In Defense of the Short Term Missions Trip (Part 1)

In recent years, the short term mission trip has gotten a lot of bad press.  In many cases, it has been deserved, and a reassessing needed to happen in the approach.  Article after article has been written, talking about why North Americans don’t need to be flying halfway around the world to paint an orphanage again or feed hungry people or lead a VBS.  This article was written specifically for girls who fit my description–white girls with no construction or professional experience (although I WAS a truck driver in a past life, but I digress).  Chapters of books have been dedicated to all the things churches and organizations and teams have done wrong, and all the harm caused, and why the effort it useless and money wasted.  As a result, many church mission boards and long term missionaries alike have changed their approach.  Many others have thrown up their hands in frustration, not knowing a healthy way to move forward.

This is not another article bashing the short term missions trip! In fact, it’s the first in a whole series defending it.  To say that “everyone is doing everything wrong in every case” is a broad, sweeping statement that is both unfair and untrue. Many churches, mission teams, and local ministries work hard to foster healthy relationships within their own communities and  with people at home and abroad.  There is huge evidence that we should KEEP the short term trips, and not do away with them altogether, as many suggest.  Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water, here. When pastors, mission boards, missionaries, and local church bodies abroad work together to discover the needs of their neighborhood, short term projects are incredible gateways to open doors.  When everyone has been prepared ahead of time, is on the same page, and has a clear understanding of the goals, then they are set up for success.

In my role covering media and communications for the Latin America/Caribbean division, I have been traveling to each of our sites where ReachGlobal has a long term team in place.  Several of these trips have coincided with short term team visits. As I go about my business of filming, interviewing, watching and listening, I get to interact with these American teams and see up close how things are being done.  In the past few months, I have seen some incredibly effective and wonderful groups!  I intend to use at least two of these teams as examples of “This is What it SHOULD Look Like”, and how teams can actually be a blessing, be catalysts, and open previously closed doors for new relationships within the community.

To begin, we need to visit the hot, humid, mountainous and beloved island of Haiti.

As a country, it is the poster child for how western aid has harmed a people, their dignity, their economy, and their spiritual growth over the past 150+ years.  So much damage has been done by well-intentioned people, that often times things just look like an impossibly tangled mess.  And yet! God is working, moving and restoring His people in every corner of the earth, including Haiti.

Our Haiti team first began in 2010 as a Crisis Response group to the earthquake.  With ReachGlobal’s Crisis Response division, their structured to receive groups for a week at a time, one after another. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, is incredibly effective, and keeps people engaged for a few years.  However, shortly into their work, the newly formed Haiti team realized there were some long-term needs in their neighborhood. Everyone unpacked their suitcases and settled in for the long haul.  After a few staff changes and adjustments, the Haiti team became comprised of the Mathis family, Jen Blevins, and Stephanie Fry.  They live and work in a rural community, with the “Haitian Queen” as the guest house where most of the action takes place.

Team Haiti still receives about 20 short term teams a year, far more than the average ReachGlobal city team.  Teams work on projects within their local community, teach VBS and English classes, and work to build relationships through sports, construction projects, and prayer walks.  When it’s just the long-termers there, the ministry takes on a different shape, in church leadership development and discipleship of local youth.

Talking with Dave and Sharron Mathis, I asked, “What do you see as a successful short term trip? What makes it helpful to you and worth the effort and expense of a North American church group coming here?”

Dave responded that, “Basically, if they’ve learned, and taken more away from Haiti than they brought, then it’s successful in my mind.  I mean that by them coming as learners, them coming to build relationships, understanding more about the culture. I think if we’re just focused on projects and what we accomplish—while those things are gratifying in some ways—we’ve missed the mark of what we like to call “being versus doing”.  Being in relationship is far more important than what you can do for someone. If people learn more by coming to Haiti than what they knew before they were here, whether it’s about missions, or about Haiti, or about God, or about themselves, then I’d say that’s a successful short term trip. Really, a short term team is an extension of what we are doing in local discipleship. It’s two-fold, because we see as much effect happening to the people who come as we do on the people in our community. They both see God in a bigger way, and perspectives get changed. Honestly, we do as much ‘mission work’ to the American church as we do to the Haitian church. That’s the way we’ve designed it; we want it to be equal parts receiving and giving on both ends.”

