The meaning and effect of mission trips

Jake Loel, Commentary Editor

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More than 500 dead. More than 2,500 wounded. Just two and a half months after the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus a public health emergency of international concern and three months after the first Zika cases were reported in Ecuador, a devastating earthquake rocked the nation.

This is sad news. Charitable, well-meaning people throughout the U.S. might wonder how they can help the Ecuadorian people. Unfortunately, these good intentions often have patronizing undertones that suggest we misunderstand the real nature of the problem.

In high school, I went on a “mission trip” to India, where I volunteered for the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order started by Mother Teresa.

It was a life-changing experience; I had never witnessed such poverty. Honest families survive together on a sidewalk, sharing a single bowl of rice. The corrupt break children’s limbs to intentionally make them look more deformed and pitiful.

After my two weeks were finished, I, full of experiences and proud of myself for helping “those poor people,” hopped on a plane.

It took an embarrassingly long time to admit to myself that every task I did in India (I worked in a home for disabled children) could have been completed just as well by any Indian teenager who wanted to volunteer for a weekend.

The Missionaries of Charity run homes for the most poor and destitute people in the world, many of whom are found in India. However, the order relies on donations and volunteers, and the great majority of their members are not trained medical professionals, though they deal with some of the most ill and needy people.

What the Missionaries of Charity desperately need are medical professionals and money (both of which can be found in India), not soul-searching hippies or religious students on mission trips, who the sisters usually have as volunteers and who have to spend upwards of $2,000 for a plane ticket and immunizations.

What I did take away from the two weeks I spent in Calcutta was the inspiration to help people and the experience of living among the world’s poorest men and women.

I realized that they are people who have the same capabilities and basic desires we have. They aren’t poor or destitute because they don’t understand how to take care of themselves.

There is a tendency among Christians to view themselves as a people called to perform charitable works. This only becomes problematic when paired with the notion of American exceptionalism, a remnant of the “city on a hill” ideology that America is and always will be great. Neither idea is bad in itself; it only becomes problematic when Americans think they can help other people when they have no skills with which to help them.

In the case of doing charity work in Ecuador, it is important to ask yourself several questions.

Is it more charitable to fly to Ecuador in a few months and help paint houses, or to donate money to charitable organizations who hire professional, often native Ecuadorian architects to build new, stronger homes which will withstand earthquakes?

Many Catholics feel called to serve the poor in one way or another, and this is an honorable calling. I would ask each person who wants to serve to consider whether he has the skills that are needed by his proposed organization, before buying a plane ticket to Ecuador (Flights to Quito in August are about $800) or somewhere else reeling from health emergencies, natural disasters, poverty or corruption.

At the University of Dallas, students have the opportunity to serve the community through the Alternative Spring Break (ASB). The students who choose to do this mission trip help their own countrymen and women, using skills that they already possess, including, according to the ASB webpage, feeding the poor and tutoring children.

Many places are in great need of medical professionals, financial guidance, education, civil engineers and long-term missionaries (to name a few), but if you aren’t going to be able to help in one of these capacities, it may be better to donate to humanitarian organizations or to find an area in which someone with your skill set is needed. Otherwise you risk spending money in travel that could be better used as a donation to a humanitarian group.

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