Why Mission Trips Are Definitely Worth It
Sometimes we have a tendency to leave God’s work to others. After all, I have responsibilities. I cannot drop everything to move across the world. That work needs to be left to full-time missionaries, right?
What is a Short Term Mission?
Short term missions can be a beautiful way to follow in the footsteps of many great missionary saints. A short term mission is a fixed duration charitable outreach. Generally, these missions last a few days to a few weeks. They often focus on completing a particular project, but they can be more general in scope and they can take place either domestically or internationally. They are probably most often associated with spring break or summer mission trips performed by university students. However, they can take on many forms. For instance, our parish has an ongoing outreach to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and every year we send mission teams to work with the people of Pine Ridge.
My Experience with Missions
Some of my most treasured experiences include the times I have gone on short-term mission trips. My experience has come primarily through work with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). FOCUS is an organization whose mission is to evangelize college campuses. I first became involved with FOCUS as a student, later became a full-time staff member for four years, and was fortunate to continue my work with their short-term missions even as I began my career as a college professor. Through FOCUS I have had the opportunity to lead missions in Peru (thrice), Costa Rica, El Salvador (twice), and Alaska and have served as mission team director for several of these trips.
Some people criticize short-term missions saying that a week or two worth of work doesn’t justify the cost of airfare and all the other expenses that go into a mission project. We should just send money to a local church and be done. I would offer the following reasons based on my direct experience and adapted from my copy the FOCUS Mission Director Handbook which I received on my last mission trip.
1. Reaching the Perphiaries
If we took this attitude, many of our local churches would not exist. The tradition of Catholic missionaries is that they are always on the move. Hence, to some degree all missions are short term. From St. Paul who planted churches all across the ancient world to St. Francis Xavier who made his way across India while hoping to reach China, Catholic missionaries are always seeking to move forward. To place Christianity in a new location. To spread it beyond the confines of a local church.
Moreover, just because a particular mission trip is limited in duration does not mean the relationships formed during that time are not enduring. Often times, communities can form lasting relationships with missionaries returning again and again. I know from personal experience that I have formed life-long connections through mission journeys.
2. Reciprocal Evangelization
You see the process of service and evangelization changes the missionary just as much as it assists the one who is being served. I have often heard FOCUS say that two weeks service on mission can initiate more spiritual growth in participants than a whole year of spiritual mentorship on campus. This is because to become a missionary is to take a risk. The risk of rejection, of failure, and even sometimes physical safety. To become a missionary is to place yourself in a position of vulnerability. However, this vulnerability makes us soft clay ready to be molded by the Holy Spirit.
3. Transformed World Views
Mission work brings with it a clash of cultures. As we meet others, cultures are brought together. For those of us in the developed world, our conception of reality is vastly different from the lived experience of those in impoverished countries. However, it is the media’s view of reality and happiness that is often exported. Some impoverished cultures seek to readily accept the media’s view of reality, only to be led to dissolution because it is unattainable. Other cultures will violently reject this view of reality which can lead to acts terrorism. However, missions calibrate perception with reality. It is much more difficult to hate the man that stands in front of you. They lead to a true picture of one another, what we hold in common, and the reality of happiness.
4. Translation of Poverty
I will never forget my time in Peru. One thing I will always remember is the “young towns”. I discovered the young towns on one of our first drives through the city as I looked out the window of our bus. Young towns are settlements that were growing up on the hillsides. If you look at the bottom of the hill you will see houses with four walls comprised of varying materials. Slightly farther up the hill, the dwellings will have three constructed walls and usually a fourth comprised of debris such as used tires. Further up the hill, the homes have two walls and near the top one wall surrounded by a pile of debris. My friend Guillermo explained that the young towns develop as people move from the rural areas to the city. They first arrive building a shelter out of anything they can find. Then they work and save until they can build a wall, and then another, and so on the cycle continues until they can build all four walls. The houses at the bottom of the hill then represent those who moved to the area first with late arrivals settling at the top of the hill.
It is quite amazing what happens when you go to these impoverished areas. You soon see a great deal of generosity amongst the people. It is humbling as you receive a meal from them and you begin to understand the reality of poverty, but also that happiness does not come from material possessions.
5. Iconic Moments
Do you have an event in your personal history in which God has intervened? A moment you can turn to during times of difficulty and say, “I know God exists”? These moments are essential in the life of every Christian. They provide the impetus to live differently and are what separates Jesus the “personal God” from the distant god of so many other religions. Mission trips are the setting of transformational moments for both the missionaries and the people they are serving.
6. Fundraising and Giving Renews the Church
The expense of missions is not a burden or a and shouldn’t be a reason to stay home. Rather, the cost provides an opportunity for Christians who cannot go to partner in the life of the church. St. Paul expresses this in one of his warmest letters, his Epistle to the Philippians in which he notes “For even when I was at Thessalonica you sent me something for my needs, not only once but more than once. It is not that I am eager for the gift; rather, I am eager for the profit that accrues to your account.” (Phil 4:16-17) It is not so much the missionary or even those in foreign lands which are the beneficiary of the giving, but rather the givers themselves.
And so, I heartily encourage you to enter into the mission field. Whether you give by going as a missionary or go by giving as a mission partner, please enter the fray. Get involved and see God act in your life in new and unexpected ways.