In the evenings, as the air cools slightly and the bugs all come out, everyone gathers under the wooden patio cover illuminated by strings of Christmas lights.  A meal is shared, a time singing in worship follows, everyone discusses their experiences of the day, and then “class” begins.  Our Haiti team has a format that they follow to educate their short term teams during the brief time they have together.  It’s important to know that teams arrive having (hopefully) done their assigned homework: reading the incredible book that has really become a staple to American churches and mission boards in the past 10 years, “When Helping Hurts”.  Nightly discussions are led by Dave or one of the ladies over the topics covered in the book, such as “What are all the different elements of poverty” and “In what ways are we poor and broken in our different cultures”, and “what are the differences between relief and development”.

Dave also shared, “We teach people about the history of Haiti, and have them understand the context in a better way. We also want to educate people on missions in general, and we try to stick to the “When Helping Hurts” philosophy. The accomplishment of our tasks is not the objective; the goal is really to build relationships over time.”

When teams come to teach or do work projects, they are not doing them FOR the community, but instead WITH. But what does that really look like?

I watched the short term team teach English classes for 3 days.  You know who the translators were? The group of neighborhood teenage boys who are being discipled by our long term team.  They were just as involved in leading the classes as the Americans were, and were given just as much responsibility.  Relationships have been built with these boys over years of daily interaction. Giving them a role that was essential and important with the short term project did much to further the trust, sense of ownership and value, as well as growth and maturity on their end.

When the team worked with Dave in the local community garden where he is teaching some new agricultural skills, it wasn’t just a bunch of American college kids there digging in the ground. Just as many men, women, and teenagers came from their homes in the surrounding houses to work alongside. Why?  Because the priority is relationship within the local community and the American teams are there to encourage that.  The goal is not to go and do things for people, but to go and know people, learn their needs, and empower them to take care of themselves.  The neighbors are the ones who are going to see the fruit of this garden over time, and having them participate in the care–giving a responsibility and sense of ownership–makes the investment more valuable.

We’ll leave the discussion there for now, and pick it up next week, down in South America with several Brazilian pastors, a few ju jitsu instructors, some graffiti artists, and a whole heap of paintbrushes.

Please feel free to share your thoughts.  When have you seen short term trips and teams be effective?  What are some ways you engage your visitors and American churches in your local ministry?

Calling Young Adults! [Summer Apex Missions]

Combine your passion to serve in cross-cultural missions with our passion for developing future mission leaders.

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From June 19-August 4, 2017, ReachGlobal is sending out teams of young adults (college age and post-grads) to locations around the world as part of our Apex mission program. Apex teams will integrate into the local ReachGlobal teams, serving alongside our missionaries while receiving training and equipping for future mission and ministry success.

Let us invest in you while you invest in the cities and countries that we call home.

Find out more about how you can serve this summer in:

Applications are due by April 2017 — however, the programs are first-come, first-serve and may fill up sooner. If God is calling you to go deeper into missions, don’t miss your opportunity to be part of His greater story in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Video: Trek7 – Drew’s Story

As we gear up for three Trek7 missions experiences for 2016 in Latin America and the Caribbean — Costa Rica, Haiti and Peru — let’s take a look back at a previous Trek7 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Trek7 provides college students and recent college grads with seven weeks of hands-on mission experience woven together with ministry training, spiritual mentoring, language learning and cultural immersion. It’s a challenge to get out of your comfort zone and put your faith into action.

Will you join us?

See more info and apply online at myef.ca/trek7.

New roof, new life in Haiti

By Steve Spellman

I laughed as I watched the little boy’s mother jump into Anne-Marie’s arms.

Anne-Marie Johnson is part of our GlobalFingerprints Haiti leadership team and had come to visit the boy’s home. Anne-Marie had never met the child before. She had never met the mother before. She had never been to this home before. So what was it that caused this mother to almost knock Anne-Marie to the ground at first sight?

Some three months before, a family in the United States began sponsoring the boy through the GlobalFingerprints program. Two weeks later, the boy’s Haitian supervisor, Evans, visited him for the first time. Per his monthly routine, Evans evaluated the boy’s medical, nutritional, educational, spiritual, and general living situation. By the end of that day, he was talking to the Haitian leadership team about the unique and urgent need in the boy’s home.

Evans knew something was seriously wrong the minute he walked into the home. Yes, the family is very poor and lives in a tiny two-room house in one of Port au Prince’s slums. But that was not the issue. The issue was that he could see the sky through the numerous holes in the tin roof. The mother later told Evans that during the rainy season, the family passed many a night standing up in a corner of the room because their bed (a moldy cushion on the floor) would be underwater.

The cost for the repair was only $400, but that this six months’ salary for most Haitians.

