(Guest Post) Why Self-Evaluation In Missions Matters

When I first contemplated the possibility that the way I’d been going about missions had been ineffective, it was a hard thought. The idea of a mission trip – to help those in need – seemed so right, so biblical. And it is. But I’ve heard multiple testimonies from local missionaries, and the believers in their countries, about how the North American mission-team mindset is a hindrance to their ministry.

At first this was a shock to me. How can so many people be going about missions in a way that hinders? In a way that is, dare I say, the wrong way? But when I looked at things from someone else’s point of view, it began to make sense.

I started to think, “Does this mean that I’ve been ineffective as a Christian? If I admit that I need a perspective change, then will I be invalidating the previous missions I’ve participated in?” I was struggling to make sense of it all. But while re-evaluating and listening to different perspectives and experiences, I realized something:

I realized that at times I was that American. The one who asks insensitive questions and holds onto presumptuous judgments about culture. The one who charges in to “save the day” instead of putting more effort into building relationships. The one who wants someone to need me.

Sometimes it feels good to be the one with all the answers. When I rush in and help where there’s a need, I get a sense of validation. When little kids are hanging onto me and don’t want me to leave, it makes me feel important, needed, wanted, and loved. The very thing that I thought I came to give away, I am actually receiving. Or maybe “taking” is a better word. And when I leave, I leave full, but I may leave the people no better off – or even worse off – than when I came.

I found myself going back to the drawing board of what I’d thought missions to be – and starting over. I began asking questions and searching for answers (which I’m still doing). Was I really being a detriment to the Church in other countries? My intentions had been, as much as I could tell, to bring hope where there was no hope and light where there had been darkness. I believe there were moments when God used me to speak encouragement to believers, to pray for them and to offer love where there was a lack of it. But I had to ask myself: Was there a better way to go about it? Probably.

It’s ok to visit orphanages. It’s right to go on mission trips. In fact, the Bible commands us to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel” and to care for orphans and widows. But it must be more about meeting the needs of the receiving ministry and local people than about meeting my felt need for a mission trip.

I recently said to my co-worker, “One of our greatest opportunities is to evaluate what we’re doing, consistently asking ourselves whether we’re being effective. And for us to have a willingness to change what we’re doing for the benefit of the whole.” This self-evaluation is not a choice. In the realm of ministry and missions, it is a necessity. When this is not done at a business, the company or finances might suffer. But when this is not done in missions, people suffer. And nobody with a heart for missions wants to cause that.

Honestly, admitting that I could go about missions in a better way was liberating. It was a lesson for me in learning more about the grace of God. We’re all imperfect people, fumbling through life at times, searching for meaning and significance. God has a life of meaning for every believer – but not at a cost to someone else.

We have the privilege and the responsibility as believers and carriers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to look back on each experience from different perspectives, with humility and openness, to receive honest opinions from others in the body of Christ. How exciting it is to work together without regard for who will get the credit or who has the best idea. To care only about Jesus being recognized – this is freedom. Freedom that allows God to have His way, instead of us insisting on our own.

This is no easy task. It will require time, energy, vulnerability, humility and much prayer from us. With God as the ultimate authority on the human heart and every culture, He knows the best way of reaching the world. And He longs to show us. I believe God will show us an effective path for sharing His love as we look to Him for the answers. We have a mandate to make the Gospel known. Let’s do it together.

Even as I’m writing, I’m unsure of my own role in missions and how I’m supposed to live out this new perspective. I do know, however, that we all have a role to play in the Kingdom of God and what He is doing on the Earth today. Thankfully, my job isn’t to figure it all out. My job is to live in humble obedience to Christ, one day at a time. And sometimes that means confessing I’ve done it wrong and continuing to ask the hard questions.

 

Heather NewcomerHeather Newcomer is a registered nurse currently working with I-TEC (Indigenous Peoples Technology and Education Center), located in Dunnellon, FL. She is helping to develop a medical guide that can be used to train local believers to care for the sick in places where hospitals and clinics may be inaccessible. She blogs about her spiritual journey at beyondbelief320. The vision and mission of I-TEC can be explored at www.itecusa.org.

On Packing Up and Letting Go

August eleventh. Less than three weeks away from an international move and I’m surrounded by the familiar: scattered suitcases, unevenly-piled books, bottles of mosquito repellent. This isn’t my first time around, but it is my first time moving back overseas after a few years spent in the U.S.

As I tie up loose ends, complete necessary paperwork, and pack up my Minnesotan life, I’ve now started to become especially clingy around my American things.

The television set streams my favorites for hours on end: The Andy Griffith Show, Cosby, entire seasons of The West Wing. I contentedly take in the Americana, the sarcasm, Aaron Sorkin’s trademark rapid-fire banter.

I’ve been exchanging messages a lot more frequently with local friends. Discussing the politics of elections I won’t vote in. Flipping through issues of Bon Appétit that I won’t have the chance to cook through.

I’m soaking this up because I know that, once in Haiti, I will have to (mostly) let it all go.

