Friday, July 23, 2010

Another Look at Helping: A Follow-up to the Honduras Post.

Since I wrote that last post about "short term missions," I have received quite a bit of feedback.

The vast majority of it has been along the lines of "fair" and "harsh."

Both of these are true and while my intention was fair and not so much harsh, I don't seem to have a lot of control on the harshness, and I'll tell you why.  My best writing comes when I am very emotional or angry about something.  There were many things in there I felt very strongly about and still do and I apologize for anyone's feelings, but there are more important things than feelings.

The truth is more important than feelings.

And the truth is that after fifty years and billions upon billions of dollars of "aid" to places like Africa, our heavenly minded efforts have yielded little more than dependence.

We're doing it wrong.

And I'm not even talking about evangelism here, most of those places where humanitarian aid is being dispensed have been or are being evangelized.  But it's hard to learn anything on an empty stomach.  We need to fix the empty stomach, and not just by filling it today, but teaching how to fill it for a life time.

My mentor sent me a link to a trailer for the movie "What are we doing here?"  I am very strongly looking forward to watching it.

You see, far more than the expected "fair" and "harsh" returns I got from that post are all the people who I'm finding have already come up with this same stuff on their own.  On the suggestion of a friend of mine, I have decided not to go on short term group trips anymore.  Rather, I'll go on trips with just me or a couple of close friends or family members.

I feel a movement coming.  A movement of humanitarians who have seen that the easy "throw money at it" solution doesn't work and that the real solution requires a lot of hard thinking, planning, doing, and then rethinking.  A movement of people who know that the benevolent white man doesn't always know best.  I see a movement of people who care where all this is going and who don't simply feel better because the check is in the mail to some "help the poor starving children" fund with high overhead.

I know I get cynical.  I am cynical.  I doubt everything.  Someone has to.  But as you might be able to tell, I'm also an unsinkable optimist.  It's a fantastic dichotomy I know.  It's hard to deal with sometimes, but we're not here for things to be easy.  The most damaging things in life are often really easy to do.  The most beneficial are often very hard.

So stick with me here,

and do the hard thing.


Friday, July 16, 2010

Honduras 2010: Disillusioned with Short Term Missions

From July 5th to July 12th, I went to Honduras for a short term mission trip.  My projects were a dental clinic and installing Hydraid water filters.  But on a deeper level, I went to find what my role in missions is.  I haven’t felt called to be a missionary like others have, and I wanted to see what my options were because I do believe in the great commission.  Moreover, I have just read the book “When Helping Hurts” and it had seriously shaken my whole concept of how missions works.  In fact, if I hadn’t already paid for the trip, I probably wouldn’t have gone because I knew I wasn’t in the right place.

Before I get into the nitty gritty theological, practical, and philosophical results of my trip, I’d like to allow you to read my journal from the time I was there.  The following paragraphs were written on my iPhone and other than the usual spelling and grammar fixes, they are completely unedited.  If you are mentioned in the following paragraphs, do not take offense.  They were never written to spite or hurt anyone.  They are simply the truth the way I see it, me talking to me (and maybe you) about what’s going on.  I thought about censoring the names to keep from hurting people’s feelings, but I decided against it because it wouldn’t be as truthful.  If I pussyfooted around people’s feelings, I wouldn’t be who I am.  So, here it is, read through and try to follow the emotions and thoughts.

Flight in, watched “Up in the Air,” paid six bucks to watch TV on the plane.  Trip in was okay, stopped at Wendy’s for lunch. Team no longer eats at Opalaca’s for dinner due to possible food contamination.  I'm trying to be a good friend to Jim; I think he's my appointment.  Henry doesn't seem to know that I'm a co leader too, and I'm trying to be humble but it takes every thing I got to not tell him.  If God wants to make stuff happen he will. I'm not going to push the issue. Like I always said I will be recognized for what I am when God appoints it to be so.  When he wants me to do something or assume a position he will not allow it to happen until I'm ready. To be perfectly honest I was really passive in the whole planning phase and run-up and so don't really deserve the title and responsibility anyway. I am here to put in filters and pull some teeth.  That's what I’m here for and I'm not or shouldn't be all that concerned with any of the rest.  Three hours of sleep last night. Took a small disorienting nap before dinner. Dinner was carne asada. Leg hurts a bit but bearable without pills.  Still wondering what God will do to explain how missions are supposed to work. Eyes dry and tired.  Decided not to listen to a sermon tonight. Very happy with new phone battery life. Still haven't been able to burn past 30% could have but charged on the plane.

