What A Mission Trip Isn’t

I am a natural skeptic. 

Two days ago at 6:00 AM, my JetBlue flight from Kingston, Jamaica arrived at JFK International Airport. I was worn and tired, having gone without sleep since 6:00 AM the day before. After nearly a week, my stint as a short term missionary in the Carribean was over.

Before departure the Monday before, I expected nothing from the week that awaited me. I thought I would see some kids, plant some flowers, maybe paint a wall – but I knew I wouldn’t experience a great spiritual impact in any way.

Why?

Because I was skeptical of short term mission trips. 

My primary exposure to short-term missions (STM) was this: College girl goes on an STM, paints a wall that a local person could do (for steady pay), takes some pictures with local kids (posts on Instagram, of course), returns home, gushes about how “This trip changed me, not the people I went to serve.”

Okay, sweetie.

So, when I signed up with a local Catholic young adult group to go to Jamaica on a short term mission trip, more than one person expressed their surprise at my decision. After all, I’ve spent many breaths decrying the expenses associated with STMs that could be used to directly benefit career missionaries as well as the local poor in many destination countries.

To me, at least, spending $2500 to go to Central America just so you can dig up dirt and build a fence seemed foolish. Just send the $2500 instead. Also, don’t forget the number of unskilled people that travel on STMs to perform skilled labor. Never built a house while living in suburbia? Never worked on a construction site? Surprise! You still can’t do it in Guatemala. It’s not a skill handed out after passing through immigration.

Yet, I signed up because something told me it was the right thing to do. Despite my intellectual qualms and hesitations regarding STMs, I took a chance that just didn’t make sense. Also, as a recent convert to Catholicism, the lack of Catholic evangelization deeply troubles me. I wanted to help remedy this, so I took the step, paid my fees, and booked my flight. I asked God to show me why I was doing this, and He showed up.

My week in Jamaica wrecked me in a way I never expected. 

When you ask Jesus to show up, He will without hesitation. It was humbling, as I asked for this divine show and expected only a paltry response from the King of the Universe. (Perhaps this is something I will write about later).

And while this past week positively wrecked my soul for the Lord, I still haven’t thrown overboard all of my hesitations for STMs. There are many things that an STM is, and there are at least three things an STM isn’t.

Let’s take a look at what it isn’t. 

1. A short term mission isn’t an opportunity for you to romanticize the poor and/or poverty. I get it. It’s humbling to see how the majority of the world lives without access to the luxuries we consider everyday necessities. It’s tempting to say, “These people have nothing, yet their faith is so strong,” and then assume that poverty is equal to righteousness. Yes, the Sacred Scriptures tell us time-after-time that we are to care for the poor in our midst and to store our treasures in Heaven. But…

we fail to remember that poverty is not a virtue. 

No one gets to Heaven faster because they are poor. It doesn’t work that way.

Poverty, coupled with a lack of access to healthy food, water, and quality education, makes life very difficult. It often shortens lifespans and causes grief, whether it’s here in the United States or abroad. Again, it’s tempting for us to see enthusiastic Christians in poorer countries and to assume that “Well, it can’t be that bad, look how happy they are for the Lord!”

Life is tough, and it’s tougher when you lack access to basic needs. When serving on a short term mission, take care to realize that poverty is not a pastoral, idyllic condition. It’s hard, it’s tough, it’s real.

2. A short term mission isn’t an opportunity for you to project your standards on to another population. The group I traveled with was, and is, amazing. We worked well together, helped those we came to serve, and knew the work would be tough.

Not at one time during the week did I hear anyone complain about how different our temporary standard of living was. It was refreshing to work with a positive, upbeat crew of young adults.

At the same time, it’s tempting as humans, when removed from our “normal” situation to view the differences of our new settings as inconvenient, or even bad. Lights go out for most of the day? What kind of horrid place is this? The locals don’t show up on time for an event with a clear starting time? Don’t they know it’s rude to be late? Children clamor to hold your hand? Do these kids know anything about personal space? 

Mission trips tend to slay, or at least temper, our perceptions about how we should live our lives. As it turns out, there’s more than one way to exist on our blue planet. As a short term missionary, it’s not yours, or my, job to think we’re there to change the local group’s perception of time, personal space, or standard of living. Service, and not necessarily change, is paramount. Which leads to the fact that…

3. A short term mission isn’t an opportunity for you to change the world. Those of us who go on STMs are the type that believe we can be a force for good, and frankly, many of us are dreamers. Since my youth, I knew I wanted to “change the world” in some way, shape, form or fashion. I suspect that many who sign up, and serve, on STMs are the same way. We believe that change in the name of the Lord Jesus is possible for anyone, anywhere.

Yet, an STM isn’t an opportunity for you to leave your mark on the world.

Let’s be honest: Those you come in contact with probably won’t remember what you said, or even what you did, but they will remember your presence. They will remember that you showed up in a place that is far from your own home and probably very unfamiliar.

For example, during my time in Jamaica, I performed in a skit about the life of St. Francis around seven times – and six of those times in the classroom for young school children. Will the kids remember what we said about St. Francis? Probably not. Will they remember that we came to their school, sang some songs, and played some games out on the school lawn? Absolutely.

Working for God is a task in accepting small, incremental change. Your STM team will probably not see the fruit of your labor immediately. Don’t expect mass conversions and convictions on the spot because you were there for four days and put up a fence. Can it happen? Yep. Will it happen? Probably not.

As short-term missionaries, our job is to plant the seed, water the existing seeds, and let the Holy Spirit do His work. It’s critical that first, we put aside any grandiose expectations for change and second, get out of God’s way. He’ll do the work in His time. We just have to be willing. 