Not that these things won’t be available. Haiti has North-American missionaries galore, some of whom could put Aaron Sorkin’s sharpest characters to shame. Upscale grocery stores that cater to foreigners carry imported ingredients fit for most any magazine recipe. And thanks to solar power and the internet, keeping in contact with friends and family (and, if you know how to game the system, streaming Cosby) has become ridiculously easy.

But I can’t take advantage of these things. You see, over the years I have learned this about myself: I do not possess the ability to keep up two parallel lives.

Most expats know how to mix and match local culture with passport-country comforts in a way that renders them effective on both ends. (Exhibit A: historical immigrant communities in the U.S.) But I just can’t seem to get a handle on that. When I’m in Haiti, I have to be all there. That means no expat restaurants, no regular Skype dates with family, and no Aaron Sorkin.

Although this is understandably tough on family ties, each time I’m tempted to hunker down for a Skype binge or to check out how much a washing machine might cost, I am reminded of the woman who once explained to me why she had not attended a particular church service. “This week I didn’t have money to buy soap,” she said wearily. “I couldn’t wash my clothes. I know,  Lindsey, that you’ve been there and that you understand this. You understand this life because you live it with us.”

That is where my mind space needs to be. And I’ve found that I have to be all-in to “get it.” Once I begin to surrender to my desire for homey comforts, a sort of emotional landslide occurs and I suddenly become discontented with everything. I become culturally far-sighted, squinting and holding people at arm’s length in an attempt to read them. Ultimately, I understand nothing.

In the same way, when I prepare to visit the U.S., I know that I will have to be all there. I spend my last weeks acting notably clingy around the Haitian comforts and people I love. I load my suitcase with products I can’t find in the States (certain bar soaps, vanilla, etc.), and get my fill of the slapstick humor that is the currency of local friendships.

I know that when I arrive in the U.S., I will have to make that familiar mental switch. Phone calls to friends in Haiti will be rare not because people are unimportant but because I can’t keep up these two lives, keep all relationships running full-steam ahead, and still be effective where I am. (Yes, I realize that it’s a kind of miracle that I still have friends. Their reward will be great.)

The arguments regarding enculturation and to what degree missionaries should “go local” are myriad; the disagreements can be contentious. I don’t claim to have all the answers there. What I do know is that wherever I go, I will always be choosing. The Apostle Paul’s ministry style of “becoming all things to all people” remains beyond me. The best I can hope for is to be one thing at a time, to be fully with the people who are in front of me. And, with any luck, to have some soap to share.

“Wherever you are, be all there.”  20th-century missionary Jim Elliot

Is Your Struggling Missionary Hurting Others?

I recently enjoyed dinner with a U.S. friend who’d once traveled to Haiti. When the dishes had been cleared, my friend gingerly posed a question that had seemed too delicate to ask others: “When I was in Haiti, I saw a missionary treat his housekeeper terribly. I mean terribly. Just awful. Is that some kind of a… cultural thing?”

My friend leaned forward in her chair, searching my face for an answer, to see if she had offended me in some way or perhaps wildly misinterpreted what she’d seen. In truth, I was glad that someone had taken notice and spoken up.

No, blatant mistreatment of employees is not a Haiti “cultural thing,” but it can seem like a career-missionary thing. Friend, may I share something with you? Some of us long-term missionaries are in crisis and sending agencies need to take notice.

Before I go any further, please understand that this by no means includes all career missionaries. It is not even the majority of career missionaries. Some of the bravest, most compassionate, most well-adjusted expats I’ve met work in Haiti. They serve with sincere love and because of that, God turns them into a source of blessing for their communities.

But there are others.

Dear reader, I have seen Christian missionaries yell at Haitian workers until they were red in the face. I’ve heard these ministers of the gospel welcome visiting U.S. groups with a litany of ugly warnings about Haitians. And I’ve had too many local friends ask me straight out, “If they don’t like us, then why are they here?”

A Haitian man once recounted to me his experience hearing a missionary speak in the U.S. “Haitians have a slave mentality,” the woman confidently told her audience. “You have to yell at them if you want them to do things.”

How is this happening?

Some missionaries become frustrated with the hardships and betrayals that can be common in the midst of widespread suffering. They harden. They become bitter. And eventually they resort to using intimidation and control to run day-to-day operations.

And then there’s culture shock.

Culture shock typically includes four stages. The first – what people often experience on short-term trips – is the Honeymoon stage. This can last up to three months and is, unfortunately, the phase that many people are in when they make the weighty decision to go long-term. Here everything is new and exciting and exotic. Challenges (poverty, suffering) are visually evident, but excited newcomers have a can-do attitude and can’t wait to tackle projects and explore their new home.

The second stage of culture shock is Frustration. This occurs when the false sheen has worn off and the newcomer becomes critical of her host culture. Though most people spend only a few months in this phase before moving on to Adjustment and, finally, Acceptance, a few of us missionaries get stuck here longer. For some, it seems permanent. And when that happens, destructive behavior follows.