Well, made it past 30%, it's 28 as I type.  Took a mule in to the mountains today it was basically three hours of silence. It was time to think, sing, and encourage the mule to do a good job.  I've come to terms with not being included in leadership decisions; I'm okay with doing whatever God gives me to do.  Brent even asked me if I was okay, and I told him I was. It really comes down to just doing water filters and having fun with that. I guess practically that's all I really planned and wanted to do.  Also Ryan has been way more easy to deal with that I expected.  I was expecting him to be all type-a and whatnot but he's really pretty chill. We even had a really good conversation about heating and cooling and perpetual motion machines and stuff on the car ride up this morning. It has been raining almost nonstop since we left San Pedrito. Well see how it works tomorrow.

Rained much less today. Did clinic this morning, some really hard teeth. The dentist would grab onto them and they would just split and break in pieces. Then she would have to tear out the roots. One guy’s tooth she couldn't get after it broke off. That guy has to really be hating life right now. She sent him to the hospital I hope he goes. Wish there were more food to go around but I'm not starving. Not too dirty either. Laying down for a rest now.  Had a good nap until lunch time.  Had a good sharing time with the group this evening. The usual popcorn prayer and sharing and as usual I stayed silent. I don't know if I’m too cynical or what. Lord if you need to change me if this part of me is not good enough just change it. If not leave it alone. Tomorrow I will shine. We are installing the water filters. Two are going down to Agua Caliente. Well see how it goes but this is my initiative and my idea. If it goes well I'll continue down this road.  My battery is at 26% and I'm trying to conserve battery in the usual ways. It's never been dead before so there's no telling when exactly it will die.

Set up the filters today. I fear like everything else we've done they'll go unused and neglected. It seems the sand should have been washed. I visited the two plots we did the SALT on and they're completely neglected. The book was right. The white man shows up and tells the brown man what to do and when the white man leaves the brown man goes back to doing whatever he was before. It's really hard not to be cynical. Jim said that short term missions are for the white people. Missions should not be for the missionaries but the indigenous. I'm more able to see now how much more useful indigenous missionaries are. I don't know if I'm coming back this next year. I didn't really mesh with the leaders of the trip his year especially the shorter one. That reminds me. He pulled a really stupid white man stunt today. He was trying to fix the water and he went and cut off he threaded end of a perfectly good hose. Does he know how much that cost someone?  Here comes the selfish white man destroying our equipment just so the water comes out the end of the hose a little faster. Que estupido.  Then he went and had a little argument with the kid who kept changing the valve. That poor little kid was probably doing what his mother told him to because there was no water at their house. We’re going back tomorrow. I'm looking forward to it. I've purposely not read more than the last sentence of each day’s writing in here I want to come back to it and watch the natural evolution of my ideas and attitudes. I think I was trying to find out what God wanted to tell me about missions. I don't know what to think about what he's telling me but I am still not seeing very many positives to short term missions. In fact in the over all scheme of things I can't really think of one. Maybe medical clinics. They seem to be useful but our dentist was kinda mean.  The battery is now at 22% it's lowest ever. I'm going to probably send it with someone tomorrow to map the Jurassic park route, but I don't know how long it will last. 21 now. It's probably going to run all the way out. Then we’ll know two things.

It did run out after only an hour and a half. So now we know that 21% means an hour and a half on GPS. So I skipped the youth service this evening. I got interrogated by Ryan and Steve wanted clarification. Is another church service what I need right now?  I haven't gone to the youth service before so I'm not really concerned about it. Am I allowed to just not want to go?  I installed the last filter in the church in Monteverde. Didn't get to install the home grown one but I guess it's just another in a long line of things that didn't work here. The ride back was yet another serious stretch of silence on this trip. There have been too many. Perhaps God is trying to say something. The treatment of the mules in the mountains is morally and philosophically repugnant to me. Those back woods mule drivers beat the living shit out of those mules completely arbitrarily and it gets to be quite a nuisance when you're sitting on one while they're doing it. Last year I told people to expect me back this year. This year I haven't said that. In fact I've been hinting in the most ambiguous of terms that I won't be. If I feel called to do anything it's support the full timers here. It seems like [name withheld] is really having a rough time and I don't blame him/her. I've also hung out a lot with Jose and even though he's actually a full timer in Bangladesh he needs some love too. I want to go home. I don't belong here. Bit what is my role in missions?  I'm tired of everything being damp.