Our Haitian team immediately allocated money for the roof repair from their emergency fund. At the same time, the program was given a one-time gift of $150 from a church in Chile. Within two weeks, materials were delivered. Soon afterward, a construction worker, the Haitian head of GlobalFingerprints, and the mom worked together to remove the old tin and wood slats and replace them with a whole new structure.

The mother had no idea that this would be part of the program’s commitment to her child. And so on this day, Anne-Marie had the joy of virtually being tackled by a thankful mother — a mom who was able to sleep through last night’s rain storm safe and dry for the first time in years.

P.S. The GlobalFingerprints Haitian team should have that moldy cushion issue solved by the end of this month!

Colleague Close-up: Jennifer Blevins

For the next several months, ReachGlobal Latin America/Caribbean will feature Q&A biographies on our newest staff members from Mexico to South America. Staff journalist Lincoln Brunner recently asked Jennifer to fill us in on herself and her new ministry in Haiti.

Jen BlevinsWhere are you from originally?

I have lived my whole life – until now – in Minnesota. I went to college in southeast Minnesota, worked for a year in northeast Minnesota, but otherwise have always lived in the western suburbs of Minneapolis. I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to do some traveling that has shown me more of the world, but am also happy to call Minnesota home.

Tell us a little bit about your spiritual journey to Christ.

I have been a Christian since age 6.  I remember kneeling down beside my bed one night and asking Jesus to come into my heart.  I was fortunate to be part of a loving, Christian family as well as a solid church with a thriving youth group in which I became highly involved and quite passionate.  And yet, I don’t think my faith was truly personal yet – it wasn’t fully my own.

I say this because college not only brought with it my moving away from home, but also an unintentional moving away from God.  I never stopped believing in God, I just wasn’t doing much of anything to maintain a relationship with Him. I was basically living my life apart from God.  I tried to do things on my own.   I tried to find the love and acceptance I was looking for through achievements and in other people, and those things became the priority in my life instead of God.  Most of the things I was doing and people I was spending time with were good, but they could never totally give me what I was looking for.  And, unfortunately, that search for love and acceptance led me into some relationships that I knew God didn’t want me to be in.  So, I tried to compartmentalize my life – separate what I was doing and my relationships from my faith in God.

But God kept pursuing me!  Nothing could ever fill the place in my heart that belonged to Him.  So, after many years of trying to do things my way, I finally gave up, made some hard choices, and re-focused my life on God.

I still mess up sometimes and try to do things on my own.  But I know that I am forgiven because of Jesus and that God loves me unconditionally, just as I am.  I no longer feel like I’m living two separate lives, but desire to live fully for God.  With Jesus in me, I have a peace that passes understanding and a hope for the future.

How long have you been there in Haiti?

I have been in Haiti for seven months now. I arrived February 5, 2013.

How did you get to Haiti? Can you walk us through your journey from where you were to where you are?

You sometimes hear stories of people who heard a missionary speak at their church when they were a small child and, from that point on, they knew they, too, were going to be a missionary someday.  Well…from the time I was a little girl, I always wanted to be a teacher.  And that’s what I have been.  For the past 17 years I have been living that dream I had when I was young.  And it is great – I love teaching 7th grade life science.  I know – some of you are thinking, “Who in the world can love teaching 7th graders?!”  But I really do.  And yet, five years ago when I was on a week-long mission trip down to New Orleans to help do some cleaning up and rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, a little voice inside me said, “I could do this.”

You see, I was meeting people who went down to New Orleans just for a few weeks to help out, and they ended up staying for six months or a year or were even working out how they could stay on indefinitely.  For the first time in my life I wondered if God might be leading me to long-term missions.

I came back from that trip with many questions:  “God I know you want us all to live our lives missionally, but where is my mission field?  Is it in New Orleans?  Is it somewhere overseas?  Or is it supposed to be in my 7th grade life science classroom?  God, where do you want me to be so I can serve you best?”  At the same time, God was opening my eyes and my heart to the great need in the world.  I knew that just as there were people in need in New Orleans and in so many third-world countries, there were also those in need right in my community and even in my own church body.  But I also saw people with the skills, money, time, and resources to help.  What a great way to show the love of Christ to others!

So I started serving more at church and in the community, and I kept going on missions trips.  And that little voice inside me kept growing.

