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What My Two Year Old Taught Me About Mission Trips

By Christian Harvey

My son just turned two years old, and he always wants to be helpful. He loves unloading the dishwasher (though it results in a lot of dropped dishes), sweeping (which is a hazard to everyone) and stirring (which results in food everywhere). The other day he decided he wanted to help me. He noticed that my book was not with me in the washroom, and through observation had come to the conclusion that I always have a book in the washroom, so he decided to bring it and give it to me.

This is very considerate, except for the fact that I was in the shower. So while rinsing the shampoo out of my hair I hear “Here Daddy!” I tell him “just a second” so that I can get the soap out of my eyes, but I hear a weird sound; the water is hitting something. I look down and there is my son holding my book so I can take it, he doesn’t even notice the pages wilting under the water. He really had great intentions, he wanted to be helpful, but instead he ruined my book.

As I have talked about earlier so often this is what justice initiatives in youth ministry end up being. Our youth really want to help, they know there are troubles in the world and they want to make a difference, or we as youth workers want to wake them up to the huge issues out there, we want them to think outside of themselves, so we plan a missions trip, or a justice project, to do just that. The problem is that these projects end up being like holding the book under the shower, well intentioned, but ultimately harmful.

This is where people get frustrated. “Fine” they say “our missions trips aren’t perfect, but at least we are acting, we are doing something!” This is true, but I think that we are missing a really important piece that needs to take place before acting, and that is listening.

I am quite involved in anti-poverty work in my hometown of Peterborough, Ontario. One thing that I learned a few years back is before I get involved in any advocacy, in any program, I run it by my friends who actually live in poverty, because they are the ones who have to live with what I am advocating for. If we want to serve people, we first need to sit at their feet and learn from them, listen to their needs, allow them to dictate how we can help.

Often we do try and listen, but we do so by talking to the people who are paid to work with the poor, but not the poor themselves, or we talk to the western missionary who serves overseas, and not the people who are actually rooted there. This is a fine step, but this does not replace actually hearing from the actual people affected by our potential action.

When people ask me about KONY 2012 this comes to mind. I love that the video has raised up a passion in many young people to make a difference in the world. I worry though, that this specific action is like my son giving me my book in the shower, a well intentioned project that will do more harm then good. But my biggest reason for not supporting it is that from what I have seen and heard, it seems the Ugandan people don’t support it, think it is heading the wrong way. Their’s is the voice that really matters. They are the ones who should dictate what we do.

What if we in youth ministry, and church ministry in general took a break from missions trips for a couple years, and instead just listened. Allow those we are so anxious to serve to be our teachers, to hear what actually needs to be done, and what our role is. What would our justice work look like after such a hiatus? How would we be changed by such teachers?

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