After the Lowman’s briefing tonight I'm feeling much more like I have a purpose as far as missions goes. It follows two initiatives that I feel very strongly about. First is education of women which is what Cindy does with Hope and a Future. Second is who are the most effective missionaries. The answer there being full time and indigenous. Indigenous are best of all. I want to support Jose and sponsor a girl to go to high school. I think this trip is starting to have some meaning. I had a long conversation with Brent and with Ryan even longer which started because I am weird and they were concerned about me. I shared my frustrations and musings on the trip and the whole idea of coming down here at all. I want to flesh that out when I have a full keyboard to write on. Tomorrow is the beach. Finally back to civilization. I miss my wife and son.

The main thing I learned this day is that I don't think God ever called me to go to Honduras. I've had great time here and I’ve learned so many things here but I don't really think God actually called me or told me to come to Honduras. He told me to become an engineer but he never told me to come to Honduras. Ryan told Henry about the conversation we had the other night and it seems to me that he kind of made it sound like I didn't accept Henry’s explanation about the SALT farms. He said it hadn't failed because it had never been tried. And from his perspective I can see how he could think that. But on the other hand from my point of view I used up thousands of dollars to come down here three separate times with a total of around seventy people to truly achieve none of our goals. The demonstration areas we started are all abandoned. It may not be a failure to him because it never got off the ground but if you think about it, an airplane that never gets off the ground is a failure.  I'm not a relationship builder and I think my lack of close friends attests to that. It's the way God made me. I'm a stuff builder and stuff doer. I build stuff and I do stuff. The stuff that we did in the mountains the time we spent teaching the farmers all the time we spent in preparation and everything we did from my perspective really came to nothing and the pictures I'm going to post when I blog this will show that. I know it's not just about doing things but remember I'm not a relationship builder. I'm just not. I know people, but I rarely make friends. The things I did in the mountains didn't stick. It's that simple. I don't really have another layer. As an engineer I take inputs and work out the expected results. If I don't get the results I’m looking for I adjust the inputs. I'm not getting the results I'm looking for therefore something’s being done wrong on the input end. Perhaps that's resulting from my lack of calling in this area. So I came into this thing with questions and now I’m coming out with more questions.

So that was it.  What do you think?

The rest of this post is my newly minted view on missions, and if you’ve read “When Helping Hurts” you’ll notice I’ve borrowed very heavily from those ideas and philosophies, but it is all based on things I’ve seen with my own eyes in the five-one week mission trips I’ve been on.

First, I’d like to delve into the issue of missions and short term missions.  What’s the purpose of missions?  The direct purpose of a mission is to reach out and lead new people to Christ.  Often this is coupled with humanitarian and other types of relief, aid and development.  In the past couple of decades, there has been a boom in short term mission trips, those that last say one or two weeks.  Though the official definition may include stays of up to a year, I’m gonna stick with the one month or shorter type that the vast majority of mission trips are. 

My question is this; do these achieve the goals of a mission trip?  I have it on good authority that as far as evangelism goes, a short term mission trip does absolutely zero.  The same goes for building relationships that might lead to a life change or conversion.  As far as relief, aid, and development go, short term mission trips rarely lead to more than a dependence on the “missionaries” by the indigenous people.  You get a bunch of white people coming on what basically amounts to a vacation and giving out all sorts of food, clothes, manual labor and even money to people all too ready to accept them.  Again, this creates dependence.  There is precious little time to make a friend and share the gospel, so giving things away takes their place.  Dependence is a very bad thing.  It leaves the person in a perpetual welfare state where their needs are filled by people who randomly show up and give them things.  What’s worse is that it seems that this assistance is predicated upon the person believing what they are told they should believe.  This does not result in a good communication of the gospel and the redeeming work of Christ, rather it tells the person that if they say the right things, they will get stuff.