Missionary care is an incredibly important topic, one in which many sending boards have received no formal training. Churches want to support their missionaries, but may not know what questions to ask and are unaware of the resources that are available to them.

Remaining actively connected to your missionaries themselves (as opposed to focusing solely on budgets or progress reports) is so, so important. Below are a few common traits I have observed in expats who are stuck in culture shock:

  1. They have few local friends in whom they confide. If they do have local friends, they are usually limited to those who are on the mission’s payroll.
  2. They may not speak the local language fluently despite having lived in-country for years.
  3. They exhibit signs of chronic fatigue and, sometimes, depression.
  4. They do not place themselves under local leadership. Not so much as a book club or a neighborhood association.
  5. They speak negatively about their host country and its people, emphasizing the ways in which they have been wronged over the years.

When missionaries continue down this path without intervention, it becomes harmful not only to individuals, but to the reputation of entire ministries. In Haiti, when missionaries habitually disrespect local people, the community assumes that the missionaries are secretly getting something out of the mission. In this view, the foreigners are simply “doing business,” financially profiting from short-term teams or from the photos that they post on the internet or from the donated items they receive. Darker rumors may circulate – that the missionaries are really undercover CIA agents, for instance. It may sound ridiculous, but think about it: People know that missionaries are sent to sacrificially live out God’s love for others. When they don’t, when they act as if they despise their host country and its people, then why are they really there? They must be padding their bank accounts or engaging in more-nefarious activities.

Now for the good news: In terms of care for missionaries in crisis, there is a growing array of resources available. Denominational churches might inquire with their denomination to see what they recommend. Paracletos stands out to me as ringing true to the Jesus-following expat experience. Their web site provides a good variety of resources and articles that will help you to start conversations with your missionaries.

Missions involves three parties: the senders, the go-ers, and the hosts. God has entrusted sending churches and agencies with a vital duty. Be proactive. Be courageous. Be love. We can’t do this without you.

 

These Things That Hinder: Owning My Prejudiced Thoughts

Because I’ve spent the majority of my post-college life in Haiti, it’s within this community that some of my most meaningful relationships have formed.

There are the church acquaintances and the cute little old ladies who sometimes bring me cheese doodles because they remember that they’re my favorite.

There are the casual friends, the group that will call each other up after we’ve hosted back-to-back church groups and everyone needs to blow off some steam at the beach.

Then there are the ride-or-die, got-your-back-no-matter-what, climb-over-earthquake-rubble-to-get-to-you friends. I’ve been blessed with what feels like more than my fair share of those.

These friends were my family throughout my single years. They were the people who sacrificed weekends taking me through Creole grammar books so I could participate in community life. The ones who held me on motorcycles to get me to hospitals, who nursed me through tropical fevers. The ones who took me for rum-raisin ice cream on my birthday, held my hand through break-ups, and gave me extra hugs each December 25th when I longed for another kind of Christmas.

These friends got real with me, spoke truth to me, and just assumed I wouldn’t take offense when group discussions turned to presumptuous foreigners because of course I was one of them now. They invited me into their lives, introduced me to their families, expected me to be in wedding parties, attend baptisms, and help to serve coffee at wakes. They set me straight when I was being culturally-oblivious and slapped me on the back with congratulations when Barack Obama was elected President. “Your country isn’t racist anymore. This is such a happy day for you!”

I was 14 when I first traveled to Haiti; I am now 32. The greater part of my life has been marked by Haitians – by their strength, their heart, their deep sense of justice and community and, for many of them, their trust in God. More than once my life has been saved by Haitian friends who chose to love me and to stand up for me. Those friends, teachers, and mentors shaped who I am today.

So why do I still battle prejudiced thoughts?

I write often in this space about the importance of choosing integrity and looking out for privilege and colonialism – two things that are fresh in the collective consciousness of Haitians.

Colonialism looks like young African men tied up in 18th-century swamps, left to be devoured by insects.
Colonialism looks like Marines invading in 1915 – and settling in to protect U.S. interests for another 19 years.
Colonialism looks like foreign governments subsidizing their own rice growers until Haitian farmers lose their livelihoods to the artificially-cheapened, imported product.

Privilege looks like UN troops starting a devastating cholera epidemic, then citing diplomatic immunity when confronted.
Privilege looks like missions groups bringing suitcases packed with food from home, and then murmuring with pity over the impoverished market woman who hasn’t managed to sell any oatmeal this week.
Privilege looks like me enjoying the authentic acceptance of my Haitian friends and still thinking:

“I am so relieved to see that foreign company establishing a presence here. At least they’ll know what they’re doing!”
“I wouldn’t trust anyone who works in that bank with my home address.”
“Man, guess I’ll have to wait until I visit the U.S. to hold some logical discourse.”

How can this be happening?! This isn’t what I think! It’s as if there’s a war in my brain, and I’ve been unwillingly drafted. “I’ve taught cross-cultural communications!” I reason. “I blog on missions and privilege!”

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

“My American friends would have foreseen this bump in the road and planned accordingly.”
“What are they thinking swimming in that unsanitary water? Don’t Haitians care about hygiene?”
“Wow, does that organization ever need an American to head that project up!”

