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newsroomadminDecember 16, 2013

Answers to the Problems Facing Short-term Missions

by Bethany Kemming

It was hot, it was January, and their transport was lost. A group of ten Trinity students and faculty were sitting on a bus in rural India on a short-term mission trip, waiting for the driver to figure out where they were. For two weeks they had visited rural churches and schools in partnership with India Rural Evangelical Fellowship (IREF). Since the recent New Year, they were often greeted by mothers, lifting up their children to be touched and blessed during this time. It was no surprise, then, when they heard a noise outside and saw a smiling group of women and children.

“Happy New Year! Happy New Year!”

The team of students touched the children, smiling and wishing each and every face, young and old, a happy New Year. The group slowly continued past the bus, but one woman didn’t leave. She continued lifting up her child and repeating something in earnest for several minutes.

“What is she saying? What is it?” one student asked the translator, John.

“She’s saying: ‘Do you want him? You can take him. If you want him, take him with you,’” John said without glancing up from his camera.

Everyone slowly sat down, not knowing what to do. But still the child was there in the arms of his mother, unaware of the offer made on his behalf.

“Do you want to take him? Do you want him?”

This question stuck with many of the team’s members for the rest of the day, sparking lively discussions. Several thought the mother offered up her child because she assumed he would have a better life with a white Westerner. Yet others argued this is often how children end up as slaves, with promises of a better life from the faces of strangers. The biggest question—why this even happened—was the most difficult to answer.

“The hardest thing to understand was the fact that it happened and that we were even trying to justify it. That there was a woman in a position where she felt that she had to give up her own child was shocking,” team member Kelley Goewey said. “We discussed and wondered what our responsibility to this woman was supposed to be. What kind of emotional response were we supposed to have to the fact that this woman is trying to give her baby away to strangers? I find it difficult to think that God would look at this situation and not have an emotional response to it.”

These real-life scenarios that provoke such difficult questions can often be the most meaningful experiences on short-term mission trips. The chance to come face to face with poverty and injustice and seek the heart of God on such a personal level is often a reason many gladly, if not cautiously, go on short-term mission trips.

Recently, however, more mission teams have begun to question if mission-trip experiences can come at the expense of those on the receiving end. Are those being ministered to finding hurt more than help? After the publication of the book When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, the conversation went viral, leaving no Christian institution untouched, including higher education.

Painting houses, putting on Vacation Bible Schools, or handing out donated items can have a negative impact if there is a lack of clear communication on both sides of the exchange. Not immune to the possibility of hurtful helping, Trinity’s Director of Global Community Partnerships Cooper Smith said Trinity has sought to avoid common and hurtful problems associated with STM (short-term missions) through establishing partnerships, emphasizing mutual benefit, and intense student participation.

Since 2011, Trinity has visited nine different domestic and international locations each year for short-term mission trips, each with an established partner that seeks to express to Trinity what is needed or desired and ways that students and faculty could help. Domestic partnership locations over the past eight years have included Chicago, New York, and New Orleans. Globally, Trinity has mission partners in France, India, Uganda, Zambia, El Salvador, and Costa Rica.

“We go back to our same partners every year. It takes time to establish a partnership and to be truly helpful,” Smith said. “It took three or four years for our partner in Zambia to realize we had the intention of returning each year. After that, they were able to share with us ways that we could really help them.”

Trinity’s oldest partnership is with IREF in India and began in 2004. Trinity students and faculty have returned nearly every year for two weeks, working with the President of IREF Emmanuel Rebba and his wife, Dee. This coming December, the team from Trinity plans to visit for three weeks, continuing to visit local churches and schools connected to IREF, focusing on outreach and encouraging IREF in their ministry.

Mission trips overseas can be expensive, and many question if it would be better to just raise money and help these ministries financially, rather than going themselves. In Robert Lupton’s book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It), he writes that the money spent on a mission trip to Central America to repaint an orphanage/school could have provided for local painters, two new teachers, and new uniforms for everyone in the school. While Smith believes these studies should be considered, he also knows that mission trips provide social capital and enable local ministries to connect. Visitors often draw locals to the church, allowing the church to interact with individuals who wouldn’t normally attend.

“In a sense, we bring excitement and opportunity. We go out in a bus and have impromptu church services and more people come because they see the strangers,” Smith said. “Even though you don’t do anything different, the fact that you came from America has an impact.”

The nearby local ministry is then able to connect, serve, and speak with these individuals.

Trinity’s emphasis on working in long-term partnerships is not only beneficial to those being ministered to but also to the students on the trip, according to Smith. By participating in a trip with a long-term partnership, they are able to serve toward a goal as “links in the chain.”

