Audrey, my oldest daughter, and I leave for Rwanda in less than one week, and I hope to be writing about that trip on the blog to promote the good work God is doing in Africa (and many other parts of the world) through the microenterprise efforts of Hope International. As we prepare to go (and I write in preparation), it’s also an opportunity for me to consider why I value short-term missions, despite its many hazards.
My husband, Ryan, and I have traveled twice to Africa. The first time, we traveled as a team of five students from Wheaton College to Mali for eight weeks, where we lived and worked with a Ghanaian couple. I use the word “work” in the loosest sense: we passed many of our daytime hours languidly under large shade trees, wondering why our young, eager bodies couldn’t be put to more productive work. Though we hauled water, helped prepare food, and occasionally accompanied Dr. Solomon on his medical visits into the village, we spent the days rather uselessly, bewildered (and often frustrated) by our inactivity. At night, however, we piled into the Land Rover and bumped our way to remote villages. In the light of the headlights, we sang “Yesu Nana” and swatted large, hard-shelled insects. We prayed zealously while the Jesus film played and hoped for one or two converts when Dr. Solomon thundered an invitation after it finished. Once, when the rains abruptly swept in and the roads turned to muddy rivers, we presumed on African hospitality and slept three girls to a mosquito net, while the men spooned on the dirt floor.
Hundreds of mosquito bites later, we all got malaria.
The second time Ryan and I went to Africa, we were the parents of three small children. (I spent the first couple of nights lying awake in my bed, tearfully missing them.) This trip, sponsored by our local church, was considerably more “productive,” if I could be so American as to use that word. Our team consisted mostly of medical professionals, and we arrived in Benin with suitcases full of pain relievers, antibiotics, and anti-diarrheal medication. Each morning, we traveled to a local church, which hosted a day clinic. People streamed in, complaining of stomach pain, toothaches, and “malaria” to a local church member, who translated their symptoms to me in French. I relayed, in English, the self-diagnosis to one of our medical practitioners. During our ten days in Benin, we contributed more concrete help, and we did it under the auspices of the local church. This felt like a better way to do short-term missions.
I know the hazards of short-terms missions. It’s expensive, first of all. The argument can certainly be made that money is better spent directly helping people rather than funding a kind of philanthropic tourism. I confess I have some of those same fears about the trip I’m taking with Audrey. I also know that short-terms missions can often be perceived as a kind of colonialist endeavor: white, Western people galloping in on their white gospel horses. Yes, we contribute more harm than help when we create dependence rather than foster sustainability. This is a real danger to short-term missions. There’s also the issue of taxing the hosting missionaries, who must interrupt their work to play tour guide to a bunch of eager-beaver, inflexible Westerners. I see these hazards. I understand these cautions.
But Ryan and I have still committed to taking each one of our children individually into another part of the world to see how God is at work. Audrey, 14, is the first to go. (I hope I’ll get some of her own words on the blog during our trip – she’s a fantastic writer and a keen observer.) What we want and pray for her is that God will increase her capacity for loving the world as he does.
“Jeremiah, what do you see?” God asks the prophet, conscripting him into missionary service (v. 11). And maybe all ministry, all prophetic witness begins, not with saying, but with seeing. And maybe seeing the world is one way to begin to loving it. We can’t know what God intends to do in our daughter’s heart because of one short week in Africa. Maybe Audrey will someday return, giving her life to work there. Maybe she’ll never return but will pray and actively send others. Maybe spending time with business owners who’ve stretched a relatively small supply of American dollars (the average loan given by Urwego Opportunity Bank is $297) to feed, house, and cloth their family will birth generosity in her own heart. Whatever happens, I think she’ll find the world changed.
Audrey, what do you see?