Short term mission trips present an opportunity to build relationships with partners and communities over time. You don’t have to go to a new place every year. “Where are we going this year?” is one of my least favorite things to hear students ask.
We just got back from our second consecutive week-long trip to Detroit with junior high (and some pre-junior high) youth. Detroit was brand new for a few of them, but for most it was not. For the bulk of leaders it was not. Everything we did during the week drew comparisons to the previous year’s trip, which got old (I was the biggest offender) but which also indicated a positive development. We were talking about what we were doing and who we were doing it with, not, as on the first trip, about the city and all its problems.
A leader asked me towards the end of the week if I noticed any improvement in the city since a year ago. I answered No. What the late Anthony Bourdain disparaged as “ruin porn” is still ever-present as you make your way around the city. It’s a very short window though, 12 months, and what you’re viewing through it, if you’re looking for visible signs of development or “turnaround,” is elusive. Looking for it from the outside is part of the problem. Because what looks like improvement and what permits a kind of self-congratulation on the part of tourists and well-meaning church groups is a gleaming new downtown casino, even though none of the church leaders we meet when we visit Detroit experience that kind of improvement as anything but predation upon the communities they’re serving.
Taking groups of youth to the same place year after year to work with the same people and the same leaders can help us train our eyes on the right kind of “improvement” in a place. That improvement is measured by how well your friends there are thriving more than by how much development is going on downtown.