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A Conversation We Should Join About Short-Term Mission Trips


Opening the book: my narrative

I was browsing the bookshelves at the largest Christian bookshop chain in Australia when Brian Howell’s “Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience” caught my eyes.  I was in the process of preparing to lead my fourth mission trip to the Solomon Islands and the thoughtful analysis this book appeared to offer piqued my interest.

I had been enculturated as a child in the Adventist narrative of overseas missions.  Both of my parents served in the Pacific before they met. Growing up in Cooranbong I was exposed to a steady stream of returning missionaries and those visiting on furlough.  At one stage my grandparents were neighbours with Len Barnard, under whose plane I sometimes rode my bicycle to school.  My first mission trip was to Vanuatu, where, as a high-schooler, I helped install a classroom of computers at an Adventist academy.  The importance of mission trips was very clear to me.

After graduating as a science teacher from Avondale, I was appointed to Brisbane Adventist College (BAC), where I currently work.  Despite already impressive mission credentials, a dream of the staff was to run an overseas mission trip.  The dream came true when I partnered with a friend working at another Adventist school to run a Sonship mission trip to the Western Province of the Solomon Islands.

Three trips followed in rapid succession, resulting in three dormitories being painted and a dining hall being tiled for the first time.  The trips were well received, with students and parents alike as enthusiastic supporters, and the host community eager to court more trips.  Nonetheless, I agonized over the effectiveness of the trips.  Were they having a long-term impact on the visiting students and the host communities?  Could the money spent travelling be used more effectively?  Was the host community becoming complacent about receiving help from other people?  Were we perpetuating cultural insensitivities through our unintentional, and otherwise, colonialist attitudes?

Despite these misgivings, I was convinced that we were doing some good, and were certainly not doing a lot of harm.  For these reasons I was very ready to enter into a dialogue with Brian Howell’s book “Short-Term Mission.”

Thoughtful conversation: the book

Brian Howell is an anthropologist based at Wheaton College in the US.  The book details his observations of a trip he joined, as an anthropologist, from one of the local Wheaton churches with a well-established short term mission program.  He used an ethnographic study, as indicated in the title, with a particular emphasis on how narratives shape the experience of participants. The book is easy to read, with anecdotes from his observations interspersed throughout as he develops the background and methodology.  His recommendations center around how the narrative of short term mission can be improved.

Many thought-provoking ideas resonated with me and prompted reflections on my own ongoing engagement with short-term missions.  A few of these include:

1. I regularly hear from my students statements to the effect of, “We felt God’s presence in a greater way during the trip.”  While this may be the case, and one that I personally understand, I appreciated Howell’s observation that God’s presence should be discernible “back home” as well.

2. The Solomon Islands is often touted as the “Happy Isles.”  Unsurprisingly, my students note that everybody seems so happy despite not having the material wealth they are accustomed to in Australia.  Howell insightfully points out that in the same way that we greet visitors warmly despite our potential feelings to the contrary, the local facade should not be automatically equated with enjoyment or even acceptance of their situation.

3. I am often concerned that my students will go into culture shock when they arrive in the Solomon Islands.  I am usually encouraged by their flexibility.  The vast cultural differences, including the differences in material wealth, potentially strip my students of a guiding narrative.  As a result, the narrative that I and the other leaders use is vital in shaping the experience of the students so that they leave with appropriate narratives to guide their future engagement with sustainable development.   

A somewhat amusing anecdote illustrates the malleability of my student’s narratives.  On my most recent trip, I was allowing my students to have some input into the project we were going to complete.  We had sent paint with our supplies but were not sure which building we were going to paint until we arrived.  I presented the options to them and listened to their thoughts for a while.  They were all settling on one of the buildings.  I then, just to test the robustness of their thinking, posed some arguments for the other building.  They all quickly decided that the other building would be the one to go with!  

