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What Not to Say About Your Mission Trip

What Not to Say About Your Mission Trip

A year ago as I began preparing to spend four months traveling in Africa, people who learned of my plans regularly commented…

A year ago as I began preparing to spend four months traveling in Africa, people who learned of my plans regularly commented on the high temperatures I could expect. After all, we Americans may not know much about Africa, but we do know it’s hot there. The word Africa is nearly synonymous with sun, right? Yet as my trip-planning reached the nitty-gritty of figuring out which clothes I needed to take with me, my research left me increasingly concerned that I might actually be cold in Africa. Is that possible?

And this was the beginning of my experience with crumbling stereotypes. One studied glance at a world map should easily suggest, if one thinks about it at all, that all of Africa cannot be always hot. Africa is a massive continent (as are most continents, I suppose), and much of it extends far below the equator, and that doesn’t even take into account such things as varied elevation and weather patterns. And if one looks closer than a glance, you can discover that Nashville, Tennessee, the launching point for my Africa adventures, lies roughly equal in latitude to northern Africa. Yet my Tennessee friends expected Africa to be hotter than home. In the end, Nashville experienced a particularly warm autumn last year, and I’m guessing the people back home lived in a hotter average temperature during those four months than I did. To be a little fair, my visit to some parts of Africa coincided with their cooler season. But that’s just it, there’s a cool season. In the highlands of Kenya, it was so cold I struggled to get warm enough to sleep well at night.

Africa’s More than That

I returned from Africa burdened but perhaps not by the usual things. Courtesy of the writing projects that took me there, I spent four months meeting and listening to a wide range of people living in seven of the continent’s countries: rural women and urban men, government managers and people living in the parking lot behind a liquor store, Christians and non-Christians, well-educated people and barely educated people, wealthy and poor. I came away convinced that the Africa we think we know in America, the Africa that is a charity case, the Africa that’s always in turmoil, the Africa composed only of poor people, is an unfair, incomplete and closed-minded stereotype. It’s a stereotype that often keeps us from engaging the continent and its people as fellow humans, as equals.

This reality is particularly egregious in the church. Helping Africa is a popular cause these days. And it is right that we should care for people there, for victims of poverty and injustice. However, I posit that in our helping we often perpetuate these incomplete stereotypes; we keep ourselves safely in the smug power position of the perpetual giver, and we keep Africa in the lesser position of constant receiver.

Short-term mission team members often return with reports of poverty and small houses and of people who are joyful and hospitable despite their poverty. Unfortunately, those adjectives are often condescending code words for “people who are too naïve to notice how much they don’t have” or “we’re trying to say nice things about them even though we don’t view them as equals.” It’s rare for a team to return with a report of all the thoughtful people they met who are aware of and working to help solve the needs of their community. And that’s not because these people are hard to find in places like Africa.

We Can Do This

There are some good trends happening these days in the way churches are doing missions. More and more American churches are building long-term partnerships with churches and communities in other countries. Sometimes these American churches bring the pastor of their partner church to the States to preach to the American congregation, facilitating a real sense of shared exchange and mutual growth. This is fabulous. However, most congregations remain disconnected from the people in these foreign churches and continue to view them as a type of charity case rather than as equal brothers and sisters in Christ called to bear Christ’s image with us. The more we can see our investment in places like Africa as partnership, the better; the more we can view it as sharing our resources with equal partners who benefit from those resources, the better; the more we are open to receiving back, the better.

It would also be better to adequately prepare church members who are able to visit these partner churches and communities. Preparation should encourage them to look for similarities between themselves and their cross-cultural hosts rather than differences. Preparation should provide them with tools for seeing beyond the traditional stereotypes and should encourage them to look deeper than “they have less stuff than we do.” Preparation should encourage them to try to erase categories of “us” and “them.” Preparation should teach them how to listen to their hosts rather than entering the country with a savior complex. Preparation should encourage them to be less of a tourist examining cute cultural artifacts and more of a guest in a really big home and should teach them how to be good guests in that home.

The book A Mile in My Shoes by South African pastor Trevor Hudson was one of my traveling companions during my Africa months. A very good companion it turned out to be. Hudson speaks well of learning to be present, of learning to listen, of encountering suffering and hope. Resources such as this book are good resources for mission teams to read together as they prepare to experience other cultures and ways of life.

Mostly unintentionally and unconsciously, I hope, much of the American church has viewed other cultures and their inhabitants as being less than our own and less than us.

Unfortunately, instead of changing this, cross-cultural experiences and mission trips often perpetuate this mind-set. It doesn’t have to stay that way. The tools for healthier engagement of people who live differently than we do are available, and the American church is increasingly equipped to learn to be wiser and more humble as it engages the world outside America’s borders.

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