I know that nothing good dwells in me, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.

I don’t plan these thoughts. I certainly don’t meditate on them. And they are so far from what I profess to believe that they never fail to shock me. But their very presence says something.

It says that I need to get it together and work on trust, for one. To trust in good people rather than in people who simply look like me or sound like me or stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That I need to get it together and become trustworthy, for another. And how about some patience with the faux pas of newly-arrived foreigners because I, too, might have once thought that way?

Truly, more than anything, these thoughts prove that I need to remain deeply-rooted in Haitian community. To continue to learn, to continue to submit, and to be perfected in love until finally one day these thoughts won’t even register with me anymore – because by then I’ll be thinking in another language.

 

5 Things Mission Trippers Should Stop Saying

So you’re going on a mission trip! This may be your first time – or your 8th. You may be returning to a place where you’ll see familiar faces – or traveling somewhere completely new.

When you return home, your friends, family, and church will be eager to hear about your experiences. But before you share, please first consider that the way in which you describe people can either value them or devalue them, honor them or dishonor them, help your audience to connect with fellow humans across the globe – or reinforce the common conception of developing nations as the impoverished, exotic Other. Read below for a few common missteps made by mission trippers and how to avoid them.


1.  “They’re poor but they’re happy!”

This much-maligned assumption has been thoroughly discussed both online and off, but since it stubbornly refuses to die I will mention it here.

Chances are that you will be welcomed by your hosts with open arms and wide smiles. In many majority-world cultures, people love to laugh and to joke and to extend hospitality. But to take this piece of culture and elevate it above shared human experience – how painful it is to lose family to treatable illness, for example, or how discouraging it is to engage in backbreaking labor that may not keep food on the table – turns your hosts into one-dimensional people. Their relationships are every bit as complicated as yours; their individual personalities vary as much as those in your own community. And sometimes life is just a downer.

So ask questions of your hosts. Find common ground. You’ll be surprised how much more meaningful your experience will be.

2.  “So are these poor people lazy, or what?”

This is terrible, and thank goodness most people never verbalize it but yes, I have had people say this to me. The first time it happened I was so stunned that I remember just kind of freezing in place until the person eventually turned away. I can only assume that for every individual who expresses this thought aloud there are more who keep it to themselves.

That is why, friends, it is essential that you travel with an organization that will sit with your group and sensitively explain the systemic injustices that have created their community’s particular challenges. Organizations that receive groups, show them difficult sights, and then send them back to a guest house each night to “process” alone – without any explanation or further information – do their visitors a great disservice. Ideally hosts will provide historical background and cultural talks from locals. If no such instruction is provided you, remember this: The injustice that you see is only the tip of a very large, very complex iceberg. Pose as many questions as you can. Ask for help in connecting the dots. And most of all, have respect and compassion for people.

3.  “It’s a different world over there.”

You may observe things that seem indescribably different from what you’ve known. Different sights, different smells, different ways of doing things. You will most likely see people living with some very visible struggles in maddening conditions. But the reality is that there is only one world. If I go home describing what I’ve experienced as being part of a world distinct from my own, it becomes too easy to remove myself from what I have just seen. Too easy to limit my giving/advocacy/whatever to two weeks a year. Though my hosts may not share a zip code or a language with me, they are part of the human race, we share this planet, and “out of sight” is no longer allowed to mean “out of mind.”

4.  “Sure, I’ll help with your project/support your ministry!” (Then fail to do as promised.)

The missionaries and local workers who host you probably rely on donations to resource their work. They will most likely take time out of their ministry to receive you in the hopes that you will, upon returning home, choose to help. When you commit to do so, the promised resources are counted on in planning for future projects. When you return home and move on to something different, hopes are dashed, trust is broken, and, ultimately, needs go unmet. So please stay true to your word.

5.  “We brought Jesus to the people.”

I can appreciate the heart behind this. Depending on where you go, you may genuinely speak of Jesus with people who are hearing his name for the first time. But, loved one, you did not “bring Jesus” anywhere. Jesus was there, at work in that place, among those people, before you existed. So let’s keep our limited role in perspective.

 

Well then, happy travels from The Telling Stone! When you get back, stop in and let us know how it went. What did you learn? What is missing from this list?

The Unexpected Communion Table

It was Sunday, an election day in Haiti. Because these were the first elections held since I’d moved to the city, I didn’t know that markets would be closed, that churches would be at half capacity, that streets would empty as many avoided rumored trouble.

I did not have the habit of keeping a store of food on hand, and this week was no different. It looked as if this would be a day of unintentional fasting at my place.

I was packing up to leave church when a concerned friend-of-a-friend quickly placed a call. Sitting on his idling motorcycle, the young man told me, “My cousin is a Vodou priest, and he would be happy to have you over for dinner.” I smiled gratefully and shouldered my messenger bag. Swinging up onto the motorcycle, I wondered at which struck me as more strange – the fact that I would be showing up, basically asking for food, at a stranger’s home, or the odd way in which this man’s lifestyle had been announced. What might he have been told about me?