Howell is very attuned to narrative and the way in which narrative is shaped before, during and after the trip.  I appreciated his guidance on the importance of this, particularly in the post-trip debriefs, which in his observation were lacking in structure in the trip he was involved with.  I noticed, however, a weakness that arises from this form of ethnographic study.  The narratives of the North Americans on his trip gave them the expectation that the Dominican Republic, where they were working, would be vastly different from their North American experience.  As a result they were forced to find differences in their experience of the Dominican Republic culture that they were visiting.  I have not observed a similar situation on any of my trips.  Rather, there is often a need to find little reminders of Australia due to the large material differences in the Solomon Islands.  It seems that the comparative development of the Dominican Republic compared to the Solomon Islands may limit the generality of Howell’s insights into narrative formation. 

4. The trips I have been involved in have always included some fun activities, such as snorkelling and visiting the Solomons’ capital Honiara as we transit through.  I have always viewed these aspects of the trip as something other than mission.  Howell rightly points out that these are an equally important aspect of a mission trip through their ability to educate the participants in the wider narrative of the country that they are visiting.  I observed on my most recent trip how a snorkelling trip was a meaningful opportunity for my students to continue their engagement with the local young people, which is a significant and worthy activity of a mission trip.

Dialogue: some points of divergence

Howell is ambivalent about the material benefits of teams completing projects in the poorest areas.  While acknowledging that God is able to work through even poorly planned development work, he encourages teams to work on the offices or buildings belonging to established missionaries which are often located in wealthier areas.  I share his concerns about the long-term dangers of dependence resulting from ill-planned activities.  I would venture that church-building by overseas teams, as distinct from funding the building, may fall into this category.  I am convinced, however, that exceptions need to be made for education and health work.

My perception is that both Western and developing-nation schools suffer the same complaint, namely a lack of funds.  While it is true that the money spent in airfares could have been used to achieve a lot, the maintenance work my teams have completed would not have been completed without us, as the host schools simply do not have the funds for that kind of work.  One of the schools that we visited for three consecutive years reported that partially due to our efforts the school’s pride had been lifted, with a corresponding improvement in academic results.  By improving the quality of an educational experience, a long-lasting and widespread impact must surely result.  

In a similar way, providing basic medical facilities and equipment must also be an exception.  It makes me angry when I go into villages and observe medical conditions, such as open infected wounds and cleft palates, that are readily treatable but have not been due to the inaccessibility of medical care.  If critics of development work, and Howell is not among them, are concerned about this kind of work, then it is our responsibility to develop a robust theology of mission and development work to push back against these concerns.

Orthopraxy: living the conversation

A careful analysis of the methodology and benefits of short-term mission trips is warranted.  The enthusiasm for short-term missions in the Adventist church is likely to continue.  Critical and moderating voices within the Adventist church are necessary to help shape the conversation. However, the conversation must ultimately be focused on what we are doing for the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40).  Howell is a thoughtful, and thought-provoking, conversation partner – one with whom the Adventist community should dialogue.  More conversation partners are needed, particularly from those hosting visits from short-term mission trips.

I would also like to ask the Adventist and broader short-term mission community to investigate more comprehensively the long-term impact of trips on participants.  Anecdotally the Sonship trips I have been in have been efficacious in long-term change.  It would be beneficial to practitioners such as myself if an instrument were made available to measure and affect long-term change in participants.

The narrative continues for me.  I am currently in preparation for my fifth trip to the Solomon Islands, this time with over 20 students.  Howell’s analysis is already reshaping some of my approaches.  In particular, (1) the deliberate re-shaping of the narrative of my students to be one of “partnership with” rather than “service to”; (2) working with my students to maximize opportunities for informal mentoring with younger locals; and (3) engaging my students more strongly with the narrative of the country we are visiting by inviting Solomon Islanders living in Australia to share their culture before we leave.

Mi likim for iumi fo stap lo sumfala ples for staka tok tok lo disfala topic.  Mi ting ting diswan hemi gud tumus fo iumi fo save.  Mi nomoa.

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