Classic service trip stuff right.
- I mean, a group of relative strangers goes on a long road trip from Waterloo, ON to Jamestown, CO.
- 22 hours of driving brings out the best and worst in all participants, and through various harrowing border and fast food experiences we become super tight and we haven't even got to our destination yet.
- Once we arrive there, we are heartbroken to learn about the experiences that the people of Jamestown have gone through, whether its hearing the story of how their friend died in the flood, or how their homes and belongings were all washed away, or about the tragedies that fell upon them even after the flood took place.
- Then, we go to work for the week building homes and leave feeling great about ourselves and the work that we've done and then we head home, bursting with self-righteousness, stories of the people that we've met, and general endorphin inducing anecdotes that by the next few days will fade into memory and we'll be back into our privileged, natural disaster free lives once more.
I tried to make that sound real cynical.
Because I know that's how a lot of people view short term service trips. I once recall having a conversation with someone (well-meaning to be sure) who had the gall to quasi-lecture me (I, an international development student, who ponders these questions much more than they could know) on how short-term trips like this aren't really all that effective, and are really all for the benefit of the people who are going on the trip.
And I think it's fair to think that.
Looking at the prolific nature of the philanthropic tourism of Me to We or the countless short term mission trips to various developing countries worldwide, there are lots of easy examples of both people and projects that we can look to and think, "yup, this is really all about Western people feeling good about themselves by going and helping those who are 'less privileged' to become more privileged."
And I think it's fair to critique this.
I mean, it's imperative to be critical of these trips, their effectiveness, and what they're actually meant for. If not, we find ourselves at danger of letting the idea of a 'service trip' become a static mask for something that is actually dynamic, where intentions change, and purposes change depending on context and time and space.
So sure, you're going to build wells for a community in Kenya. That's fantastic, but what is the subtext that lies beneath what you're doing? How are you treating the culture you're interacting with? How are you treating the people you're interacting with? A close self-reflection using questions like this help to reveal a lot of things that are moving and constantly changing behind the simple task of "building wells in Kenya," exposing both the flaws and positives of a project.
This kind of critical examination has prompted many people to look at service and mission trips as a cross-cultural experience that really is just another form of tourism, as Yale student Sam Massie comments for the Christian Science Monitor, "There was a sort of novelty to [working alongside poor people]."
Because it's kind of, you know, super hip and cool and an example of just how 'cultured' you are.
And you know what, all the flak that missions and service trips get is fair. And I think a lot of people, especially in particularly insulated church and political settings need to be constantly examining themselves when it comes to this.
But you know what, I think short term missions, or service trips, are great.
You know why? Because once you're there, once you've met the people that you meet, and do the work that you're there to do, you realize that nobody neatly fits in the categories you think they do. Not every Kenyan is starving and needy. Not every missions trip goer is an on-fire-for-Jesus Christian who can't stand to be around icky poor people when it actually gets down to it. All the stereotypes and the pre-conceptions fall away when you're actually there.
You meet people, you invest in them, even for a short bit of time, and you work hard.
It's so much more simple when you're there, but most importantly, you have to be there.
You can second guess and be critical all you want of the importance and relevance of service trips and missions trips. But a whole lot of that critique is baseless when you haven't gone on any yourself.
And you may think it isn't baseless, and that "your objective opinion can help shed some light on this situation," but I think what I'm saying is that that kind of opinion can be very affected by actually going out and doing a trip.
Maybe that opinion will change. Maybe it will stay the same. Regardless, critiquing service and missions trips is important, but please, go on one first.
I had an amazing time this past week in Colorado, meeting new people, strengthening old friendships, creating new friendships, and doing work for people who couldn't stop telling me how without our team volunteering our time, they wouldn't be getting a home to live in.
Its these small connections that make it for me, that evidence of the great impact that we, an unskilled team from Waterloo, can have in people's lives. And it wasn't the fact that we were building a house for them, or that we travelled so far that seemed to stick with them.
It was that we cared enough about people we never met to go out and do it.
It's that kind of connection that you only realize and feel when you're there and interacting with those that you're working for and with. And it's what makes it worth doing every time. At least for me.