I still believe in Mission Trips. Just as long as we get clear on what the Mission is.
A 21st Century mission trip should feel more like a mini study abroad program.
Service Learning is what they call it in non-Christian circles.
But like most things, churches have stuck with the old – and albeit jaded language. (Remember the Crusades and the forced conversion of Indigenous people – those were Missions Trips too).
So what does a 21st Century Mission trip look like?
It looks like a discussion I had with three teens as we sat sweating in a hot van at a police check-point in Kenya.
Three teens, their parents, two Kenyan Drivers, the Kenyan Director of the School were on our way to a school in northern Kenya called Daylight Center where we had been invited by the school’s Kenyan director to spend our mornings learning about Kenyan dance, the education system, and Kenyan Christianity, and in the afternoon we were going teach the students about American dance, education, and music.
On our way to the school our van was stopped by a Kenyan police man standing in front of a spiked metal road block.
The police waved us over to the station and informed us that we were “speeding.”
Which was strange because our van had a built in speedometer which beeped whenever it went over the highway speed limit.
The police told us we could pay them $50 to “forget about our speeding” or we could spend the day in court.
After 30 minutes of arguing with the police – who insisted that it didn’t have anything to do with the fact that we were white – I gave up talking to the police.
In our van the teens were going back and forth about why they had “randomly” decided to pull over the only vehicle of white people we had seen on the road all day.
Was the speedometer broken?
Was it actually random?
Were we being targeted because they thought we had money?
As I listened to these young white teenagers I realized that this was part of why we were here.
We were here to learn about Kenya, and at the same time, learn about America.
I cut in. “I’m actually kind of glad this happened. Because this police stop is showing us a little slice of the feeling that minorities in America have every time they are pulled over by the police for ‘speeding’ or whatever made up infraction the police come up with. That feeling that you are being targeted because of your race, but you can’t prove it.” This sent the conversation in a whole new direction. And soon we were talking about Ferguson, Stop and Frisk, and the Black Lives Matter protests.
Our Kenyan driver overheard us and assured us that it wasn’t because we were white. That he was stopped regularly. Which I have no doubt was true, the police stop people every day.
And just as he said that, a bright blue car pulled into the police station and an Asian man stepped out and shouted, “This is the FOURTH TIME I HAVE BEEN STOPPED TODAY! HERE IS YOUR STUPID BRIBE!”
As he threw 10 bills into the air and drove off before the police could say anything. The police slowly gathered up the bills and then went back into the station.
That Asian man was the only other non-black person we saw that day.
The discussion was over at that point. There was no question left. The police were pulling over anyone who wasn’t black and taking bribes.
We paid the police $50 and drove the rest of the way to the school we had been invited to serve.
We did some amazing learning and serving that week. But to me those two hours at the police station was worth the entire trip. Because in that moment, those white middle-class teens learned what it felt like to be powerless in a system that was working against them.
And that is a very difficult situation to replicate in the United States.
The 21st Century Mission Trip cannot be to teach English or dance or give an altar call.
If that was the Mission than Mission Trips are a horrible waste of resources. Because local people can do that much more effectively and for a fraction of the cost.
That is why it is so important to be INVITED.*
But once you get invited. Remember why you’re going. The Mission is to change the hearts and minds of the travelers.
That is why I still believe in Missions Trips. Because I believe that traveling creates more informed young people. Those teenagers have a new perspective on racialize policing and the Black Lives Matter Movement.
As they taught English in a simple brick classroom with no computers or Wi-Fi, they realized that the students in Kenya are actually better students than they are.
How do I know this? Because they told me.
They became more passionate about Creation Care the Kenyan teachers they shared that Climate Change is affecting the weather patterns in Northern Kenya making it harder to grow crops.
They understood more fully the complexity of US AID when they heard Kenyan community leaders talking about the Pro’s and Con’s of foreign aid.
They realized the importance of empowering girls when they heard 8th grade girls share how education was making it possible for them to become lawyers and doctors instead of spending their day hand pumping water and washing clothes.
They experience power of multi-cultural worship as they as they sang and clapped and jumped and danced with the children and staff.
The Mission is to become a more informed 21st Century Global Citizen.
So when you go home you can make the world a better place.
I believe you should still take your kids on Missions Trips.
Just make it clear what the mission is.
If you need a resources for what 21st Century Service Learning looks like the Lutheran Church has a great model here.
*I can’t tell you how important it is to make sure that the people of the community actually want you to come. I have been on trips where I got the feeling that the community was not thrilled to have a rotating cast of wide eyed teens hanging around their children. There is a saturation point where a community has too many teams (especially if some of the teams are doing altar calls) and the community can get burned out.
And even though most Missions Trips are brokered through an American organization, don’t be afraid to ask if their community partners would rather have a check for $10,000 or 10 Americans there for 2 weeks. But be prepared for them to say both. Then you need to roll up your sleeves and do some more fundraising.