Short-term missions: how to be helpful, not harmful – Part 1

“When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them.” – Toxic Charity

Melvin is a single dad of six, living in a small tribal community in Central America. He and his family live in extreme poverty and have struggled, especially since the recent death of his wife. Melvin has no work and no longer hunts for food due to the diminution of their tribe’s land and consequent lack of wild animals. His face is worn and tired and his expression is downcast. His words echo with a hollow hopelessness.

A young missionary couple from the city a few hours away has moved to the base of the tribe’s mountain and they have been investing time building relationships, getting to know the indigenous culture and language and discipling those interested in a new life in Christ. Along with a couple pastors, this missionary team began assessing the main physical needs of the tribe. While listening to the members of the community and collaborating with the tribe’s chief, they came up with a community development project plan and the first priority was to construct safer houses for the families.

It would be much faster to pay a contractor and team of construction workers to erect ten new homes, but the goal of this particular project is more than providing physical roofs and walls. It is about bringing back a sense of dignity to the individuals and raising the morale of the group.

“The goal is to see people restored to being what God created them to be: people who understand that they are created in the image of God with the gifts, abilities, and capacity to make decisions and effect change in the world around them; and people who steward their lives, communities, resources, and relationships in order to bring glory to God.” – When Helping Hurts

So, the group began to implement the first steps of this plan. They paid a small team of workers from the city to begin the first phase of house construction in the community and to teach the moms, dads and older children the skills necessary to complete their homes and eventually help their neighbors construct their new houses. Through this long process, men and women are regaining a sense of self-worth and pride in their work. But then came the American missions team

IMG_8431With their good intentions and willingness to help, they came to Melvin’s tribe. Seeing the small amount of labor left to finish Melvin’s house, they made the executive decision to finish it for him. As able-bodied Melvin stood watching beside his six children, a team of “strangers from the North” robbed him of his opportunity to finish what he started and provide something nice for his family. Instead of feeling pride for completing something made with his own two hands, a dependency-on-the-white-man complex was perpetuated.

But what a blessing! With pats on each other’s backs and an abundance of Instagram-worthy selfies, the U.S. missions team returned to their church to show the slideshow of how they had labored for the Lord in Central America.

Never do for someone what you can do with them.

Sometimes our charitable efforts can actually take a toll on the self-esteem of those we serve. We in North America are very task-oriented and we like to see fast results. A huge lesson that all mission trip leaders should understand before traveling is: you don’t always know best. Listen to the indigenous leaders and pastors and missionaries. DO NOT override their decisions or plans just because you think you have a better idea.

Unhealthy missions partnerships are formed when native hosts feel obligated to cater to the domineering mission groups because they bring the financial support. Be as open and transparent as possible about this.

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