Charles’* cement block home was spacious and cool. A security wall enclosed the yard and a late-model car sat parked near the entrance. Charles’ wife welcomed us warmly. The four of us and a couple of kids settled in around the table as Charles invited me to bless the food“I don’t know if you’ve been told this,” he said a bit hesitantly, “but I serve [the spirits].”

For the next hour, our odd little group broke bread together. We exchanged stories. Charles shared with me that he knows the truth, but that he isn’t ready to walk away from the money he makes performing Vodou rites. For which of you… does not first sit down and count the cost?  There would be no glib conversions here.

But what else could this be but communion?

Do this in remembrance of me. 

The Jesus followers and the not-yet Jesus people, the grace extended and the blessings shared, the proclamation of Christ’s love and sacrifice, the frank discussion of the lure of the world.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

With gratitude I realized that this conversation, this communion, would never have taken place had I not first been without food. And what other opportunity would I have had to pray with this family? When would Charles have had another chance to extend hospitality to a stranger, a sojourner in his country? Had I not been vulnerable, and had Charles’ family not responded with compassion, all six of us would have missed out on a gift of grace.

“Vulnerability” has become quite the buzzword of late. Vulnerability in preaching, vulnerability in blogging, vulnerability with your friends and your tax preparer and your dentist. Being your “authentic” self, opening your life to others with all its “brokenness” and “messiness” has become de rigeur – practically the price of admittance in some circles.

But what of vulnerability in missions? Have we so ensconced ourselves in our missions compounds and our vehicles, with our ready amounts of social influence and cash, that we’ve missed out on opportunities to experience our Lord in community?

When Jesus first sent his disciples to announce his coming, he instructed them to go with nothing. No bag, no food, no money, no extra change of clothes. Jesus’ disciples were to be completely dependent on the people they would meet. The King of Ages could have chosen material wealth for his ministers but instead demonstrated for them the higher worth of vulnerability.

Am I advocating blanket poverty for all missionaries? No. That matter is between each individual minister and God. But I wish I could describe the grace I have experienced each time my vulnerability has been exposed in lands not my own. I cannot count the people who have invited me into their lives after they first welcomed the opportunity to help me. Need is universal. Omnipresent is God’s Spirit of Grace.

As missionaries we go to assist, to proclaim, to give. If we had nothing to offer, we would not go. But we must be careful not to always have an “out” prepared for every situation, for every difficulty that might come our way. Because community consists of people holding each other up. Community is strengthened as we feed one another. The communion table cannot nourish the already-sated.

“‘And whatever house you enter, stay there, until you depart the area.’ … And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere.” (Luke 9)

 

 

*Name has been changed

10 Tips For Relational Success In Short-Term Missions

Over the past few years, many insightful pieces have been written about the short-term missions/voluntourism trend. Hard questions are being asked; relevant books are being published. CT Magazine has not shied away from the dialogue. Neither have bloggers such as Jamie Wright, who has written crucial reflections such as this and this and this.

If you have chosen to join a group trip, then welcome! This post is for you.

Because of the extremely-limited, sort-of-weird nature of mission trips, the most realistic goal the average visitor can have is to succeed relationally. Below are ten tips on how to pull that off (and learn some stuff) on short-term visits.

#1. Come with humility and an inquisitive mind. Show genuine interest. Ask questions about your host community’s worldview and its experiences. Even if you have come prepared with specialized skills to teach others, position yourself first as a learner. This will not only endear you to your hosts, but will benefit them by making you more effective.

#2. Learn a couple of phrases in your host community’s language before you travel. “Hello,” “goodbye,” “I’m sorry,” and “thank you” can be used in most any situation and your effort will be appreciated. These phrases are all readily available with a quick internet search. Write them down phonetically if that will help you to remember them.

#3. Dress respectfully. When North Americans travel to majority-world countries, something strange happens: many either dress as if they’re going on safari, or dress as if they are about to clean out their garage.

In most relational cultures, the way that one chooses to dress loudly communicates a message to others. (I learned this the hard way.) People who are traveling to new places and meeting new people (as you will be) dress up to do so. Does this require haute couture? No. But don’t pack your worn-out clothes. Don’t look sloppy. Dress as if your hosts are worthy of your best. When visitors dress as they believe the poor do, those “poor” see before them a life-sized image of others’ ugly perception of them. This does not go unnoticed.

In Haiti the common conception is that Ameriken pa konn abiye. Americans don’t know how to dress. I’ve literally had people approach me to ask if there was something mentally wrong with Americans who showed up in Tevas and shorts to church. Don’t be that guy.

#4. Ask about the community’s history with groups such as yours. What you assume that people think when they see your group walking en masse through their neighborhood may be worlds away from their true reaction. Over the last two decades, short-term missions has exploded into a one billion-dollar industry. There is a good chance that there now exists a history and some baggage that you know nothing about. Ask.