One of the things the book talks about is not doing things for people that they can do themselves.  I have to admit, I’ve done this on every single “short term mission trip” I’ve ever been on.  For instance, when we took the youth to Mexico, what did we do?  We spent a week pouring concrete and moving dirt for a church that was already in existence and not particularly impoverished.  We weren’t even coming in contact with non-believers!  We each spent $800 to travel to Mexico and move dirt!  I don’t remember exact numbers, but I believe the total came to more than $20,000.  With that kind of money, a concrete truck and earth mover and crews to man them could have been hired to do the work that we did all in a single day and with $18,000 left over!  How much could that church have used such funding?

For the Honduras trip, we each paid $1600 and for about a dozen of us that totals nearly $20,000.  If we paid laborers ten dollars a day (a good wage) we could have hired 1000 guys for the two days of actual work we did in the mountains who could have built a bunch of houses, hauled tons of bricks, and probably built an entire soccer field using only shovels and machetes!

The next thing I want to talk about is the control the white people often assert over the natives in the mission field.  I think this is related to both the issues above.  The white people show up and start telling the brown people what to do.  The brown people do it because they know this is what they have to do to keep having white people show up and give them things.  I’ve done this before on my trips.  We showed up and sent out the word that the farmers were supposed to come and meet about a new farming technique.  They showed up, we educated them for an hour or two about SALT Farming (look it up, it’s a really good thing) and then we took them out in the field somewhere where we would attempt to start a SALT farm on their land.  Our group would direct and work with them as to how to do it.  It made for great pictures.  Look at us, we’re working with the natives.  The problem is, these projects failed.  They failed to get of the ground, they failed to be implemented, they failed to see any adoption, they failed to stick into the minds of the natives.  Five years (a week each) and perhaps a hundred thousand dollars worth of mission trips (three trips I was on) and here’s what our wonderful SALT farm looks like:

See, nothing.

One thing related to the control aspect that I saw this last trip was the hose debacle I mentioned in my journal.  What kind of selfishness does it take to show up and cut up some poor community’s only working garden hose?  What kind of unchecked arrogance allows a white guy to show up and demand that the natives in the mission field shut off their water so that he can have water flowing out on the ground day and night?  What kind of message does that send to the people?  How incredibly stupid is that?  It only reinforces the idea that the white guys show up, tell you what to do, you take it because you want hand outs, and then they leave.  It’s so moronic I don’t even have adequate words to describe it.  I’d have to type in all caps and use a lot of four letter words to really tell you how pissed off I was and still am about that.  It just amazes me how stupid and selfish people can be.  And it wouldn’t be such a big deal if it was some sort of nihilist or something, but a supposed Christian “missionary,” and a leader!  My God, it’s simply beyond comprehension.

Perhaps many of you have heard of business as missions.  That is where a person travels to the mission field to set up a legitimate business as an inroad to good immigration status and often employment for poor natives and a tool for evangelism.  As far as I have seen, this is a good idea, however very difficult to achieve success if success is defined as profit.  However, I’ve seen something else which is not really related but which I call “Missions as Business.” 

It goes like this:  A person or group of people decide to be missionaries and settle in a mission field.  But there is a lot of work to do, so they start hosting short term workers to help do the work.  Soon, they are spending an inordinate amount of time and energy hosting these “short term mission trips.”  I’m not saying that these trips are a bad thing, they are most helpful to the full time missionaries, but the whole point of this post is to try and make the distinction and to show that “short term mission trips” are not missions, and that the long term missionaries are the real missionaries.  I believe a proper understanding and application of this short term work is the solution to the balloon of “short term missions” and the burnout I’ve seen experienced by the real missionaries.  Remember, the boom of “short term missions” has not been followed by an equivalent boom in long term missionaries.

Another related term I have coined is “Vacations as Missions.”  Catchy right?  Every “short term mission trip” I’ve been on has had elements of a vacation rolled into it.  Why?  Well, they’re often trips taken during spring break, during summer, or other popular vacation times.  And how many people would really do these things if they were hell holes in and out?  Philanthrotourism, which is what many “short term mission trips” are, has recently come to the fore as a fund raising tool for non-profit organizations working in third world countries.  But again, what good is a tourist?  What good is someone who shows up and gives a bunch of stuff away?  Remember, most people who win the lottery end up further in the hole than they started.

It all comes down to leadership.  We have church leadership today who believes in “short term missions.”  There are really good leaders like the ones who wrote “When Helping Hurts” who hold “short term missions” at arms length.  And then there are those who think that “short term missions” are a really good thing.  Further, there are leaders who as far as airports go (or really anything really) has no idea what the **** is going on despite having done this multiple times before as I saw on my recent trip.  It’s the leaders who are truly accountable for all the things what go wrong, or simply don’t work.  They are accountable for leading the people to believe that they are evangelizing and spreading the gospel when they are actually on a working vacation.

