Here is the first of a six part series entitled “Evangelical Tourism” on youtube, produced by a now defunct company in Canada. Kurt Ver Beek, featured in the series, has granted permission for its use. It raises a plethora of questions and concerns regarding the use of short term teams for what many call “missions” endeavors. The group featured in this video is similar to ones I have encountered many times in Guatemala, where I have served on a full time basis since 2001. I have been a part of these types of groups in the past and when I watched this video the first time it made me cringe when I recalled what I had done as a representative of the Church on this earth. The first clip is not long but will serve to set the stage for a multi-layered discussion about many aspects of short term teams especially as it applies to those doing medical/dental outreaches.
I am going to skip a discussion about the first thing that comes to my mind regarding these endeavors and which has to do with the question of “What is a missionary?” I would only state my opinion which is that one who goes to DO something for someone else you perceive as suffering and in need of relief is not being a missionary. It would be more appropriate to consider this a volunteer service project or something of like.
That being said I would like to point out a real red flag that popped up right from the beginning. Hear is what the team director said; “Most of these people are suffering and our hope is that we can offer some relief and relief that doesn’t cost anything.”
Bryant Meyers, in his book “Walking With the Poor,” states “The world tends to view the poor as a group that is helpless, thus we give ourselves permission to play god in the lives of the poor. The poor become nameless, and this invites us to treat them as objects or our compassion, as a thing to which we can do what WE believe is best…… Whenever we reduce poor people from names to abstractions we add to their poverty and impoverish them ourselves. ” (page 57-58)
I don’t believe this team leader, nor the members on her team ever considered the possibility that they were viewing the Hondurans they went to serve as abstractions and that they were playing god in these peoples lives. And therein lies one of the most troubling aspects of short term service teams. (I can’t bring myself to call them missions teams and so will use something more appropriate) The vast majority of individuals who involve themselves (because God told them to do go of course) do so with a minimal understanding of what they are getting themselves into. Not knowing about poverty and its root causes is is a major roadblock to effective short term service teams. But the deeper concern is that those who go really cannot even answer the question posed by Meyers in WWTP; “Who are You? ….. we must begin where we are, ourselves. “Know thyself” is a useful reminder for any development worker. (in fact anyone involved in cross-cultural work) We must start with ourselves and a critical and honest assessment of who we are, what truly is the worldview we function from and how might we need to change it so that it conforms more closely with a genuinely Christian worldview. Every encounter we have in a different culture has an impact in that culture. Is that impact going to reflect a well informed worldview that demonstrates an understanding of the complexities of working cross-culturally by building long term relationships and not treating those you serve as abstractions or will those who are being served going to come away having experienced a worldview that is common to the Western mind. One that is rooted in a shallow understanding of poverty and why people are suffering in the world. One that is content with getting in and getting out quickly because it keeps us in our comfort zone?
Next time we can begin to address the statement “and relief that doesn’t cost anything.”