***

Finally, before this trip, I would have discouraged anyone from going on an STM. As stated, I thought missions were wasteful, vacation-like ventures that served as little more than Instagram fodder for doe-eyed Christians seeking out a feel-good experience.

Thankfully, I was wrong. 

If you haven’t already, I would encourage you to seek out and actually go on a short-term mission trip where your skills and talents will be used to the maximum. Pray about it, ask God to show you what’s up, and go with it.

Despite my inhibitions, I listened and followed. I was happy and blessed during my time in Jamaica. However, will your experience be like mine? Maybe, maybe not. You may go and return from your mission and feel nothing. In fact, you may have a terrible experience. But, there is always a good chance you won’t have a terrible experience and your life will be marked forever.

I know that my time in Jamaica will stay with me for the rest of my life. And, in the words of every female on social media who’s ever gone on an STM, “This trip changed me, not the people I went to serve.”

Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.

Our Lady, Patron of Jamaica, pray for us.

*****

If you’ve ever gone on a short term mission trip, what was your experience? 

What are some other things a short-term mission trip isn’t? 

Are you skeptical like I was (and still am, a little) about the value of short-term missions? Why or why not?

Let me know in the comments below. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons From a Ragpicker

Though I am well-acquainted with the geography and history of East Asia, I never encountered the word ragpicker in my studies or travels. This changed when I read Fr. Paul Glynn’s The Smile of a Ragpicker: The Life of Satoko Kitahara, Convert and Servant of the Slums of Tokyo

At the heart of this biography, Satoko Kitahara is born and raised by her well-to-do Japanese family. She enjoys an education, and cultivates a love of poetry and fine art. However, the Second World War decimates the Japanese landscape and morale. Satoko, who once believed that Japan was the crown of the world, now sees her fellow countrymen defeated and in despair. After the war, day-by-day she drops her sister off at a local foreign, convent school. There, Satoko meets the Mercedarian sisters and develops an interest in Christianity. Sataoko, convinced of the truth of Christ (and to her parent’s dismay), converts to Catholicism.

Because of her new-found faith, Satoko  becomes interested in the people living in the local slums (called Ants Town because the people who lived there “worked like ants”).

Ven. Satoko Kitahara // catholicherald.co.uk

She visits Ants Town to volunteer a few hours per week, but soon, she realizes this is not enough. Satoko wants to mirror Christ who took on our humanity and also became poor. Because of her strong conviction, she eventually becomes a “ragpicker,” someone who sifts through garbage for scraps to sell. Leaving behind a life of wealth, comfort, and security, Satoko plunges into Tokyo’s most destitute neighborhood, only to die penniless and of tuberculosis at the young age of 28. Today, the young woman known as the “Dorothy Day of Tokyo” is on her way to sainthood, currently bearing the title Venerable Satoko Kitahara.

After reading Smile, I was left with many convictions churning in my heart. I thought for many days about God’s mercy and the mercy I offer to others. Often, as Christians, we are quick to say that “Yes, I show mercy to those who need it the most.” After all, it’s so easy to say we are merciful. We throw some coins in the can of a homeless person, we serve an hour a month at a soup kitchen, or we go to Mass regularly. We’ve gone on mission trips to other continents, painted walls, held children for a few hours, and then headed across the ocean to our own comforts.

I say this not to disparage volunteering in soup kitchens or participating in foreign missions, but rather to cast a light on how we think about mercy. In my personal experience, I’ve found that it’s much easier to show mercy to those with whom I don’t have a close relationship. For example, when I was in college, I went on a mission trip to Texas to conduct vacation Bible schools in low-income housing communities. It was easy for me to show mercy and “love on” those kids during that week because I didn’t have the baggage associated with them and their lives. In a similar vein, it’s easy to love kids in a slum living 5,000 miles away because, whether we want to admit it or not, we will eventually go back home to our normalcy.

But, it’s hard to love those who are closest to us. Simply put: We know too much about them. When you’re spouse is insufferable, it’s hard to love and show mercy to him or her. Perhaps there’s a co-worker who grinds your last gear, and you’d rather be sick than share an office space with him. Or maybe it’s your parents, who you think don’t listen to you enough or are maybe too overbearing. It looks like a brother or sister who takes advantage of you, or the family next door that has three kids who are just too loud. In these cases, mercy is very, very difficult.

When reading about Satoko’s life in Japan, I thought about how she served as a conduit of Jesus’ mercy to Tokyo’s most destitute. It would have been easy, effortless even, for her to ignore the plight of Ants Town. After all, she was educated and lived in a comfortable home. If she wanted to do good, Satoko could have easily went to a “proper” mission and sacrificed an hour or two a week.

But, she didn’t.

Rather, Satoko was wholly invested and merciful to those in her own backyard. While others in her elite neighborhood looked down on both her work and the citizens of Ants Town, Satoko gave her physical and spiritual life up for the most poor of Tokyo. But, though she was materially poor at the end of her life, Satoko experienced the richness of the many conversions to Catholic Christianity as a result of her witness. Ultimately, she was known as a “Japanese for the Japanese.”

I ask you: Today, to whom will you show mercy? Think about where you’re from and where you live. Will you be a Californian for Californians? Maybe you’ll be a brother to your sister, or a wife to your husband. A Canadian to Canadians. One does not need to venture very far to show mercy, or even to make an impact. Like Satoko, your ministry of mercy may be next door or down the street. Our Lord does not require a journey of thousands of miles to show His mercy  to others. Today, I pray that we may take the love that Christ has given us, and pass it along to those who are closest to our hearts.

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.  // Luke 6:36

O Font of Life, unfathomable Divine Mercy, envelop the whole world and empty Yourself upon us. //  The Chaplet of Divine Mercy