Making Short Term Mission Trips Meaningful: A Report from El Salvador

The Objectives of Short Term Mission Trips

A short-term mission trip (hereafter STMT) is a tricky, tricky thing. The trickiness lies in making something truly meaningful out of such a short period of time, something more than just a veiled pretext to explore foreign culture. There is a lot stacked against a group desiring to do work in a foreign context-- cultural inexperience, shortness of time, the ever-present language barrier-- and these things taken together form a pretty formidable challenge. It takes a special group to take them on and to do it well.

In  El Salvador,  children  in the rural areas will only attend school for an average of 3.7 years. Because of this, a majority of our efforts are focused on children who are out of school. While we do our best to encourage school attendance, we also supplement with tutoring and children’s programs. Short term teams assist our efforts in bringing supplies (both to the schools and for our programs), as well as facilitating children’s camps and teaching sessions.

 

I think the recent group that came down to El Salvador, comprised of five high schoolers and one college student from Ohio, was just such a group, a group who, despite all the challenges, was able to accomplish something truly meaningful. The trip was run through SLAM (Students Living A Mission, the youth outreach program of G.O.D. Int’l). To show how they accomplished this, and why I think it’s such a big deal, allow me to explain.

The trickiness of an STMT really lies in the fact that an STMT has two objectives. You want the students to be impacted (objective #1), and you want the students to have an impact (objective #2). The difficulty arises from the fact that these objectives are not altogether congenial. In fact, they often pull in opposite directions. To be impacted a group has to witness the accomplishment of something significant. But, because of the brevity of time, it’s difficult to finish something significant without rushing it. You could run a group ragged trying to accomplish something, but if they don’t have time to worship, reflect, and learn from the Word, it won’t have an impact on the students. They’ll feel more like hired labor than meaningful participants in the project. This is why most organizations usually opt to favor one while forgetting the other. This is disastrous, because although objective #1 and objective #2 are often hard to accomplish simultaneously, they are, in the end, reliant upon each other if you want an STMT to succeed in any true or meaningful way. But this balance is a challenge to maintain, and its often easier to just run away from it. And here is where the temptation to make an STMT an overblown vacation really becomes irresistible.

You see, objective #1, as far as appeasing the group goes, is fairly easy to accomplish just by exposing a group to a foreign culture. There is a certain universal appeal to travel. I think this is because most of us live in a fairly steady routine (people whose existence is one of precariousness never consider traveling in any serious way.) Living in routine has much to recommend it. It offers a sense of security and calm, but it also tends to atrophy our mental equipment. The world becomes a given, requiring no special or critical attention, which can be a drag. Give the mind an array of uncommon and foreign experiences, however, and the mind comes alive—it inquires, it hypothesizes, it categorizes. A sudden thump next to you. What was that? You look down. A single mango rolls dustily at your feet. It occurs to you that you haven’t been around fruit trees long enough to think about fruit actually falling, much less in a head-endangering way. You do minor calculations: approx. falling-fruit speed, softness of fruit vs. skull thickness, etc. And the mind is a awhirl, working hard to comprehend a world that is anything but routine. (1)

A Successful Short Term Mission Trip must be Meaningful

For individuals on a short term mission trip, the goal is for them to make an impact as well as to be impacted.  Rachel Chon (second from left) was impacted by getting to know  children in the local area, and was able to learn a lot more about them because she speaks Spanish. In El Salvador, there is little to no English spoken at all. Being fluent in the language allows for much deeper relationships to be developed.

When the group from Ohio and Nashville first touched down in El Salvador, this basic appeal of novelty and strangeness was the first thing they saw. A facilitator picked them up from the airport (we had spent the previous week preparing for their visit), and as they looked out the bus window they witnessed a blur of newness— signs in a foreign language, new flora and fauna, and so on and so forth. They came off the bus with faces of weariness and awe. Throughout the trip we introduced the students to all manners of things foreign to them. You can, of course, make this novelty the whole point of the trip. The trip can become a big foreign-culture tour. Even poverty can become part of the show. This is the way of tourism—to ogle—but it’s an STMT’s job to go beyond ogling and tourism. The goal is not just to feel subjectively satisfied with being able to witness something worth taking a picture of (part of Objective #1), but to do something meaningful to help (the whole crux of objective #2). But, this is where all the trickiness of an STMT begins. How do you do something meaningful in such a short amount of time?