#5. Be gracious and deeply appreciative of your hosts. It is a lot of work to host teams. Even workers who come for the day, such as drivers and cooks, go home at night exhausted. Regularly thanking them will be uplifting for everyone.

#6. Smile. Consider this your default facial expression. Meeting new people? Smile. Seeing something that is jarring for you? Smile. Feeling fairly certain that the strangers passing by are insulting you? That’s right – smile. You can unpack it all later in conversations with your hosts, but for right now, not knowing the language or fully comprehending what is going on, your best bet is to… you know.

#7. Keep things in perspective. Yes, right now everything around you is swirling into one intense new experience. You’re emotional and the volume on all the feels is dialed up to 10. You may be jerking back and forth between the honeymoon phase of culture shock (“I love it here! Let’s pack up the house and move!”) and confusion or despair over the injustices that you see. In the midst of this roller-coaster experience, remember: The problems that you see around you are not new; many people are aware of them and are hard at work trying to solve them. Also, you may have just had The Most Meaningful Day Ever, but for the people who live here, it’s just Tuesday. When your interpreter goes out the door at the end of the day, she’s left work behind and is now thinking about whether her cousin is going to remember to bring that mixtape to the get-together tonight. You know – life. So take a deep breath and relax. Life is life everywhere; it just has a different soundtrack.

#8. Don’t make promises that you won’t keep. Too many well-meaning visitors promise to send funds for projects when they return home, or make commitments in response to requests from locals that they never fulfill. This leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouths. If you aren’t 100% certain that you can commit to something and carry it out, don’t promise that you’ll do it. Even a “maybe” is dangerous. Which leads us to our next tip:

#9. Follow your hosts’ lead culturally. Don’t initiate relationships without going through your hosts. Hang back. If you happen to witness an argument, stay out of it. And please, don’t make suggestions to your missionaries about “a couple of easy tweaks” they can implement to run their ministry better. There are challenges and things at play that visitors know nothing about. Your job here is to encourage, encourage, and encourage some more. (Of course, if you have serious concerns regarding possible abuse or fraud on the part of your hosts, that is something to bring up with them and with appropriate parties.)

#10. Be extremely selective when taking photographs. As nearly everyone knows, freely photographing strangers and their homes is frowned upon… well, pretty much everywhere. This is even more true in countries whose material poverty and exotic “otherness” are often exploited in the selectively-curated images shown by NGOs.

My abbreviated advice on photography is this: Make it relational. If you don’t have a relationship with someone, don’t take her picture. This goes double for children. North American parents who at home demand release forms before schools can use their children’s images think nothing of posting pictures with their arms around strangers’ kids. Please don’t do this. Keep the pictures to shots of yourself, your teammates, and your new friends (with their consent, of course). These will probably be the most meaningful memories for you, anyway.

And, because this is what it’s really all about, the BONUS TIP: Become an advocate. Ask your hosts how you can best help support them once you’ve returned home. What do they need? How can your talents support the work that is being done? How can you share your platform with them in a way that allows them to better share their message? Should you connect them with like-minded people? With churches or businesses? Take notes, take contact information, and follow through.

 

Oh  yeah, and when you get back, stop in to The Telling Stone and let us know how it went. What did you learn? What is missing from this list?

Reconsidering The Short-Term “Work Trip”

“You’d hope that the people on these teams would return home and become supporters of the mission. Instead, they return home and start saving for their next trip.” – 30-year missionary to Haiti

Dear Church Mission Board,

May I share some things with you?

These things are things hard things, fragile things, things that I (and many other missionaries with whom I have spoken) wrestle with. Though we do what we can to accommodate, we are hurting for the people among whom we serve and I’m praying that I can say some things here without damaging relationship.

You see… it’s the groups. The “short-term mission” teams.

We love you. We truly do. Each person who has visited over the years has brought something – a joke, some news from back home, a knack for finding the silver lining in a vehicle break-down. We definitely enjoy the relational aspect of having you here. But…

*deep breath*

#1. Regularly hosting groups of a dozen people for a week at a time takes us away from our responsibilities.

The logistics involved when just preparing for a group visiting a majority-world country would blow your mind; the we-need-to-find-something-for-them-to-do meetings are the cherries on top of our stress sundae. Imagine that a group of 12 shows up at your office not only requiring food, lodging, and transportation, but asking to help you carry out your professional responsibilities. How much do you estimate you’ll be able to accomplish this week?

We so deeply value our relationships with you. But our work is the reason we’re here and most of us cannot afford to be unavailable for two weeks every other month.

#2. We are hurting for the jobs that work trips take out of the hands of locals.

When teams arrive to pour a foundation or to paint walls, eager hands that would otherwise find paying work remain idle. Would you consider it a wise use of funds to bring someone in from overseas to tile your roof? Probably not. Would you want a group of untrained teenagers constructing a school that your children will study in? Mostly likely another “No.”

We often hear visitors, while carrying water or mixing cement, discuss how hard it is to see material poverty. Wonder at the cause of it. Meanwhile, we are painfully aware of what the $700 just paid to an airline could have done for our able-bodied friends and neighbors. That reality is frustrating not only to us, but to the very friends who are watching junior-high kids slap together what they themselves do professionally.

