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Rethinking mission trips for college students

Photo by Derick McKinney on Unsplash

Working in higher education, my circle of colleagues has had a long-standing conversation about what mission means and what to do with it. Often the word mission implies that you go somewhere, work on a project, feel good about that work, and return home with little impact or change on the life you have at home.

There is this a common perception that mission means serving or giving to a community in a way that does not ultimately change your own life. This type of practice and the theologies that support it have a lasting negative impact on the communities where this “mission” takes place. And it inflates the ego of those who go to do the mission, creating a savior complex.

My colleagues and I have spent our callings reframing what it looks like for mission in our world. Trying to educate and implement new ways of envisioning what mission can be. And there are always those students who embrace this new model and mindset wholeheartedly. But there are still those who must experience this different mindset before the change begins.

One small change that I have made is getting rid of the term “mission trip.” This is not something new — college chaplains and leaders have made this shift too, noting the harmful nature the word “mission” brings. Instead, I refer to the traditional mission trips as service-learning trips. Noting that while we may be going into a community different than our own context, we are going there to serve alongside those already doing good work. And to learn about how that good work and its impact can be brought back to our context to address the concerns of our own community.

When we think of mission in this way, it changes the way we think about and do mission in our community and in the larger society. It is a change of our mindset, one where we acknowledge that we are not always the answer, that we sometimes do good by learning and listening to those doing work.

When thinking about new ways to reshape and redefine mission, I am often reminded of a border emersion trip that I led in partnership with the Synod of the Sun’s Imagine Conference. This wasn’t your typical mission trip, but one focused on learning and serving while immersing ourselves in a context different than our own. We spent time talking with immigrant advocates, listening to firsthand stories of what immigration is like, visiting resource centers that offer care and support for immigrants. We also were able to spend time serving alongside those in the community who address immigration reform regularly. It was an impactful experience that reshaped how we addressed immigration in our community and context. One that caused us to think critically and pastorally about how we should discuss and approach the idea of immigration in our community.

Another trip I led as chaplain at Lyon was to New Orleans, Louisiana. We spent our week working with various agencies doing work to help restore coastline, to help recover from hurricanes, and to help address the systems that allow poverty to take hold in their community. One day of the trip we worked with an organization that seeks ways to help coastline erosion. We spent the day sorting materials from trash — like straws, cups, plastics, so much plastic. Once materials were sorted, we created block structures that would be placed in the waters along the coast to help barricade the land and to serve as a habitat-building ground for the ecosystem.  At the end of that day, we had a long conversation about our impact on the environment, not just in our community, but as a society. It caused us to reimagine what we do as a ministry group, to think of ways to leave a positive impact on our community and ecosystem at home, that would ultimately reshape the larger community.

I can name trip after trip and experience after experience, but one takeaway remains constant through them all — when we go into a context other than our own, we go to learn, to study, to think, to serve alongside those doing good work, and bring back ways in which we can do better in our community and think critically about how we can leave a lasting positive impact in our community. It is all about serving alongside others and learning from people in different contexts. It is about drawing connections to what we have in common and ways in which we can work for the betterment of our world. We might not come from the same context, our community may face completely different needs, but through working alongside others and learning about how they address their community needs, we can better address our needs.

Mission then, is not about doing good so that you feel good about yourself and your work. Mission is about journeying with others, asking questions, learning from their wisdom, and taking that experience and knowledge to reshape your context for the better.

Get out there and serve and learn, for when you do you might just find the key to transforming yourself and the world around you!

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