Putting the ‘mission’ in ‘mission trip’

OK, readers, this week I ask you to think back to all of those late nights where you were falling asleep in front of the television, watching a little Fresh Prince when BAM: the guilt trip commercials hit the tube. You know what I’m talking about, those sad images of young children playing in the mud, solemn music playing in the background, and some old guy who I imagine looks just like Moses himself strolling along hugging babies. I beg your pardon, I hope that you all don’t find my description too tasteless; it really is not my intention. However tasteless/heartless (you pick the adjective), this account of such ads is, at least it’s accurate.

Being the bleeding heart that I am, I usually found those ads rather compelling, but a couple of nights ago I changed my mind a little bit. What profound experience inspired such deep reflection you ask? Well, a documentary my dear Watson! … err … Reader. 

Ah yes, the classic documentary. Was there ever such a more life changing form of media? Probably.

Anyway, this particular documentary was about a group of American guys who traveled to a remote village in Guatemala and committed to living on a dollar a day. Minus a couple of minor plot holes, the film was good. I might even recommend it. But it did get me thinking about this hero complex that so many of us adopt when we think about ‘the starving children in Africa.’ Granted there are certainly children in Africa who are dying of starvation, but let us not forget that that Africa is no project. Further, let us not forget that no human being is a project.

Sure we hear the tragic testimonials of those who narrowly escaped death, are doomed to be under-paid labor workers, or live on less than a dollar a day. And like many of you, my heart rages at those stories, and I immediately look for ways to counter those injustices. But let’s not have our mission be lost in the attempt to turn another culture into our own. Not only is it destructive, it is inherently arrogant and elitist, however unintentional it may be.

I wonder sometimes why such ‘mission trips,’ are so compelling. Why they draw so many people. The cynic in me (uh, ehm, the realist) says that many people ‘go to save Africa’ to fulfill their own youthful sense of wanderlust. But I suppose that that is neither here nor there. The real question is: should we be trying to bring our own sense of the standards of living to places like the small village in the documentary? What if we try to make such a difference that we make too much of a difference? What if the world that my children grow up in no longer has any small remote villages left? Would that really be a victory?

Again, I don’t think that we should confine people to shacks and hard labor if they dream of something more. Education is surely a right, right? But what if we taint the minds of those people. What if we teach them to be discontented with what they have, no matter how much they have, so that they learn to want even more — a feeling we constantly are fighting? What if we teach them to be consumers, rather than facilitating ways to produce living wages?

Maybe instead of riding in on our horses looking to turn rural Guatemalan Mayan villages into mini-America, we do something different. Perhaps, we instead commit to purchasing fair trade radishes, a good that gives many simple-livers a steady income. Or maybe we can create a system to provide loans to those who wouldn’t normally qualify. It’s being done right now already, we don’t even have to reinvent the wheel! So let’s put away the cape and instead look to make a difference from afar, in a less culturally destructive way. Let’s act like our decisions today, where we are, affect more people than yourself — because they do.

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