#3. It becomes challenging for missions to succeed when needed funds are reserved for subsidizing group visits.

Some missionaries do view group visits as marketing opportunities. Some might even rebrand them “vision trips,”  the idea being that visitors will “catch the vision” of missions and become advocates and supporters.

Occasionally this works out, but most often visitors greatly reduce their fundraising efforts once their trips have been taken care of.

Other missionaries who host “work trips” often feel that we must do so, that the only way to secure funds for a project is to outsource the work from a thousand miles away. Without teams, we go without resources. Either way, local workers lose.

There is so much fear involved in sharing these things with you. Fear that the ideas will come across as inflammatory. Fear that you will think we view our North-American friends only as providers-of-dollars. Fear that people who have visited us in the past, who used precious vacation time and paid to board the pets, will take offense. Fear that we will seem ungrateful.

And we certainly understand why churches ask to send groups. A church, after all, is charged with the equipping of the saints. You are invested in the personal and spiritual development of your people; overseas travel is a wonderful vehicle for interpersonal bonding that will carry over into the life of your community. We, as well, are very protective of the development of our people. Might we carve a better path?

I would like to make two brief proposals, hoping that you will prayerfully consider each of them.

First: Make certain that, before any visitors are sent, your missionaries and their missions are fully-funded. So many ministries are running a deficit. So often our programs run below capacity due to shortfalls. Please consider investing much-needed missions funds in missions and saving the surplus for visits. As you do this, be encouraged that missions is being strengthened. Know that sending pay for local builders to complete that project will have positive effects far beyond that of having a new roof!

Second: Though some large organizations can dedicate resources to regularly receive groups, many of us have neither the infrastructure nor the personnel. Some organizations from their inception felt called to minister to North Americans and therefore set up to do that; mine didn’t. So when you have people who would like to come learn about missions, or people who have skills not found in our country and would like to teach, might you consider sending them just a few at a time? There can be balance that both allows you to see what you support and frees us to carry out that work.

Please understand that I by no means speak for all missionaries. Each mission is unique; each community has its own wants and needs. Some missionaries might agree with all of this, some with none of it. Some would likely add ideas; many would state things more eloquently than I. But I do hope that this can be a small step forward in ease of transparency between you and me, between your people and mine. Thank you for your willingness to love, to give, and to send. I look forward to seeing you here.

 

Before you come, check out: 10 Tips For Relational Success In Short-Term Missions

Why I Won’t Judge Your #FirstWorldProblems

I’m going to come right out and say it: I hate the “first-world problem” meme.

Though its popularity waxes and wanes, the “first-world problem” label continues to show up in Facebook threads and in casual conversation, in text messages and on Twitter. It can serve as a self-deprecating remark or, in its darker role, as a minimization of another’s pain. At its ugliest, “first-world problem” is lazy, (ironically) entitled, and quick to lump all people living in the majority-world into a big pile of unfortunates.

But allow me to back up.

There is a video that makes its way to my inbox every so often. The clip features Haitian individuals repeating what are billed as “first-world problems.” A young boy recites for the camera, “When my mint gum makes my ice water taste too cold.” Another, “I hate it when I tell them no pickles and they still give me pickles.” And a young woman, “When I can’t walk and text at the same time.”

The shots vary. One boy is filmed sitting on a pile of gravel, another in front of an earthen home. The connection we are supposed to make is clear: These are the have-nots, the un-first-worlds. These people are so consumed by their material poverty that they would never give thought to an inconvenience or complain about a disruption. They certainly don’t have tastes and preferences; those luxuries are reserved for people who can afford them. How can I complain about my insignificant #FirstWorldProblems, we chide ourselves, when these poor souls live with such lack?

Now please hear me out. I realize that some people who use the “first-world problem” phrase do so with sincere intentions. They want to put difficulties into perspective and are earnestly working on being grateful for what they have. These intentions are God-honoring and good. But we need to realize that our choice of words, the way that we juxtapose different life experiences, can easily belittle others.

Really, when I hear “first-worlders” throw hashtags at their friends’ tales of inconvenience, it sounds gross. It feels as if majority-world people are being reduced to their economic status, as if they are not people who also have families and habits and customs. And insignificant things that really annoy them.

first world dwight

Searching for comfort is a very human endeavor. Every person, no matter where they live, has a list of things that make them feel at ease. These things may be material. They may be social. Heck, they may be weather-related. But every society – no matter how “foreign” or “primitive” it is judged by others – has its systems, its routines, and its preferences. They may not seem much to you, but to their owners these preferences have just as much value as a Netflix queue or gym membership have in your life.

What the availability of  “mint gum and ice water” might be to one person, a proper curry may be to another. The high importance that one society places on solitude and “getaways” is matched by another’s desire for near-constant companionship. What qualifies as a major inconvenience for one may not register as even a small annoyance for another, and vice versa.

