It had been a year since the devastating earthquake hit the western coast of the small island, Hispaniola. With all the assistance offered to Haiti, authorities had requested only medically skilled professionals apply to enter the rubble covering Port-au-Prince. That being the case, our short term mission team had been sent to the Dominican Republic on the eastern side. A group of Haitian refugees had managed to avoid being housed in a stationary camp and were instead living in a make-shift village. Our missionary team came to the nation prepared with skits and games and children’s Bible story songs. What I intend on sharing today is by no means meant to incite anger, but rather depth of thought.
A topic of conversation no longer being neglected is that of short-term mission-trips. What purpose do they serve? Is it those in crisis who are reaping the benefits or are the ones bringing the help walking away feeling like they have done their good deed? Do short-term mission-trips accomplish more harm than good? There are people who will emphatically argue extreme positions on this, but I (in accordance with my ‘one story from each country in my Thirty by Thirty series’), am here to narrate an internal dilemma I have faced since one short term mission trip in the Dominican Republic in 2011.
Walking through the refugee community to invite people to church, I met a man named Thomas. The difference between a refugee camp and village in this context was that once someone was relocated to a camp inside a new country, they were not permitted to leave – even for work – making it an indefinite stay at the refugee camp. Therefore, a group of refugees had moved to old houses in a field-like neighborhood. The men found work in the San Pedro area for people who would pay them under the table, and lower wages besides the fact. Thomas would do odd jobs for employers, utilizing various skills whenever they would serve him. And every week, like clockwork, the police would come and raid the village. Once they arrested the men from all the families in the village, they would bring them to a remote area and accept their wages as bribes in order to let them return to their humble shacks.
Thomas was a skilled man, efficient in everything from boatmanship to carpentry to making fishing nets by hand. Thomas spoke six languages. And there I stood: a white, middle-class white young woman who had showed up in this foreign country to help all of the unfortunate poor people. Skilled in hospitality & customer service and fluent in only the English language, at the time I was of the belief that I was one of the greatest things that would ever happen to this little island; only the east side, of course, since I had no medical skills to offer the recently ruined west coast. Who was actually benefiting from this trip? With much to learn from those who I had intended to teach, this trip was formulative for me in different ways than I could have known. And yet, the people whose paths crossed my own were kind enough to talk and laugh with me as though I was a long lost friend. Connections across the globe never cease to amaze me.
My internal dilemma for some time now, as I’ve mentioned before, is the concept of the western rite of passage. Because of my social status and place of origin, it is common to travel to another country to provide assistance and preach one religion practiced. Little did I consider in making my short-term mission-trip journey that the people I met were capable, oppressed, and in need of justice more than they were of charity. This trip opened my eyes to the entitlement I have based on my nationality and the color of my skin. By no means to I aim to condemn the opportunity certain individuals have to see the world, I only hope to spark intentional thought in why we do what we do, and how we can use it to better our world. I just want to be more honest about how and why we approach our travels. One of my reasons is sharing joy.