Not everyone is a fan of the short-term mission trip. Sure, they’re fun and life-changing for the people who go, but they’re often expensive and don’t always have long-lasting results.
I’m a fan, though.
Over the years I’ve gone on dozens of mission trips – mostly in the United States, but also to places like the Philippines, Peru, Haiti, South Africa, and Israel. This summer I’m going along with a mission team to the Dominican Republic. I can’t wait. I bought my hammock and have had my shots.
But the concerns are real, and I don’t want to dismiss them too quickly. Yes, the cost to go is typically quite high, and the argument that we should just send the money that we spend on airfare makes some sense. Beyond that, if we build a house or whatever, we probably take work that a local laborer could have had. I understand and agree with these arguments – to a point.
As for that argument that the experience of going is life-changing, the truth is that short-term missions do not reflect the true cost of doing mission, not really. To go somewhere for a week is hardly the same thing as going there for a few years, learning a new language, developing relationships in a new culture. Sometimes people come home with a very limited understanding of what the true cost of mission really is.
So, why am I excited to go again this summer? I think there’s no substitute for seeing mission up close, for developing relationships with the people, for getting our hands dirty.
I led a mission team one summer to northern Israel, to the dusty village of Ibillin in Galilee. It was there that a parish priest named Father Elias Chacour – or “Abuna” as they called him in the village – founded a school. His dream was that Christians, Jews, and Muslims would come together in a classroom and learn to live and work together in peace. This dream started with a high school, but the school now goes all the way from Kindergarten to University, the only Arab university in northern Israel. Father Chacour – now Archbishop Chacour – has been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize.
During the week we were there – the hottest week in August on record – we painted classrooms, planted olive trees, and sweat buckets. In the afternoon, to cool off, we went for a swim in the Mediterranean near Haifa. And then, at night we sat on the rooftop of Father Chacour’s residence and talked. We talked about everything, or I should say that we listened and Father Chacour talked – about Israel, about the chances for Mideast peace, about the dwindling population of Christians in Israel (and elsewhere in the Middle East), about what it means to be a Christian in a region where there is violence and war and hopelessness.
It was quite a week. It was life-changing. Our painting was appreciated, of course, as were the olive trees, but what happened was that we developed lifelong relationships with each other and with a school and with a visionary leader. Every time I’ve returned to Israel with a tour group, I’ve stopped at the school. Father Chacour is a friend, but – more important – I believe in the mission.
Next month I’ll be heading off to the Dominican Republic. I’ve been to the poorer side of the island – Haiti – a few times, but this is my first trip to the DR. We’re going to build a house – or more likely finish a house that a group earlier in the summer started. And I’m sure the house will be appreciated by the family that gets to live there. But more important will be what the members of the team learn about themselves, going somewhere very different from home, living in the same circumstances as the people there, being hot and uncomfortable and dirty, and getting to know new friends.
I know we’ll come back as changed people.