To me, the most distasteful aspect of this trend is that underneath many “first-world problem” labels run undercurrents of superiority – as if the things we are complaining about are things that every majority-worlder would give anything to have. In reality, much of what we are attached to is fairly undesirable to others.

Now none of this is meant to deny material need. We have a responsibility to ensure that we generously share resources and that our gain never comes at the expense of another’s well-being. But this is not a commentary on relative wealth. It is an invitation for us all to take a step back and recognize that the preferences and habits we hold close – and the angst we feel when those habits are interrupted – have their counterparts all over the world. It’s a human thing. So stop acting so special, first-worlders. The rest of us have a right to be curmudgeons, too.

Of New Shoes and Choosing To See

Culture is a mysterious, dynamic thing. It loops and turns and its switchbacks will knock you off your feet at the most inopportune of moments. Culture takes care, humility, and loads of help to learn.

And in some respects, for the first couple years I lived overseas, I was a hot mess.

My issues were myriad, but the most glaring was this: I believed that I was extending people a kindness when I pretended not to notice their broken environment.

Now, no one wants someone marching in and pointing out what she finds to be ugly, but when hosts themselves bring up an issue that bothers them, that is a cue to acknowledge. And I wouldn’t.

I cringe when I recall my first visit to the church that would eventually welcome me as a member. The inside was spare: unpainted, crumbling cement; beams blackened by a long-ago fire; the occasional feather drifting down from pigeons roosting in holes. The pastor who had invited me remarked how embarrassing the sanctuary was and explained that he had decided to do something about it. “Oh, no,” I interrupted, “there’s nothing wrong with your church! It’s beautiful!”

At the time I thought that by giving this verbal pat on the head I could ease discomfort and move on to The Next Thing. In retrospect I must have seemed either shockingly condescending or completely unhinged.

I believed that by denying the obvious, I was being gracious. Instead I conveyed the idea that people who struggle with poverty do not deserve to hold the same standards as others. That “nice things” are out of reach and shouldn’t matter. That people who are created in the unfathomable and holy imago dei should somehow turn off their God-given longing for beauty until they can afford it.

I bumbled along on this awful path until I was knocked to the ground by a pair of shoes.

The issue was brought to my attention by a concerned party. It seemed that Joel*, a teenager who participated in a group I facilitated, had no good shoes.  Now, I saw Joel at least four times a week. I spent hours in meetings with him; I’d even visited his home. But never once had I noticed Joel’s shoes. In my ill-conceived attempt to overlook disparity I had blinded myself to what everyone else saw. This left me ignorant of what was going unsaid – that Joel was embarrassed and that everyone who saw his shoes assumed that he would be and therefore felt uncomfortable for him.

The person who let me in on this was more than happy, when equipped with the resources, to buy a new pair of shoes and pass them on to Joel anonymously. The next time I saw Joel was at Sunday service. An usher, Joel stood beaming at the door. His confidence was palpable to everyone whose hand he shook. What was now going unsaid – that a valued, hard-working friend was no longer going without – added visible joy to the room.

I could not believe that I had missed something so massively obvious. What else was I choosing not to see? I was about to get a surprise of my own.

When a couple of female friends began loaning me a shirt here, a string of beads there, I chalked it up to girls having fun. But then an older woman who sold second-hand clothing started giving me pieces that she thought might suit me. Soon, it seemed a critical mass had been reached when a dozen or so women suddenly involved themselves in changing the way I dressed.

One morning while walking, I met a friend whom I hadn’t seen in a while. After looking me up and down, she said bluntly, “You’re dressed nicely. Who’s been helping you?” Taken off guard, I gave her a few names. My friend nodded approvingly and added, “Good. I’m happy. You’re so much better now.”

What was going on? How had I found myself in “What Not To Wear: Haiti Edition?” When I asked, a close friend explained that she could no longer let me go on looking like “a missionary who doesn’t care. You are part of us now, and you need to dress as if you respect yourself and us.”

Ouch. This hurt because, once I got my bearings, I realized that she was completely right. Before my Haitian colleagues would enter meetings, they made sure to carefully clean the dust from their shoes – or to get a shoeshine. Meeting someone new required dressing for the occasion. If electricity came on at 2AM, people would get out of bed to iron, as a wrinkled appearance was not acceptable under any circumstance.

Of course, space was made for differing levels of means. Each person was simply expected to care for what they had and to dress as well as they were able. If you owned four shirts, those shirts would be taken care of meticulously. When an outing or an appointment required something more than you had, friends would loan the items necessary for you to present yourself in a dignified way.

I had – unbelievably – picked up on none of this. And in dressing without respect for social norms, I’d conveyed the message that my hosts were not worthy of my best.

Since then, candid friends have continued to help me understand what goes unsaid. They confront me when I begin to shut my  eyes and push me to assume God’s image in everyone. Years have passed and I am still learning. Still listening. Always squinting to see what I hadn’t before.

Oh, three years later the members of that church painted those walls at the front of the sanctuary. A creamy pale green, reaching from the platform out toward the congregation. It was beauty, and everyone said so.

 

 

*Name has been changed