“These partnerships exist before and after they leave Trinity. They are able to continue contributing to what God is doing in the world,” Smith said.

Through these partnerships, Trinity’s missions department also aims for mutual benefit—of Trinity and the partnership organization. A focus on mutual benefit has helped guide each trip’s activities and goals. In certain circumstances, this means that Trinity’s team will forego doing what they think needs to be done and instead ask the partner where they desire help.

“We do not want to do something like a Vacation Bible School if we know there’s not going to be any follow-up. Instead, we ask how can we come alongside existing programs rather than doing what we want to see done,” Smith said.

Once Trinity establishes a partnership, they make a formal contract that lays out expectations for both parties. Smith said this way of formalizing a partnership allows both Trinity and the organization to be clear and responsible for their future together, as well as protects the organization in case of turn-over in Trinity’s Missions Department.

Senior Yvonne Hennrich went to Uganda with Trinity in 2012 and 2013. While she had been on previous work-based mission trips, she found her time in Uganda with Trinity to be entirely different. While her previous trip experience had been focused solely on ways a team could help by bringing items and doing physical labor, her time in Uganda was focused on encouraging and helping in ways that she found better dignified their partners in Uganda.

“It was about being there, being present—not fixing things. It was more honoring to them to just be with them and accepting what they had to offer us than coming in with a bunch of stuff and dumping it on them,” Hennrich said. “Sometimes going into a different country one might have that feeling of ‘I need to fix things,’ instead of just seeing them, instead of just being with the people where they are and lifting them up where they are. In terms of helping where it is not needed, the Uganda mission trip definitely showed me how service can overcome this type of pitfall.”

One of the strongest features of Trinity’s Missions Department, according to Smith, is that experiences like Yvonne’s are not rare. In any given academic year, over 10 percent of Trinity’s undergraduates participate in an STM with Trinity.

“I think this demonstrates that this generation is passionate about spreading the gospel and that students are resonating with what we’re doing,” Smith said.

One of the ways Trinity’s Missions Department has sought to avoid “hurtful helping”—while still equipping students to participate in missions— is through consistent and mandatory preparation and debriefing. Before each trip, team members attend six training sessions where they learn about the culture and ministry at their destination, along with participating in guided reading and discussion.

In addition, students on the trips to Uganda and Zambia also have the opportunity to take a class for academic credit that provides them with cultural information and training about the country and ministry where they will be serving. During each trip, team members debrief every night, discussing what they were learning and ways that they could serve their ministry better. After each trip, team members are required to attend two debrief sessions, where they are able to process their experiences on the trip together as well as with other mission-trip teams from Trinity.

“Though it couldn’t completely prepare me for going overseas to a foreign place, I would have felt lost without the training. It gave me information to fall back on when I was in Uganda,” Hennrich said. “Debriefing was one of my favorite things after coming back. I had all these things to process, and I think debriefing a few weeks later solidified everything that I was thinking.”

Trinity’s solution, then, to the possible pitfalls associated with short-term mission trips, is not to end the trips, but rather to consider ways of reforming them, “listening to the partners and being very intentional,” Smith added. In this way, Trinity students receive the joy of engaging God’s redemptive work in the world, while also witnessing a model of missions that can be mirrored throughout the remainder of their lives.

To be faithful to God’s call and to keep informed about what happens around the world and why can be a challenging process, which is why Trinity puts so much thought and effort in walking beside its students during each mission opportunity. The Indian child offered to strangers, the village in Uganda that lacks clean water, or boys and girls in New York City growing up in violent neighborhoods all give pause to students and faculty, forcing them to question not only what they think they know about the world, but what they know about God and his redemptive work. This type of engagement can come with positives and pitfalls, but stopping such opportunities to take part in God’s mission is not an option, for, as Paul asks the church at Rome, how can the world hear unless those who bring the good news are sent (see Rom. 10:13–15)?

“We didn’t know what we could do for that mother and her child in India, but it was clear that we couldn’t ignore it,” Goewey said. “God designed us to have an emotional responses to these types of situations, and our reactions influence how we do missions, school, life, and, ultimately, what we do for the sake of God’s kingdom.”

A recent graduate and former communication assistant at TIU, Bethany Kemming (BA ’13) will be studying in the Post-Baccalaureate Capstone Certificate in Communication Sciences and Disorders Program at the University of Wisconsin Madison, with plans to attend graduate school for speech pathology thereafter.

{This article originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Trinity Magazine, pp. 18–21.}


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