Before we proceed, a quick definition of “meaningful”: Something is meaningful if it contributes to the development of some larger goal that is considered desirable by those participating in the project. (2)

The biblical image often associated with this idea is the harvest. You put in a lot of hard work because there is some kind of necessary and desirable end to which all that hard work is directed. The cry of the prophet that he had “labored in vain” is the cry of someone anxiously questioning the meaning of his work. This all means that whether something is meaningful or not is dependent  upon there being some larger project. Because the group was here in El Salvador for one week, they couldn’t have possibly been involved in the entire project, beginning to completion. Because of this lack of direct access to the project in its entirety, they have to have to trust us that we (1) have a larger project in mind (2) that this project is good.

A Relationship of Trust

Irma Chon is a youth leader from Hilliard, Ohio, who we have been working with for the last five years. Her youth group have regularly attended our Nashville service weeks, and we have facilitated events in her hometown. This was the second international trip that her church has taken to El Salvador with our organization. Upon their return this year, members of the team were able to see the progress and development made in the area since their last visit.

This level of trust is important because we really asked this group to do some hard work. Take the first day as an example. After a time in the Word, they gathered shovels and other tools, and they went off to do a work project. This project was the construction of a “French drain,” which is an inexpensive way to drain water by burying a tube in the ground that then collects excess water and carries it away from the area. On the side of house #1 (the land they worked, our property in El Salvador, has three houses), there is an area that has a nasty tendency to hold pools of water after heavy rain fall. This creates all sorts of problems, not the least of which is the fact that standing waters quickly becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes. The group worked the whole morning, digging the trench, laying down gravel, putting in the pipe at a slight downward grade, and finally re-burying the pipe. It was hot, and the work was not at all easy, but they did it. These houses are used as residences for full-time development workers, and the work made our property safer and better equipped for the task. It also modeled a low-cost solution to a problem that is quite common in the area. These are all really great things, but the effectiveness of their work will, of course, depend on us continuing to use the property and putting it to good use.

And this is what made this particular trip especially meaningful for me and for our group: The group knew us. We have had a long and important relationship with the leader, Irma Chon. She has worked with and supported SLAM for many years. Two of the youths spent time in El Salvador two years ago. In fact, Max Alvarez got a chance to stay in the very house he helped build on his last trip to El Salvador. Over the years, they have witnessed our continuing and growing project in El Salvador. They have seen that we want to have a long-term impact in the area, and that we are willing to put in the hard work to contribute to it. Working with the group felt less like facilitating a trip and more like co-laboring for the same wonderful purpose. I believe it is through mutual trust and continued relationships that SLAM can transcend the whole double-bind of the oft contradictory objectives of the whole STMT experience.

After building the French drains (we’re still on the first day), the youths facilitated a camp for kids in the local area. In the area we work, there is a very real lack of beneficial activities for the youth. Groups of kids just standing around is not an uncommon sight. Giving kids an opportunity to have fun, learn, and relate to one another in a positive way is a big deal in of itself, and the group did a wonderful job offering these benefits. They sang songs with the kids, put on a drama of a biblical story, and did an art project. We shared with the kids many smiles and laughs. Again, it was a great moment in of itself, and it was all the more meaningful by the fact that the group was contributing to the start of something that will grow beyond the two days they got to spend with the kids. Because, in the end, the kids in El Salvador need more than a couple of days of activities. And we plan to do just that, and the momentum, trust, and enthusiasm that the group helped us generate has contributed to that overarching goal.

When you totally ignore the overall impact you are supposed to have, things that can get really bad. There are STMT horror stories, like stories of whole communities used simply as a staging area for STMTs. Groups come in weekly, put on the same VBS, hand out the same prizes, and leave. The goal of the trip is only to create a feel-good experience for a group of foreign kids (objective #1), but it has no real vision for the long-term benefit of the community (Objective #2). The groups only feel that they are contributing to something meaningful, whereas the truth is, in actuality, much more grim. A common example is the dental problems caused by the constant handouts of free candy given week after week. This is one of the more innocuous examples. (However, the fact that the whole dental-problem example is on the lower end of the spectrum of damage a STMT can produce is a bit frightening, considering that damage to the body’s only non-renewable surface is fairly grave, especially in a third-world context). We want to do better, and we know the people we work with want to do better as well. This is why, in participating in this larger work, we can never forget the people in need, because the “harvest” in the biblical sense has everything to do with the development of human beings.

