To Help or Hinder, by Faith Davis

By Faith Davis

“Your life will be changed forever,” is what I have always heard about making a trip to a third world country. After traveling to Haiti on a short term mission trip last summer, however, I wonder whose life was actually changed, and whether the overall impact was positive or negative.

When my husband and I decided to go on a trip to Haiti with a small mission team from our church, I tried to mentally prepare myself for this “life-changing” event. We did the car wash and yard sale to raise funds, and made our own substantial donations to cover the cost of tickets and mission fees. We had an idea of what Haiti would be like from talking to friends that had been there and seeing their photos, and by watching the presentations of other groups who had been on similar trips. We filled out all the papers and applications. It seemed like a major accomplishment just getting there, but I was still waiting for that life-changing moment.

Our team was scheduled to arrive at the end of July. Haiti was hot, with few modern amenities, such as air conditioning, and clean cold water was only available for the privileged few. After our team made it through airport customs in Port Au Prince, we packed up in a small, old bus to ride for over an hour on the hard seats over the rough and bumpy road to the mission house. We spent the week at the mission house, located in a small village nestled at the base of a tall mountain.

During the days, we were up at dawn for breakfast and morning devotions on the side of the mountain before starting our work. We toured the village and mission grounds, taking the expected pictures with the kids from the community, who would yell out to us, “Blanc! Photo!” We took photos of the dilapidated shacks of tarps and tin where entire families lived, viewed the long line of mothers and sick children waiting for hours to be seen at the small “clinic” at the mission, and saw the mission’s efforts to employ local villagers in making their own blocks and building projects. In the following days, our team painted a good portion of the interior of a large mission school building, spent a couple of hours feeding the kids in a nearby community, and climbed for miles up the steep mountain behind the mission house to visit some very sick people in a small, mountaintop village. Another day we visited orphanages in nearby areas, telling Bible stories to the children and playing with them.

Each evening, a couple of the village ladies were paid to come to the mission and cook authentic Haitian food for the team, and a few of the local kids were allowed to come in and try to sell their woven bracelets and crafts to the members of our group. Then we spent the rest of each night playing board games and hanging out together in the mission house before taking cold showers to cool off before bed. We did everything one would expect to do on a short term mission, but at the end of the trip, I was still searching for that elusive moment that was supposed to change everything.

As months have passed since our trip, I have thought at length about our experience in Haiti, and the subsequent results. I have a renewed sense of appreciation for our American culture, and a slightly deeper sense of guilt for the comparative luxuries we take for granted, but these views did not seem like such a huge change for me. I had already been aware of some of the poverty differences, and had a deep appreciation for the relationships and possessions in my life, though ultimately it seemed like a very selfish “American” way of looking at the trip. As Mark Wm. Radecke, associate professor of religion and chaplain at Susquehanna University, states:

We take interest in them (the culture) only insofar as they can help us achieve something else—which, too often, is feeling good about ourselves and what we’re doing. With our culture’s values as part of our baggage, we treat the mission trip as a thing to be consumed for our entertainment, edification, and enjoyment. (22)

This is further illustrated by Andrew Root’s concept of tourists versus vagabonds, and doing versus being. He defines everyone as either tourists or vagabonds, with the tourists being those who have freedom to move about as they please. The vagabonds also move about, but they are driven by necessity and restricted by circumstance. Root says, “When our mission trips are about doing something, then like good tourists we are free to move on and eventually forget them (the vagabonds), for we have done our part and now it is time to move on to another experience” (318). Perhaps this is why I did not feel drastically changed. In my search for that moment that was supposed to change my life, I lost sight of what my true goal should have been, which was an unselfish desire to be helpful rather than just doing something.

