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Heroes not welcome.

If heroism drives you to serve, stay home. The wrong kind of mission trips do more harm than good.

"All those who want to go to Ecuador to mainly build houses, please raise your hands. OK! All those who have raised their hands, please stay home! Now, those of you who want to mainly listen and learn from the faith and culture of Ecuadorans, join my immersion trip." This is how veteran Comboni Missionary Father Joe Bragotti typically began his first information night for a mission trip.

Not long into my job as director of the mission office of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, I received a call from a reporter at our Catholic newspaper. "Mike," she said, "I'm not going to write any more mission trip stories." When I asked her why, she told me: "I'm tired of these groups who call me nearly every year when they return from the Caribbean and Central America. They always want their photo in the paper explaining how wonderful they are. Their attitude seems to be, 'If it weren't for us generous white American mission groups, these poor backward people would be in worse shape.'" She added, "Mike, I've had it. No more of these stories."

I vowed that day to change what mission trips had become. I am convinced mission offices, parishes, and schools across the United States need to stop funding and sending harmful, arrogant, and poorly trained short-term mission groups. I don't believe mission trip leaders are bad intentioned, and I know many of them sincerely want to help, but we need to eliminate this colonialist style of expedition based on a pre-Vatican II "heroic" model of mission. This approach came from a time when some Europeans and North Americans believed they had a sacrificial duty to "bring civilization and God" to the so-called "pagans" who supposedly needed Western culture to be fulfilled human beings.

This heroic mentality hangs on today as many Christians in the West are either unaware of, or wish to ignore, the racism and white privilege that unconsciously determines how we approach other cultures with our hopes and goals for "those poor people down there." Frequently we don't even realize our "we know better" attitudes.

According to Robert Priest, who has studied short-term mission, every year about 2 million North American Christians are involved in these trips at a price tag of perhaps a few billion dollars annually. That's a lot of money and resources, and we need to ask if these trips are really the most responsible way to spend precious mission donations.

Mike Haasl, a friend and fellow former Maryknoll lay missioner, notes that in order not to offend the incoming volunteers, people in some cultures want to be kind and will say yes to the outsiders' projects and plans. Haasl recounts that one of his parish members visited a Nicaraguan village and decided to purchase cows for the community. Later they learned only one person there knew how to raise cows, and he lived outside of town. The cows all went to him, and the community project died.

Similarly, a group of American high school students who had traveled to an orphanage in Tanzania to help build a library was so inept at laying bricks that each night the men in the village had to take down the structurally unsound bricks and re-lay them so that in the morning the students would be unaware of their own failure. And a recent study found that it cost $30,000 for U.S. mission trip volunteers to build a house in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch, while local Christian organizations built nearly the same house for only $2,000.

In his book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (HarperOne), Robert B. Lupton cites many other examples of the "make-work" nature of short-term mission trips. Among them are a church in Mexico that was painted six times during one summer by six different mission groups and a wall built on an orphanage field in Brazil that had to be torn down after the visitors left.

Lupton concludes that many service projects do not empower those served, do not engender healthy cross-cultural relationships, do not improve local quality of life, do not relieve poverty, do not change lives of the participants, and do not increase support for long-term mission. But they do weaken those served, foster dishonest relationships, erode recipients' work ethic, and deepen dependency.

Fifty years ago, during the Second Vatican Council, bishops from Africa, Asia, and Latin America began to speak up, urging that their cultures and histories be respected. They emphasized St. Paul's understanding of the church where all are members of the one body of Christ, with many parts and gifts to share with one another for the good of all.

Today we are called to turn toward a "humble" model of mission based on principles of reciprocity and mutual respect of each other's God-given gifts, beliefs, and talents. We participate in trips now as pilgrims, willing to learn from and stand with our hosts as equal partners.

A recent study shows most U.S. mission groups prefer construction projects, while most host communities prefer building long-term relationships humbly walking together in Christ. Only after partnerships of trust and respect have matured should it be appropriate to discuss possible service and social justice projects together.

Before he set off for his own "mission trip" to build God's reign, Jesus spent 30 years learning how to humbly listen and befriend widows, lepers, and Samaritans. He reflected long and hard on his own cultural experience in prayer with God and his friends before acting. Similarly, today the world admires Pope Francis for listening, meekly reaching out to understand others, and embracing what he has called a "culture of encounter."

This spirituality of humility contains an attitude of willingness to be evangelized by members of other cultures that may take us to a newer and deeper understanding of our faith and what it entails. When it comes to mission trips, participants should work ahead of time to improve their skills of listening and accompaniment, formulating intelligent questions, and creating prayerful dialogue.

Developing the Catholic social principle of solidarity as championed by Pope John Paul II is another key component for mission trips. Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador challenged North Americans to transform their mission trips into efforts of solidarity: to meet with and pay deeper attention to the plight of women and labor/peasant organizations, to struggling local parish/school members, to religious orders committed to the poor, and to local civic leaders. Romero didn't ask for building projects as much as he wanted outsiders to listen to and build long-lasting parish relationships.

And so this principle of long-term solidarity also implies better preparation before our trips. Consider inviting leaders of your diocesan mission or an immigrant from the country you will be visiting to educate your group beforehand about the key local issues and culture. Develop respectful questions for your hosts about the influences our government and companies have on their community and nation.

This principle of solidarity has now led many U.S. twinning parishes to become advocates for their partners as they work with Catholic organizations and local congresspersons to reform unjust immigration and economic policies.