A little over a month ago, Rosa went into a diabetic coma and did not recover for close to 30 minutes. Insulin and other helpful maintenance tools for diabetics are often out of reach for someone like Rosa, on a very limited income. Through our partnership with teams from Ohio and Indiana, we were able to provide her with diabetic shoes and socks (she is modeling them in the picture).  People with diabetic neuropathy in their feet may have a false sense of security as to how much at risk their feet actually are, and the shoes help prevent strain, ulcers, callouses, and even amputations for individuals with diabetes and poor circulation.

This brings me to one of the most impactful days of the trip, our visit with Rosa. On the third day, after catching a bus that took us to the nearest city of San Martín, we walked to Milagro de Dios. It was a long walk, the same walk many people in that community make every day. The roads that lead into Milagro are dusty and uneven, furrowed and rocky. The houses have all been constructed with a piecemeal collection of materials--corrugated tin, wood, laminate. The community is expansive. From certain points, you can look out and see thousands of roofs. And then there is Rosa. How could I possibly describe her? I can say that she glows with hospitality and warmth. I can say that when we came she pulled out every chair in her house to seat us. I can say that she made coffee for us, and that she welcomed each person with a hug and a blessing from God. I can say that she’s special beyond my meager ability to capture it in words. The thing that strikes you about Rosa is that your presence is such a gift to her. We have been working with Rosa for over four years, and the SLAM students got to witness and take part in the benefits of that relationship. They got to participate in that relationship, knowing full well that we will continue to support her, again, that their work is part of a larger project.

After the group left, we drove down to a medical store in San Salvador to purchase diabetic shoes for Rosa to protect her feet. With the money that the group donated, we were able to bless our dear friend with a gift that will help alleviate her pain and protect her feet from further harm. Jesus told his disciples, “’One sows and another reaps’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored and you have entered into their labor” (Jn. 4:37). As I watched Rosa’s face glow with joy when she tried on her new shoes, I felt like the man who got to reap a harvest. Others paved the way, and now I rejoice to see the fruit of such labor.

Is it possible for a Short Term Mission Trip to have an Impact? Yes. 

We are all workers in God’s vineyard. We are all participating in a project that is beyond us. Trusting in God’s faithfulness to his work, we ourselves must be faithful with whatever task he has given us. I was grateful for the work that the SLAM participants had contributed and for what they gave, and I was happy that I got to carry the labor further.

This might all seem long and convoluted for an article about a single mission trip. But, its my attempt to express why I was so excited to be a part of this week. It was not just because it was a collection of exciting opportunities for service—although it was certainly that—but because it contributed to the greater work that I believe God is doing in El Salvador, and I believe it contributed to the greater work God is doing in each participant that got the opportunity to enter into the labor.

Footnotes:

(1) Some people live on this feeling, i.e. the aesthetic pleasure derived from exposing oneself to foreign experiences. They travel from place to place, taking more pictures than anyone cares to see, and talking about themselves for longer than necessary. They may seem adventurous, but their habits bespeak a weakness of character. They can’t see beyond externalities, and therefore, must feed on new externalities to keep them interested. They are addicts of novelty. I’m not totally opposed to the general aesthetic pleasure of travel. I enjoy just as much as anyone the feeling of the mind’s strings being tightened to a heightened sense of awareness and focus. But, it does wear off. If the constant feeling of novelty is the steam your ship runs on, you don’t end up floating very far. And, truth be told, after the whole initial novelty stage wears off (what some theorists call the “romantic stage of cultural immersion”), there are some downright annoying and mystifying aspects of any culture that quickly become apparent.

(2) If any of my readers are well-read on the whole structuralist vs. poststructuralist debate in literary  criticism on the term “meaning,” then you should do yourself a favor and forget it. I am using the term with absolutely no regard for that debate.