Whether or not one has pure motives or becomes sidetracked by personal baggage, it seems that even a well intentioned, unselfish desire to be helpful does not always translate well in reality. The evidence of this reality is clear, as Haiti and other third world countries are still dependent upon so much foreign aid. In The Plague of Good Intentions, Thomas Epley researched the effects of foreign aid on third world countries. While he was referring to specific African countries, the concepts he discussed are applicable to many other locations as well. In one instance, Epley spoke about the seemingly unselfish actions, saying that “…injecting any aid, development, commerce, or other cultural implants, has a good chance of failure, with the ramifications of that failure surprising the well intentioned outsider” (105). Epley, a successful turn-around CEO, compared foreign aid to business models in that, if one is to achieve long-term change, one must be aware of the cultural and societal issues that would hinder the desired results, and be willing to work within that framework to achieve those results (19). The goal should be to spend more time “being” as opposed to “doing.” As Epley states, “Historically, more economically successful nations, whether wanting to exploit or help, have controlled and impacted nations, peoples, and cultures they did not understand, and—worse—for which they had minimal respect. These societies were always viewed as inferior” (21). Often, short term mission efforts are perfect examples of well-intentioned outsiders showing up to do a few days of improvements for what they consider a pitiable culture. Short term “doing” without taking the time to understand these cultures creates more problems than it solves. In another article on short term mission training, Karla Ann Koll concurs that “the material aid and economic resources brought by short term mission groups to local churches and communities are deepening and broadening dependency” (93).

In addition to not increasing self-sufficiency in these cultures, short term mission travel in itself could be considered an unnecessary extravagance in many cases. As mission trip leader and Doctor of Ministry, Kim Lamberty, mentions in one item on her list of improvements for short term mission trips, “The host community has the skills to build its own houses or church buildings. It only lacks the resources. The money spent sending a short term mission group to do the work would be better spent supporting the locals in doing the work themselves” (74). Providing resources such as blocks, timber, and roofing, and requiring the community to put forth effort to fulfill the necessary labor, could be a more beneficial use of funds.

As any parent could attest, doing or providing every want and need for one’s child, without any requirements from the child, usually creates a spoiled brat. These free handouts often nourish a sense of entitlement and increase a child’s ability to manipulate the system or other individuals to continue to get what he or she wants without having to put forth any personal effort. Despite efforts to the contrary, many in the particular village we visited have become this way. While we were on our trip, the long term missionary at the mission where we were staying told us that the Haitians have a saying to the effect of “don’t worry, if it needs doing, the Americans will do it.” After we returned and were discussing the trip with our fellow team members, we learned of an interaction between a member of our team and one of our Haitian friends. Our Haitian friend told of the general reaction in the village when word reaches them of a new team on their way into the community. She described to our team member how the villagers will remove articles of clothing, put away things they’ve gotten from previous mission teams, and plaster their children in dirt, in order to generate sympathy and ensure more handouts; essentially manipulating the system. Despite efforts to discourage handouts and promote self help, the well-meaning presence of foreigners has created a welfare monster that is present in many places.

Because of the seeming negative impact and lack of meaningful assistance, I wonder if short term missions are actually profitable in any way outside of disaster relief. Perhaps there are more efficient uses of mission funds than sending many short term mission teams. When a bone is broken, it typically requires a cast for healing, not a band-aid, and in many ways, short term mission teams seem at best little more than band-aids. The band-aid effect might be remedied, or at least reduced, by carefully choosing trips that would be best aided by short term help, instead of locations which require long term consistency, larger time commitments, and major reform in order to be repaired.

As summer approaches and our team prepares for this year’s short term mission, my goal is to have more than just good intentions. My hope is that this year’s trip, wherever we may go, will be profitable for both giver and receiver. This hope is most likely to be realized through making an effort to build relationships rather than simply doing a job or giving a handout and moving on.

Epley, Thomas. The Plague Of Good Intentions. United States: Xlibris, 2008. Print.

Koll, Karla Ann. “Taking Wolves Among Lambs: Some Thoughts On Training For Short-Term Mission Facilitation.” International Bulletin Of Missionary Research 34.2 (2010): 93-96. Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 Apr. 2013.

Lamberty, Kim. “A Tool Kit For Short-Term Mission.” New Theology Review 22.4 (2009): 73-76. Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 Apr. 2013.
Alternate Link:

Radecke, Mark Wm. “Misguided Missions.” Christian Century 127.10 (2010): 22. MasterFILE Complete. Web. 23 Apr. 2013.

Root, Andrew. “The Youth Ministry Mission Trip As Global Tourism: Are We OK With This?.” Dialog: A Journal Of Theology 47.4 (2008): 314-319. Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 Apr. 2013.

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