The NY Times recently published a provocative article about the perceived college admissions advantage in volunteering internationally. After leading and co-leading a variety of different mission trips, you would have to make a very convincing argument for me to plan an international work week. Not because I don’t like travelling (I love it), but because I’ve learned a few things about organizing more just, sustainable and meaningful mission weeks. I’m not suggesting that my way is the only way. But, after reading this recent article on service trips as a college admissions tactic, I decided to share several points I consider when planning a mission experience:
Putting the money where it matters:
Much has been written about amount of money spent on mission trip travel. In many (likely, most) cases, donating the amount spent on airfare directly to the charity is more helpful than paying travel costs for unskilled laborers (as well-meaning as we are, most volunteers are not experienced construction workers). On the last mission trip I led, the entire cost of the week (travel, food, lodging, and activities) was $250 person. Several thousand dollars raised through the car wash and other fundraisers was donated directly to the organization to use as they needed. Minimal travel expenses meant more could go directly to the place being served.
While there, we were intentional about supporting the local economy by eating and shopping at local establishments. For many purchases we intentionally did not use our tax exempt status because sales tax dollars fund local infrastructure. Bottom line, aim to redirect as much money as you can from travel and personal expenses directly to communities and organizations you serve.
Sticking with a community for the long term:
While most of our youth will only spend a week at the sites we serve, that doesn’t mean that the work of the local mission partners won’t continue. Look to serve with organizations that have deep roots and big dreams. In 2015 we served with Rockford Urban Ministries which has a long term vision to revitalize a particular neighborhood. Justice minded experiences can be especially transformative for participants. Even the youngest of my group began to ask why certain communities lack groceries, parks, well-kept sidewalks and attractive school buildings. Time together in the evening allowed us to consider what Christians are called to do in the face of systemic problems that limit access to food, clothing and shelter for those on the margins. Wherever we serve, I want to be sure the work we do is part of a larger, sustained plan that goes beyond one-time charity.
My hope is that our mission experiences respect God’s creation by using resources wisely. Serving closer to home not only costs less, but uses less fuel. Wherever we go, we also encourage the use of reusable lunch sacks and water bottles. As much as possible, we wash dinner dishes rather than use disposable. My next goal: consider an alternative to the trip t-shirt, which takes 700 gallons of water to produce.
Being respectful of others:
This particular part of the NYT article really made me cringe:
“An awfully large percentage of my friends — skewing towards the affluent — are taking ‘mission trips’ to Central America and Africa,” he wrote to me in a recent email. He knows this from pictures they post on Snapchat and Instagram, typically showing one of them “with some poor brown child aged 2 to 6 on their knee,” he explained.
First, we should be extremely sensitive about taking pictures of children without their parent’s permission; people are not objects to be cataloged in our social media accounts. Any teenager who has put their hand in front of their face to avoid a parent’s camera understands this right to privacy.
Secondly, assuming the author is talking about a white college applicant (which is a whole other blog post), we should really examine our motives for needing to post a photo with a child of a different race. This practice promotes damaging stereotypes about poverty and people of color. Furthermore, it might be worth considering why we need to travel to all the way to another country to meet someone with a different skin color.
My suggestion: Take all the mental snapshots you want. If you are on any type of volunteer trip and a you want to save a digital memory, ask permission, take an artistic photo that doesn’t show a face, and don’t share it on social media.
I have no idea whether going on the type of mission trip I suggest will get students into college or not. That isn’t the goal. Mission trips are about serving God and loving others. Mission trips are about opening our eyes to the way reality falls short of God’s hopes no matter where we go. Mission trips are about putting our hands, minds and hearts to work for justice. You will likely learn a little bit more who you are; which may not make a bad application essay after all.