In this blog series, Christian and I will try to unpack some of the issues around short-term mission trips
We’ll be using my experience as a trip organizer and leader as backdrop, and if he’s worth his salt, Christian will poke some significant holes in my own motivations as a leader.
After several months in my job as Missioner for Youth Formation and Vocation in the Diocese of Ottawa, I noticed something. I noticed a clear lack of ministry amongst young adults. It was happening in an ad-hoc way, but there appeared to be few opportunities for young adults to gather, to explore their faith and its connection to the common good.
A number of thoughts went through my mind about how to respond to this challenge. Top of the list was to journey with a group of young adults to visit friends in the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana. My friend, the Rev. Rich Clark – a priest in that diocese – had invited me to bring a group of young people. With an open invitation, a knowledge that there would be friendly faces on the other end, and that it could be a great opportunity to learn and grow, we began planning the trip.
It had been several years since our diocese had organised such a trip, and it turned out being something that caused a great deal of excitement. In the end, we had 10 participants who fundraised or self-funded their trip. Our delegation included two leaders – myself and a mission-minded priest from our diocese.
The trip was framed as both pilgrimage and work trip. We were going to explore, to listen, and to help. We took Jeremiah 29:5-7 as our theme verses:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce…Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
The Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, in response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, had responded by setting up Episcopal Community Services. ECS started a rebuilding program, amongst other things, focusing on helping those who were most vulnerable in the situation.
While many groups came to help, demanding sweat equity, Episcopal Community Services focused on “giving for the sake of giving,” and working specifically with men and women, entire families who did not have the ability, due to age, distance or mental health challenges, to put in the sweat equity that many organisations required of them.
And so, our trip was scheduled around an opportunity to meet Christians engaged in this work of rebuilding and reconciliation, along with an opportunity to lend a helping hand. We worshipped at All Souls Episcopal Church in the Lower 9th Ward, a church that met in an abandoned pharmacy-turned community space. We walked the Lower 9th, and met a community organiser who forever changed our perspective.
He changed our perspective on the trip, and he contributed great insight into the reality of life in the Lower 9th. He dispelled myths, and shared his own story of God’s call from self-gratification to sacrificial service. He set the tone for our experience.
Whether our encounter was accidental or divine providence, meeting Mack and the Lower Ninth Ward Village community was formative. It caused us to reflect deeply on God’s call to justice, and on the ways in which such a call can bring us out of our own self-satisfaction to seek the common good in ways we had not previously experienced.
These experiences can be profound for any number of reasons. We’ve been taken from our own carefully guarded comfort zones. We’re encountering new people and places. We don’t have the same illusion of control over our interactions, our schedules or what might come next. We have decided to go to a place where we must start by listening, where we must start by learning from those for whom this place is home.
At the end of our time in this place, after this experience, we may get to return home. Yet we need to recognise that for those amongst whom we serve, this is home.
How will we understand this storied place if we impose our own narratives upon it? How will we understand what God’s up to without the constant reminders from peoples’ lived experiences of consolation and desolation?
These types of trips challenge us, and they challenge our assumptions. At their best, they cause us to listen more deeply. We don’t understand the context into which we’ve parachuted. And how could we, we’ve just arrived on an airplane from another country?
Yet even with this acknowledgment, there are times when we take these trips cavalierly, expecting to change someone else’s world – a world that, at the end of the day, we don’t have to live in.
Our group experienced and participated in some minute, but, I expect, significant change. That change is expressed most decidedly in the fact that an elderly woman would be able to return to her home and to her neighbourhood sooner. And we did feel as though something was being accomplished.
Yet even so, the questions always arise…was what we did worthwhile? If it was, in what way? Did we do any harm or disservice even as we served?
It’s not always easy to tell.