Treading Lightly While "Helping"
By Amber Van Schooneveld
March 24, 2010
You can see them from a kilometer away in the Kenyan sun. The big white tennis shoes. The backpacks. The eager faces. North American Christians eager to "do something." To get out there to those poor people and start making a difference for Christ. More than 2 million American Christians a year tramping across the globe on short-term mission trips, answering the call to be Christ's hands and feet. But the question that must be asked is, are we really "just" doing something, or are we perhaps sometimes doing harm?
One of the most exciting things to witness is the enthusiasm and passion of this next generation for social justice and poverty; to start heeding the many, many verses about our role as Christians in restoring the proverbial walls of Isaiah 58:12. You don't need to tell most people they can change the world. They already know it and want it. What's necessary now is wisdom.
There are so many cries out there telling us to "just do something." But let's not just do something. Let's do something good. Let's do something wise. Because too often in the past, our eagerness has ended in hurting rather than helping.
Elephant and Mouse were best friends. One day Elephant said, "Mouse, let's have a party!" Animals gathered from far and near. They ate. They drank. They sang. And they danced. And nobody celebrated more and danced harder than Elephant. After the party was over, Elephant exclaimed, "Mouse, did you ever go to a better party? What a blast!" But Mouse did not answer. "Mouse, where are you?" Elephant called. He looked around for his friend, and then shrank back in horror. There at Elephant's feet lay Mouse. His little body was ground into the dirt. He had been smashed by the big feet of his exuberant friend, Elephant. "Sometimes, that is what it is like to do mission with you Americans," the African storyteller commented. "It is like dancing with an Elephant." (Miriam Adeney, "When the Elephant Dances, the Mouse May Die," Short-Term Mission Today, inaugural edition, 2000, as reprinted in When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … And Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. )
Sometimes in our zeal, we, with our big budgets and big ideas and big feet, can rush out to do something on short-term missions and trample those we intended to help. In our rush, we can unknowingly offend with our culture—by valuing time and results over people. We can undermine communities by undervaluing the resources they already have. We can reinforce entrenched ideas of helplessness and inferiority by riding in as the rescuers. In our desire to help and—let's admit it—our desire to travel to exotic places and feel the hero, we can ignore solid development practices.
Let's stop this trend. Let's reevaluate how we are doing things and, most of all, involve those we are "doing things" to. Let's see God move in even bigger ways.
Consider some of these principles of development in light of short-term missions:
1. Limit what is given away. Giving away material resources on a trip is, at best, a short-term solution. It also positions "us" as givers and "them" as receivers, which can reinforce a debilitating mindset that says, "I can't do this for myself."
2. Do not do for others what they can do for themselves. When we try to help someone by doing something they were fully capable of doing for themselves, we re-send the subtle message that they aren't capable. An example is fixing up a home for someone who is fully capable of fixing up their own home. Allow people to give what they already have to better their lives.
3. Enable local ownership through partnership. Many interventions have failed because the things we did on trips weren't wanted or embraced by those we were doing them for. We nobly build toilets for people in Papua New Guinea who don't see the need for toilets and who walk past them to use the bush.
Instead of coming up with our own ideas of what "they" need, ask. Better yet, involve them. Better yet, allow them to own and drive any intervention. Allow people to be active in shaping their future, not just relegating them to passive receivers. If we want real change, then we won't just do things to people, we will listen to them. Partner with them. Join them.
Before you go on or even plan a short-term mission trip, consider some of these suggestions from Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert from When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … And Yourself.
- Sincerely consider whether or not a short-term mission trip really is the best intervention. Ask your sending organization or host church what the need really is. It might be money. It might be training. It might not involve a fun trip to Kenya.
- Allow the community, church or organization receiving a mission trip to be the primary entity in deciding what they would like done on the trip and how they would like it done. They know their community, they know the culture and they know their needs—rely on this invaluable resource!
- Focus the trip on learning and being—rather than only on doing. Focus less on the erroneous idea that we are going to go rescue and more on an ongoing learning experience—that we have as much to learn and gain from believers overseas as we have to give.
Don’t relegate those you go to serve to the role of your personal outlet for a mission trip and your personal opportunity to do good. View them truly as people and partners in their own development. This generation and the Church are awakening to the incredible things God can do through us in this world of need. Only God knows what He'll do through His people. But in our zeal, let's remember wisdom.
Amber Van Schooneveld is a writer for Compassion.