If you grew up in a middle-class suburb, and belonged to a protestant church, there is a high likelihood you have been on a mission trip. Millions of young adults, adult lay leaders, and pastors pack their bags every summer for week-to-two-week service trips to locations like Central America, Haiti Appalachia, and Native American nations. Projects like house builds and vocational Bible schools will be undertaken during the day, prayers and small group discussions in the evening, a day or two of fun, and everybody returns back to the suburban congregation changed and energized by the Spirit.
I know this, because I have been on four mission trip: Juarez (2006, housebuild); Gulfport, MS (2007, cleanup); Milwaukee area (2009, cleanup, foodservice); and, Belize (2014, Housebuild). (I also took an “Alternative Spring Break” to Birmingham, AL in 2010, but my college group did not know that Habitat for Humanity was a Christian organization until we were asked to pray before our first day). I have been through the emotional highs and lows of the trip. I have spent countless hours fundraising and advocating for our youth group. I have lead prayers and reassured parents. At the age of 15 in Juarez, I even stated during our house dedication how this was the first time in my life I felt like my life had meaning. I now find it very difficult to justify the current White Suburban Church model of mission trips.
On grounds of utility, mission trips are a great mismanagement of resources. Tens of thousands of dollars are raised to let unskilled youth and parents travel to a foreign country and build a small house, when that money could be allocated to local laborers. Even using the $50K for microlending or vaccine outreach will almost certainly do far more material good than a single house build.
Of course, most mission trips do not claim that this is the most efficient use of resources. From my experience, many churches go to great lengths to explain why they are choosing to send their youth to the Developing World instead of to a local community. Unfortunately, the explanations I’ve heard all eventually take a patronizing, colonialist, and poverty-tourist tone: “By sending our youth to Haiti/Honduras/Jamaica/Mexico, they will see just how blessed we are here in the United States.” One priest leading a trip brazenly exclaimed, “America is not the ‘Real World!’” Upon returning, the promoted narrative among the parents and adults involved
1 Declaring how bad things were for the people in the country
2 Being surprised how friendly/happy they seemed, and
3 How Jesus instructs us to be a Good Neighbor and a Good Samaritan
The problem with the White Suburban Mission Trip, with its volun-tourism, poverty-fetishism, and White-Man’s-Burden rhetoric, is how it fails to ask a very basic question: WHY do most of us have it so good in the United States, but people have it so poorly in the Developing World? As soon as you ask this question, the entire purpose the mission trip begins to look less like being a good neighbor, and more like an attempt to shift away our collective guilt.
In the Episcopal hymnal, there is a popular piece entitled, “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” While otherwise an inoffensive and child-like hymn, the old additions included a verse that has since been excised: “Rich man in his castle/Poor man at his gate/God made them high and lowly/And ordered their estate.” God orchestrated a divine plan in which some people would be rich, and others would be poor. And although we may not understand the purposes of this right now, we ought not question God’s intentions. This sort of divine sanctioning of classism (and slavery, and colonialism, and transphobia, and so on and so forth), is nonsense, and is contradicted by The Beatitudes, Christ’s healing of the Disfigured, and the Book of Job. The problem is, the White Suburban Mission Trip supports this “Divine Plan of Poverty” when it fails to question the power structures that make the Developing Regions poor, and the Industrialized World rich. When I was in Juarez, we did not talk about how NAFTA destroyed the livelihood of millions of Mexican farmers, and how US drug policy has helped create the political mess enabling the cartels. When I was in Gulfport and New Orleans, we did not talk about the legacies of slavery, sharecropping, or the New Jim Crow. Nor did we talk about Wisconsin’s highest-in-the-US incarceration rate for black men, and long history of eviction rates when we served in Milwaukee. Or how Belize’s long history of colonialism and slavery.
All too often, we were expected to try to find a “Blessing in Disguise” in the systemic poverty, so we took pictures with little brown babies, drank local sodas, and looked forward to taking a warm shower as soon as we returned. But if Christ had wanted Christianity to be about powerful groups taking pity on the downtrodden, He would have preached directly to the Romans, and not for the Jews. Rather, our Gospels challenge the power structures of Empire, the same power structures that we, the White Suburban Churches, draw tremendous benefit.
Rather than sending our youth on college-resume-boosting mission trips, I recommend that White Suburban churches commit themselves to standing behind grassroots and community-initiated efforts in Developing Nations, and instead of going on international House builds, going on Pilgrimages. In 2008, my church did just that, and we traveled to Ireland to learn about Celtic Christianity and the influences of Irish beliefs on the church. As a 17-year-old making 6.50 an hour at McDonalds, I spent $750 to go on this trip, and had a wonderful, transformative experience. Among other things, I began accepting the Femininity of God as a result of this trip, which has definitively helped me in my life and my transition. Other pilgrimages take an explicate social-justice angle, especially some of the Episcopal churches around St. Louis during the year after the shooting of Mike Brown. After all, If your spirituality does not upset and direct your material reality, then what’s even the point?