loves the mission site that’s already on the beaten path, while the greater need may lie just inland from there. For example, Juarez, Mexico, located just across the border from El Paso, Texas, receives many American mission teams, while more remote locations receive hardly any at all.
Whether or not you start with a personal contact, do your homework by contacting a non-profit development organization with contacts in the region you plan to visit, or talk with someone in your denominational mission office.
Don’t stop at the first mission site on the side of the road.
Laurie Occhipinti, Making a Difference In A Globalized World: Short-term Missions That Work, (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014), 95.