Coincidently, that leads me to a related sidebar.  I told my neighbor what I had done on the trip and he immediately asked me if we “shared the gospel.”  I told him that yes, it was a mission trip and that we had held a few services while we were in the mountains.  But then I got to thinking how that mindset continues to play into force that “short term missions” is.  What is the usefulness of it?  Like I mentioned before, you can’t successfully evangelize anything when you are in a foreign country for a single week because you can’t make true friends.  If you are doing some sort of evangelization, it’s to feed your own need to do such a thing and not to actually save anyone.

One of the things the leader of the missions organization that hosted us told me was that he didn’t do “crusades” or “revivals.”  This is good, very good.  Do you know why?  Jesus said that the Pharisees laid heavy burdens on the people without lifting a finger to help them, and he said that if they did manage to convert someone, they were twice the son of hell that they were before.  The “short term missionary” is the Pharisee in this story.  If you show up, evangelize someone, get them to “pray to accept Jesus” and then leave, what have you done?  You have saddled them with a heavy burden (the work of understanding salvation and faith) and not helped them to carry it.  That’s why revivals have tens of thousands of individuals who “get saved” and then they come back and do it all again.  They have virtually no lasting impact, and neither does a “short term mission trip.”  It’s great business, but it’s not great for the kingdom.

One of the things that has often bugged me on “short term mission trips” has been the hyper-spiritualization of every aspect of the trip.  Every “sharing time” we had seemed like an opportunity for a select few people to practice their “what I did today and why Jesus likes me” speeches.  They were great at adding emphasis to the correct words and masters at dramatic pauses.  Before the last of these “debriefing” episodes I had to ask myself the question, “why are we having another one of these, we haven’t done a single ministerial thing since the last one?”  And it was no surprise that the exact same people who had done all the talking in the last three did all the talking in that one too.  What was the purpose?  Surely if they needed to vent their redundant feelings, they could have done it in the shower.

Everything I’ve seen and been told has shown me that a short term mission trip is basically for the value of the “missionary.”  It’s really a go and see type of thing.  But missions is supposed to be for the natives, not the missionaries.  What it ends up being is a couple of good things for the goers and a bunch of useless things and of little worth to the indigenous.  The good is that it exposes them to the world of missions, the stuff we read in the Bible and are supposed to be practicing on a day to day basis.  It afflicts the comfortable by showing them how the rest of the world lives.  And it gives people the opportunity to see real missionaries in action.  Hopefully it gives them a sense of what they should be doing to help.

On a side note, it’s very interesting to see conservative Christians go help the third world poor, give them all kinds of stuff and assistance, and then come back to the US and have such contempt for the poor here. 

That’s why I have decided to stop calling “short term mission trips” by their common name and instead call them by a more correct more descriptive name of what they really are.  So what are they?  Certainly short term missionaries fulfill a need and that need is assistance to the full time missionaries.  That’s all the need that is filled.  So why don’t we call it something like “missionary assistance expedition” or “missionary aid trip?”  How about “messenger support trip” or “field worker supply journey” or some variation thereof.

Here’s how it should work.  Missionaries go out as missionaries should and do what missionaries do.  People who are not willing or able or called to go out as full time missionaries should support the missionaries from home.  From time to time, or as often as possible, they should travel to the place where the missionaries are and help the missionaries do the missionaries’ work and support them personally and spiritually.  But if you don’t live in the mission field, YOU ARE NOT A MISSIONARY.  You are a temporary helper or a tourist.  You are not there to “build relationships” or “evangelize,” you are there to help the missionary in whatever he or she needs to do to build relationships and evangelize because you’re going home in a week anyway.  You should commit to return to help the missionary regularly.  You should read the book “When Helping Hurts.”  You should leverage your (and others’) time and money to achieve the greatest return possible rather than wasting it on vacations to make yourself feel better about your relative wealth.  And most of all, do it all for them, not for you.

Where shall I go for my next Missionary Assistance Expedition?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Another Jab at Libertarians

I especially like the Denial-ican.  That's to all those people who have voted Republican in every election and think that Republicans and Conservatives aren't the same thing.