My advice is simply this: Why not follow the example of our Lord Jesus and that of Pope Francis, who both rejected heroic, paternalist, and arrogant models of mission? Instead, like them, invite the Spirit of God to transform our hearts, minds, and souls to be open to the faith, gifts, talents, joy, and yes, challenges of people of other cultures. Maybe we'll become even more effective instruments of God's love locally and globally as we then work together in the body of Christ.

and the survey says

1. I have been on a mission trip.

Yes   57%
No    43%

2. Most people attend
mission trips for
self-serving reasons.

Agree      47%
Disagree   53%

3. There's nothing wrong with
people going on mission trips
purely for their own benefit.

Agree      12%
Disagree   88%

4. People who receive the help
of visiting missionaries should
be thankful for any assistance
they get.

Agree      18%
Disagree   82%

5. Those most at fault for
problems with mission
trips are:

14%   Organizers who
      do not do enough
      to prepare the people
      who take these trips.

4%    Participants
      who are ill-prepared
      to help the people
      they are trying
      to serve.

81%   Some combination
      of all parties.

1%    No one, because
      nothing is wrong
      with mission trips.

6. The best way to "fix" mission
trips is to:

71%   Approach them with
      humility and let the
      local people take the
      lead in organizing any
      service projects.

23%   Educate the people
      going on the trip so that
      they are better prepared
      to help and serve the
      people they are visiting.

5%    Only send people who
      are skilled and trained
      to serve the needs of
      the people, such as
      construction workers
      to build houses.

1%    Stop doing them
      altogether.

7. Catholics can do more good
by donating money than by
going on mission trips.

Agree      52%
Disagree   48%

8. International aid to
people in need should be
left to professional humanitarian
organizations, not to
groups of volunteers.

Agree      34%
Disagree   66%

9. If people really want to help
others, they should start in
their own community rather
than taking mission trips.

Agree      64%
Disagree   36%

Results are based on survey responses from 289 USCATHOLIC.ORG visitors.
A representative selection of their comments follows in Feedback


One change I'd make to help improve mission trips would be ...

Marketing of such programs should avoid words like "sightseeing." We are not travel agents. Also, we want to draw numbers, but fewer conscientious participants can be better than a lot of people who just want to travel.

Ann O'Brien

Scranton, Pa.

Stop billing them as "mission." There's too much colonialism wrapped up in that word, too much, "We're teaching them the right way." We need to start thinking of these trips as education, specifically for ourselves as we learn about a new or different culture and way of life and faith.

Luke Rembold

Baker City, Ore.

To change the word "mission" to "immersion."

Mary O'Brien

New Britain, Conn.

To have those who are in need lead the mission trip. We should go there to encounter their culture, not push our way of life and beliefs on them.

Name withheld

By having a parish or school campus ministry culture that analyzes rather than reacts. There can be some fundamental formation in economics and politics that demonstrates we are already in a relationship with those we wish to encounter, but often an unjust one due to policy and our own lifestyles. Encounter, like friendship, always has to be mutual to be authentic.

Father Bill Morton, S.S.C.

El Paso, Texas

Offer study trips that provide classes and serious study of cultures. If people want further opportunities, they can prepare themselves to be gualified to meet the needs of the people being helped.

Kathleen Polansky

New Albany, Ind.

The biggest problem with mission trips is ...

A lack of adequate formation prior to the trip. Participants must focus on "being with" not "doing for."

Bob Eilenfeldt

Euless, Texas

An expectation that long-term problems can be addressed on a short-term basis.

Dolores Francis

Bloomington, Ind.

Inadequately prepared young people who have no understanding of the culture and dignity of indigenous people.

Kate Barry

Suffern, N.Y.

They have become the "in" thing to do. What kind of a youth ministry program do you have without an "annual mission trip"?

Susan McCoyd

Elmhurst, Ill.

Believing that we Americans have it all right and need to tell other cultures the "right way" to fix their problems. Humility and silence in the presence of those in need can be much more powerful than speaking out.

Jean Meehan

Arlington, Texas

Lack of understanding as to what your "mission" should be.

Pat Brown

Aliquippa, Pa.

The savior mentality. It impedes the participant's understanding and growth, and it weakens the host people's capacity to do things for themselves and to not wait for white saviors to come in and do it for them.

Ashley Brock

Jeffersonville, Ind.

General comments ...

This is a topic that has needed to be talked about for a long time. This is the first time I've ever seen the question raised in print. Christ told us to "Go, teach all nations!" but he didn't mean it should be an opportunity to demonstrate our unchallengeable knowledge of everything and our arrogance to think that whatever we think is what our hosts should think.

Mike Dorcey

Emporia, Kan.

I believe that most American Christians are kindhearted and generous. They would like to do "as Jesus would do" if only they had a little direction. This direction could possibly come from workers who have long been in the field and have firsthand knowledge of basic needs. A beautiful church doesn't seem necessary for those who have no safe shelter or adequate food and water.

Marlene Winter-Johnson

Garden, Mich.

This is a very important issue and one that needs much care and attention. With proper refocusing, these mission trips could be helpful to all involved. Without refocusing, they can be harmful to all.

Father Louis Arceneaux, C.M.

New Orleans, La.

We need to focus on not just physical poverty but the poor in spirit.

I don't agree that mission trips are bad, nor that a real difference isn't being made. I think the author used extremes and failed greatly to see the positive change that is made by good mission trips.

Matthew Toohill

Joliet, Ill.

on the web

Find ideas to help transform the spirit of your next mission trip at uscatholic.org.

By Mike Gable, mission office director for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Sounding Board is one person's take on a many-sided subject and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.
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Title Annotation:sounding board; mission trips
Author:Gable, Mike
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2015
Words:2333
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