More and more I was thinking about the possibility of leaving teaching and going somewhere to serve.  But I didn’t know where I would go, or with who, or what I would do.  More and more I was talking about it with God and with other people. And God spoke to me through a wise friend.  She told me that maybe, since I’d been thinking about this for so long and since God hadn’t given me a definite “no”…maybe He was waiting for me to take a step of faith.  And she reminded me that God would be faithful to show me the next step – maybe it would be continuing on in the same direction I was traveling or maybe it would be turning me back around the other way, but God would guide my steps if I just asked Him and trusted in Him. [Psalm 25:12 and Isaiah 30:21].

So, I took a step and contacted someone with ReachGlobal.  And that step led to an e-mail containing an initial application…which I decided I would open and “see how bad it looked.” Eventually, God’s next steps for me led to a request and then approval for a leave of absence from my teaching job…which led to the completion of the full application and ultimate acceptance to serve for 23 months.

What gives you the most joy as you look around you in Haiti?

The joy and love of the people.  Even though they have so little, their smiles are so bright and they are so warm and loving.  I especially love the children waving and calling out “blan” (white person) to me as I am walking or driving down the road with big smiles on their faces. Better yet, I love it when I hear them call out my name in their sweet way: “Jeneefeh!”

How would you describe the challenges you face there?

One of the challenges I face is how to best balance my time.  I get the privilege of serving with several partners here in Haiti, so it is my desire to continually work to maintain and deepen those relationships…as well as consider new partnership possibilities. At the same time, I also get to work with lots of short-term teams that come down to serve with us for a week or so at a time. I consider this part of my ministry, and it is a blessing to me to spend time with them. However, I also have a number of other responsibilities that my role entails (planning the menu, buying groceries, paying employees, doing the bookkeeping, managing the house and vehicles, etc.). Thus, it can be a challenge to balance all of that.

Another big challenge I face is dealing with the incredible poverty I see and knowing how to handle all the requests I receive. Pretty much every day I have people asking me for something – food, money, a job, a better home (instead of the small Samaritan’s Purse shelter they’ve been living in with their whole family since the earthquake in 2010), etc. And they all really need these things. But I/ReachGlobal can’t possibly meet every need of every person. Nor do I/we want to just create dependency. So I definitely need to continually seek God’s wisdom, discernment, and strength for how to respond.

Please tell us about something that made you laugh recently, and something that broke your heart.

Something that made me laugh: Playing the “Wop” game with a group of kids who were just really having a fun time and belly laughing. I can’t help but laugh along!

Something that made me cry: Seeing the tears roll down the face of a little boy at one of our partner orphanages as he was showing me the skin infection that had returned again. I’m not sure if the tears were out of embarrassment, shame, sadness due to being ostracized, frustration at the infection returning or what. But all I could do was hug him and tell him I love him no matter what, shed some tears myself, and pray for him.

What would you tell someone who is considering ministering in Haiti?

Haiti, as a whole, is so poor economically…and in some ways spiritually. However, the Haitian people are incredibly rich relationally and many maintain a strong faith in the midst of huge daily struggles. We have a lot we can learn from them.

Ministry Opportunities in Haiti

ReachGlobal has many immediate ministry opportunities in Latin America. Today’s focus is on Haiti. Read over the following and ask the Lord where He might have you serve!

For more information, write to latinamerica@efca.org.

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Map / http://d-maps.com/m/america/haiti/haiti76.gif

1) Global Fingerprints Coordinator. Global Fingerprints – Haiti is our growing child sponsorship program in the region of Port au Prince.  With more than 200 children currently sponsored, we need a U.S. coordinator (we currently have a capable logistics director overseeing the day-to-day operations of GF-Haiti).  As the program grows, the need for someone strong in church relations, vision casting and strategic decision-making with our Haitian partners will become more vital.

2) Youth-oriented leader (disciple-making and leadership development). More than half of all Haitians are under the age of 24, and as such, there are tremendous opportunities among our partners and in our target community for energetic leaders with gifts and skills working with both children and youths.

The United Nations directional team for rebuilding  Haiti coined a term for what they perceive as the long-term need in Haiti. That word is accompaniment.  It simply means walking with our brothers and sisters in a 15- to 20-year process. No, you don’t have to sign up for a 15-year commitment; but do you love youths and children?  Would you be committed to working with out team as we walk alongside them, all for the sake of gospel transformation?

3) Short-term interns. With myriad short-term teams coming from the U.S., Brazil, the Czech Republic and elsewhere, there are constant opportunities for people willing to serve for three to 12 months alongside our long-term staff in the coordination and hosting of short-term teams in Haiti.  In addition, internships in Haiti will provide opportunities to minister and serve with our partner ministries.