Have you ever been on a mission trip? You know, the kind where a group of middle-class Americans goes to Mexico or Africa and works for a week or two, usually in very poor neighborhoods? Mission trips like these often have some kind of project the team can accomplish—building a house, digging a well, delivering clothing, food, or other resources. It’s a tangible, measurable problem we can solve in a short amount of time, and we are thrilled to be able to help.
Have you ever stopped to think about what it feels like to be on the receiving end of this kind of project? I mean, we generally assume that the people we’re helping are grateful, relieved, appreciative. After all, we’ve fixed their problem! We’ve done something for them they couldn’t do themselves. Isn’t that wonderful?
The problem with poverty
Imagine it though. Imagine being on the receiving end of all that kindness. How would you feel? Really.
American mission trips tend to focus on alleviating some kind of material poverty. We are materially rich, and we assume that the rest of the world needs what we have.
But there are other kinds of poverty. And people who are materially rich are often completely unaware of their deep needs in other areas.
Imagine a group of Africans visiting your town for a week. The purpose of their mission trip is similar to mission trips you’ve been on, but they are focused on alleviating relational poverty rather than material poverty. They visit your home, and they’re very polite, but they decide that your TV is too loud, so they shut it off and tell you that conversation is a better use of time. You smile and go along with them, not wanting to be rude. They bring out some kind of bead game and teach it to your kids, who are intrigued enough to stay home rather than heading out to soccer practice or dance lessons. When you invite the Africans to stay for dinner, they insist on cooking for you, because they want to teach you how to eat healthier. They make a fascinating meal, but it takes four hours, and you don’t get to finish the report your boss is expecting tomorrow morning. When you put your kids to bed that night, they ask if the Africans are coming back tomorrow because they want to play the bead game again.
The Africans do come back the next morning. You have grabbed an Eggo out of the toaster and are on your way to work, but they insist on sitting down with you and your children over hot bulgur and fresh fruit. You miss your train, but the Africans believe they’ve really “made a difference” because this is the first time in years you’ve had breakfast together as a family. You can hear them praising God for the work He’s already begun in your life.
One wonderful week
Interruptions and “teachable moments” like this go on all week, and the Africans rejoice each time your family eats together or plays a game together or serves in a soup kitchen rather than turning on the TV. You never tell them that the late reports and the missed trains cost you a bonus at work that you had been counting on. You never mention that you’re intensely allergic to strawberries. You never let anyone know how much it hurts when your kids would rather be with them than with you.
Finally it’s time for the Africans to go home. They gather around your family and thank God for the way He’s opened your eyes, for the healing he’s brought to your poor, mixed-up values. They praise God for lost sheep who have returned to the fold. And you can tell they feel fulfilled and uplifted. They believe their mission trip was a success.
And, you agree, in some ways it was. They were right about relationships, and you did enjoy spending more time with your family. But you also know that you need more than a bead game and some healthy recipes to overcome your relational poverty. Come Monday morning, you’ll be back on the early train, trying to make up for lost time at work. You’ll stop at home for a power bar and a Diet Coke before rushing out to your next meeting. By the time you return again, your kids will be asleep already. A week with the Africans won’t have changed anything. They’ve shown you how poor you are, and they’ve made you feel guilty for being that poor, but you know you don’t have what it takes to keep up that kind of change long-term.
Is this what our mission trips do to the people whose material poverty we want to alleviate?
How poor are you? And how are you poor?
Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s book, When Helping Hurts, got me thinking about poverty. And relationships. The authors make the point that we are all poor, but in different ways. And until we recognize our own poverty, we will have limited success in alleviating anyone else’s. In fact, we’ll only end up hurting ourselves as well as the people we’re trying to help.
And I think Corbett and Fikkert’s principles apply to the cross-cultural relationships we try to develop here in America, too. We are much more likely to build real friendships when we respect other people’s cultural strengths and confess our own cultural weaknesses. When those strengths and weaknesses complement each other—when we admit we need each other—relationships grow. We need each other.
The book is a rich resource of information, exercises, and discussion questions. It’s available at www.whenhelpinghurts.org, which also offers webinars, self-study courses, and tips on getting the most out of the book.
If you want to defend the way we typically do mission trips, I dare you to read When Helping Hurts first! Then come back and leave a comment.
I’m also interested to hear from those who read the book and glean specific ideas about how blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians can enrich their relationships with each other—is it possible?