Short-term mission trips (I will not even try to address the PC-ness of this term) have taken a lot of flak lately, from the mild label of ineffective to the harsher criticism that these types of trips are downright harmful to those they try to serve. I took my fair share of short-term service trips before moving to Haiti full-time and I have seen a lot of groups come and go during my time here. I’ve read and researched and tried to figure out the best approach not only to these shorter trips, but to our long-term strategies as well. It’s not easy, folks. Not at all. I have seen plenty of short-term trips gone wrong: the-savior-complex, the-i-could-do-it-better-than-you’re-doing-it-judgments, the-get-as-much-work-done-as-humanly-possible-approach, the-touch-me-change-me-give-me-a-spiritual-high-mindset. More come to mind, but that’s not really what I want to talk about here. All those flawed attitudes put aside, there is much potential value to short-term missions that should not be overlooked. While most of the child homes here are pretty spread out, the Promise House is the first floor of the short-term volunteer house. I’ll be honest, sometimes this can be a little, well, annoying. They’re just always right there, you know? Looking in on our life like a little fish bowl. A fish bowl that’s still getting set up, cleaned, filtered, and all the little fish are still getting to know each other. “Why is he crying?” is not a question I want to answer regularly. My kids can’t communicate. Chances are, I don’t actually know why he’s crying. I digress. I wanted to talk about the VALUE of short-term missions. I have been reminded of this with a few of our recent groups and have been thinking about it a lot. What did they do differently? How was their approach to the trip unlike the others? In no particular order, here are some of the things that come to mind…
- Successful short-term trips bless the missionary, in order to bless the mission. And I don’t just say this because I’m the missionary and I like to be blessed. Though I do J But mission is founded on relationships, work over time, understanding culture, fostering dignity and independence rather than giving-to and doing-for people. The missionaries on the ground are trying to do this. And it’s hard, tiring, sometimes discouraging work. Blessing the missionary encourages them, gives them reprieve, and fuels them to keep on keeping on. How did these groups bless the missionaries here? The last group asked me more times than any other how they could specifically pray for us and our home. And then prayed for us right then and there. What a blessing! The same group and the one before them brought little gifts of things they know we can’t easily get here. A block of cheese, a tub of sour cream, chocolate, nice shower gel or hand soap, jerky, to name a few. What a blessing! They also provided meals for us. Sometimes for us to get away from our “jobs” and eat together, sometimes a meal for our whole house so we didn’t have to worry about cooking for the kids that night either. When you have a house full of people and limited ingredients and cooking skills, it is so nice to have a few nights that we d0n’t have to put a thought or a minute into making dinner. What a blessing!
- Successful short-term trips help how they are needed, not how they want to. You might have in mind that since you are coming to an orphanage, you would like to cuddle and play with adorable children. You might think you would be most helpful building this or painting that or feeding hungry neighbors. And maybe some of the things you have in mind actually are helpful. But to recognize that they might not be, that is the key. A recent volunteer was helping us clean the kids’ rooms (not very glamorous and lacking in cute photo ops) when we discovered bed bugs. So what did she do? She researched the process of getting rid of bed bugs, gave us the cliff notes, and went online and ordered everything we would need to take care of the problem. I’m willing to bet she didn’t plan her trip to Haiti thinking this is what she would be doing, but the need arose, and she met that need. What a blessing! Another recent volunteer is a physical therapist. Instead of coming down with her own agenda full of unrealistic plans and expectations, and a list of equipment that is very impractical to us here, she talked with us many times before her trip and worked with us throughout the trip to see how her skills might be most helpful to our kids. What did they actually need and what would be sustainable for us? We now have a wonderful therapy room that is used daily and serves every home on campus. What a blessing!
- Successful short-term trips bring something to the table that’s not already on the table. Taking work away from local people is a valid criticism of short-term service trips. But there are some things the local people may not be able to offer. If there are not enough skilled physical therapists in the area, you may be a huge help in that area. Considering the needs of our kids, what a blessing! Wilson and I attend Haitian church most Sunday mornings. But sometimes worship in English is just what my soul needs, and a short-term volunteer can probably fill this need better than our Haitian neighbors. What a blessing! Exposing our kids to new and enriching experiences is also valuable. A recent team had amazing musical talents and provided a special time of music with a guitar and violin in each of the child homes. What a blessing!
- Successful short-term trips are just the beginning. There is value in the trip itself, but many times, the trip is the point when the individual becomes fully invested in the mission. It’s hard to hear about something from afar and really catch the vision and discern how you can be a part of it. But to see for yourself how the child home model is benefiting our kids, to see for yourself how the Promise House needs to be retrofitted to actually be accessible to those living in it, to see for yourself how God is living and moving in this place, to see for yourself is powerful. When you see for yourself, you continue to pray for those you met, you share about your experience and get others involved, you sponsor a child or a missionary, you find yourself brainstorming ways to help overcome the obstacles you saw. There is no limit to how God will use those two weeks of your life: a family in the process of adopting one of COTP’s kiddos is visiting right now, and the start of that journey was a short-term trip three years ago. What a blessing! There’s always my own story to illustrate this point. My own life of parenting children with special needs in Haiti began with a series of short-term mission trips. What a blessing!
Another tidbit that comes to mind but doesn’t really constitute a whole bullet point is how important it is that short-termers realize that while this is a trip for them, it is home for us. Yes, you want to make your time worthwhile and work from sunup to sundown, but we do this every day of every week of every month…you get the picture. We need breaks. With the last group that was here, every time I interacted with someone, especially if it was inside our own home, they thanked me for allowing them into our home, allowing them to be a part of our lives here. I didn’t quite realize how important this was to me until this group verbalized it so consistently. Does it need to be said every time? Of course not, but we can tell if you have that frame of mind. If, on the other hand, you come down to knock on my bedroom door after dark to ask me about something that is definitely not an emergency, you are probably interrupting “funny business” (This has really happened. Two thumbs down), or my sleep, or just time away from all the people all the time. Okay, that probably could have been a whole bullet point. And it is bringing to mind a few other things I’d like short-termers to know, but maybe I will save that all for another post.
The point here is that we do appreciate individuals and groups who visit us for a short time, volunteering their time and utilizing their resources to make the trip happen. There is value in short-term missions, but value is not incidental, it doesn’t just happen. It takes mindful people, clothed in humility, prayerfully seeking to participate in God’s work on the mission field.
I would love to answer any questions you may have if there is even the slightest tug on your heart to embark on a short-term trip in the future. And I hope this is an encouragement, rather than a deterrent, to some of you considering taking a trip down to Haiti to visit us, or wherever else you might feel called to go.