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Are Mission Trips an Equal Exchange?

It’s summer, which often means mission trips—trips to New York to feed the hungry, trips to India to wash feet, trips to South America to provide medical services and build schools. I know I will hear and read powerful stories told upon their return, stories of healing, joy and transformation. Inevitably, I will hear the statement: “We went to serve them, but instead they served us.” 

At these words, my cynicism will creep in and take over. I’ll note the surprise in their voices that these people actually had anything to give, a subtle hint at superiority. Yes, how could the poor and the underprivileged have even been able to serve? I’ll ask sarcastically. And then I’ll cringe—at my own negative attitude.

Though it seems a generational right, cynicism is overrated. I’ve fought it for years, as many of us have, wanting to open my heart to trust and optimism. I’ve tried to nod my head, say amen and confirm the implied deep humility of such statements. But my faux affirmation doesn’t work the way I wish it would.

Because to me, missionaries, or even local volunteers, sound somewhat confused when they mention that they found themselves on the flip side of servitude, astonished that the downtrodden have anything to reciprocate at all. This surprise is what makes me so uncomfortable—because it sounds latently condescending. Though unintentional, it appears to strip fellow humans of their dignity.

Then again, it’s not their fault. Secular society has raised us to believe that a human’s net worth is directly tied to their bank account. This problem is compounded by the evangelical misconception that material blessing somehow translates to God’s blessing. We’ve all heard it: “God blessed us with a car,” or, “God blessed our family with the perfect home.”

So, we western-bred missionaries and volunteers arrive at our destinations with our grand plans to help the less fortunate with purchasable materials and resources we believe we have been blessed with to possess. And if the downtrodden have nothing, or very little, of material or monetary origin to offer, how could they possibly bless us in return?

Oh, but here’s the catch: Blessings aren’t material.

Titus 2:11 says, “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.”

Since there is nothing apart from Jesus that offers salvation, and blessings are evidence of grace, I take this to mean that all blessings begin and end with Jesus. It seems plain in this verse that blessings do not speak of material things, but spiritual life in Christ. It also seems plain that Jesus came and leveled the playing field—His grace is available for everyone, no exception.

The people we aim to serve often know this, because they were likely stripped of worldly stuff long ago. They know that grace comes in relationship, not resources. So, when a mission team shows up at their home, they look at us with the perspective of a common human spirit—the capacity to love and appreciated, to be loved and to be appreciated. They see past the man-made, money-bought extensions of ourselves, exposing our God-given ability to connect with others.

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They already know what we have to learn—that we can both give to each other.

If we allow it, their self-giving can melt our egos, and reveal our true selves. Then, all we can do is accept their gift and reciprocate in what becomes an equal exchange of spirit. And maybe we’re not so much caught off guard by their grace as we are reminded, because deep down, we already knew that all the extraneous stuff never blessed us to begin with.

Mother Teresa once said, “There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.” What she is saying rings true today—showing each other true grace comes first, and everything else, no matter how important, is secondary.

Perhaps I have been wrong all these years, every time someone I know returns fresh from the mission field. Perhaps the apparent surprise at spiritual reciprocation isn’t condescending, maybe it’s actually a declaration that the human-made veil has dropped. It is truly a humbling experience to be reminded that our material goods and store-bought skills were never the real blessing, but merely supplemental to the spirit we all share. So, maybe, instead of cringing the next time I hear this oft-repeated phrase, I will nod in agreement because I’ll know our fellow human friends met each other in an equal exchange of dignified grace.

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