Last year, I had the opportunity to hear Ed Wingfield, one-time Executive Director of the former Denver Urban League speak on leadership. “Using our current models of leadership, if we’re not careful, a few heroes will rise economically in our community. But no one else will advance. We’ll be in the dubious position of creating victims, so that we can rescue them.”
As I listened to him speak, I realized his was a familiar story. We in the church do that too. Most church mission trips are designed to create a level playing field for the “underprivileged” or underserved. Yet adopting the attitude that “we will rescue you because we are great and competent and able—while you are not”—doesn’t level the playing field. It perpetually tips it. Rather, level playing fields come from empowering people to discover their own greatness, competency and ability.
With the summer mission trip season upon us, it’s time to re-imagine mission trips. That means discovering the blessing of receiving, not giving.
Years ago, I had been on several mission trips to Rosebud Indian Reservation, home of the Lakota Sioux in South Dakota of “Dances with Wolves” fame. We would paint homes, do minor repairs, and in the evening learn about history, customs and if we were lucky, experience a sweat lodge. We were excited to paint homes and make a difference for “underprivileged” people. We felt good about it.
But I didn’t know how our efforts actually came across until Chesie Lee, an ally and advocate for Native American empowerment let me in on a little secret. Chesie, who co-facilitated the creation of the Wind River Native Advocacy Center together with members of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes, told me a common response to the question: “Who wants to have their house painted this year?” is typically “Nah, I’ve had mine painted 3 years in a row.”
All that house painting was for us, not the people who lived in them. In other words, our focus on giving wasn’t really meeting needs. Yes, we felt blessed to give, but it placed those on the receiving end in a dependent, less-than, victim role.
Chesie had seen this dynamic play out over and over. Several years ago, when she served as the Director of the Wyoming Association of Churches, she realized that mission trips designed to “help” Native Americans didn’t necessarily help. Playing rescuer to Native Americans was ironic since the church had been instrumental in creating the victimization of Native American populations to begin with.
Chesie saw that Instead of organizing traditional mission trips to the Wind River Reservation, in which churches would come paint or repair homes, she could invite church groups to come to the reservation to learn from the Native Americans. She could switch the paradigm from rescuer-victim to co-equals.
In this way, Native Americans would be granted the gift of agency. Of moving away from the role of invisible, underprivileged people to real live human beings with something to offer to others. These trips would be for mutual education and uplift.
It was a tough vision to communicate. Many churches resisted the idea that coming to receive would be as worthwhile as coming to give. The few who did come discovered something of a new connectedness and a different view of history. They discovered something of the Kingdom within.
As you plan summer mission trips this year, ask yourselves these questions:
- Will our mission trip create long-term empowerment for those we aim to serve? Or will it leave them dependent on us?
- How can this experience be mutual in nature?
- What are we willing to receive from the people we are there to serve?
This summer consider how you can experience the blessing of receiving by allowing others to give. Alternatively, you can re-paint homes that don’t really need it.
Adapted from the forthcoming book Dream Like Jesus, by Rebekah Simon-Peter, Market Square Publishing, 2019.