Most of the mission trips I have led, both nationally and internationally, have been with Habitat for Humanity. I have found most Habitat for Humanity affiliates to be very well-organized; they know how to make the most of the groups that come to work. Hopefully this has avoided the “painting the same walls seven times” syndrome mentioned in the article. As participants with Habitat for Humanity, we know that we ourselves probably don’t change the world very much; we are a small link in a much bigger chain that has a chance of changing the world!
Although I hope that our mission trips have done some small amount of good in many corners of the world, I cannot overemphasize the good that they do for the actual participants — both youth and adults. Following one international mission trip, a high school student volunteer changed the foreign language she was studying to Spanish. After her graduation from college, she went to teach in Ecuador for a year. Most life changes that I see are not quite that dramatic. However, I have seen both youth and adults become aware of more ways to become involved at home following mission trips, including service in the community and service on church mission committees.
In addition to answering the question of “Wouldn’t it be better if we just sent them our money?” I have also struggled with church members who want to know, “Why do you have to go on a trip to do mission work? Isn’t there enough work around here?” The answer to that question is, of course, a resounding yes. There is a ton of mission work to be done in our local area, and as a church we are involved in several local organizations. The problem is that it is difficult to get either youth or adults to be involved here at home; their lives are so full of other activities. However, if I take them on a trip and get them out of their normal environment, they cannot run home for meetings, soccer games, band practices, etc. They can experience being part of a serving community without all the distractions of home, at least for a short time.
I have come to see that some of the money we pay to go on mission trips, whether it is for airline tickets or rental vans, is like tuition (as we might pay to attend a conference at Montreat or Ghost Ranch, or a week at church camp). Any educator knows that we retain only a small portion of what we read about, but when we become involved in something with our whole being, it is much more apt to have an impact on our lives. I do not want this sentiment to be misconstrued as meaning that it is okay for our spiritual growth to come at the expense of those we go to serve. Ideally, there will be some mutuality to the experience — both serve and receive, having the chance to feel like they are part of Christ’s larger community.
The shift in attitude of our denomination towards short-term mission trips has been noticeable, and I applaud it! The first few times I led overseas trips, I genuinely wanted to make some Presbyterian connections. I contacted our denominational offices, the first time by snail mail and the second time by e-mail, to see if I could find some contacts in the countries to which we were traveling. I received no response or acknowledgement to my questions. In 2007, when our church again went to Mexico, I contacted Stan DeVoogd (PC(USA) World Mission Central America and Mexico coordinator). He immediately put me in touch with David and Susan Thomas in Cuernavaca. While we were in Mexico, the Thomases took a bus from Cuernavaca to Jojutla to visit with us in our hotel. I cannot tell you what a difference this made to our whole experience!
At the present time, my presbytery, the Presbytery of Carlisle, under the leadership of Executive Presbyter Mark Englund-Krieger, is part of the Honduras Network and is developing a partnership with the Presbytery of Honduras. I sense that the church I serve is ready to move our mission experiences to the next level. Whether this will be increased involvement in Honduras, or a relationship with a church in Mexico, I cannot say. However, new possibilities are available to us because of the changing attitude of the denomination. Truly, we will be “better together.”
Kathleen Wells is director of Christian Education and Mission at Mechanicsburg Church, Mechanicsburg, Pa.