When I was 17, I went on my very first mission trip to Matamoras, Mexico. To be honest, at the time I was slightly underwhelmed with excitement to be traveling driving-distance from my home in Oklahoma, to a place that nearly everyone I knew had already been to.
I wanted something more exotic and foreign - something that resembled more of a distant land, so-to-speak, and something that would give me more of the experience I thought I was looking for. Little did I know this trip would set the precedence for my outlook on missions and ministry for the rest of my life.
The purpose of this particular trip was urban outreach with drama performances in town squares, and developmental outreach through home building, vacation bible school and cultivation of relationships within the communities.
It only took one drama performance for me to realize that this was neither an effective, nor enjoyable tool for evangelism. I also realized that street evangelism is NOT my calling. Thankfully our drama was only performed twice before we spent the rest of the trip focusing on the particular families and neighborhoods we had been assigned to help.
My favorite days were the ones when I was selected to join several of my team members as we walked through the area we were serving and took time to get to know the people within the village. I'll never forget the afternoon we met a woman who, within minutes of introduction had us sitting in her living room as she fed us Coca-A-Cola and the best enchiladas I've ever had in my life- literally.
However, my most transformative experience happened entirely apart from my team and our schedule and agendas. I was walking through the village with a few other fellow-missionaries, when I came upon a woman doing laundry. I immediately felt compelled to talk to her, so with my extremely broken Spanish, I struck up a conversation. Soon, I was able to ask her what she needed most help with, to which she simply replied - "could you help me carry water to my house?" Within minutes I was helping this woman carry buckets of water to her home, and learning the names of her children. This continued until I was scolded by my team leader for wandering away from the group and was highly discouraged from taking matters into my own hands as I had done.
Nearly nine years later, I can still confidently say that my few minutes of helping the woman carry her water and laundry were more impactful and influential in my life than any of the structured, pre-planned objectives that filled my week in Matamoras, Mexico.
If there's one thing I've learned from moving to Haiti, it's that every pre-conceived notion I had about missions and ministry has been completely stripped and restructured.
Recently there was an article published online at Relevant Magazine about short-term mission work. There's no question why this particular piece has been shared on social media over 27,000 times. The author, Michelle Acker Perez, strikes a very strong chord. Her points are not only poignant, but were far overdue in being brought to the forefront of not only ministry, but more specifically mission teams/organizations/individuals' mindsets and conversations.
For centuries, the missions/humanitarian model has been tried, tested and attempted to be perfected by countless individuals and organizations. But there is one method I fear has caused more harm than good.
This past weekend as my team and I returned home to Belle-Anse after spending a week in Jacmel recovering from a mass episode of the mosquito-borne virus currently ransacking the Caribbean known as "Chikungunya", I experienced a phenomenon of epic proportions.
As I sat in backseat of the SUV traveling up the mountainous region of the southeast corner of Haiti, I never hesitated to smile at each passerby.
Yet, with each smile came an immediate recognition of my skin color, followed by an extended hand, ready to receive whatever resource they thought I was going to give them. This continued for nearly two hours as we traveled out of Jacmel into the Belle-Anse sect, and each time my heart ached a little bit more, until the aching grew to a frustration and eventual a fury.
The most astonishing observation, however took place after crossing over into Belle-Anse. Within seconds the extended hands and assumptions that our vehicle was driving through their villages to pass out goods, were replaced with smiles, waves and genuine excitement to see an unfamiliar face.
How could two people groups, each living within the same country, and even the same region, react in such a contrast with one another?
The answer is simple.
People living in Jacmel and beyond, have been indoctrinated in the ways of NGO's, mission teams, and humanitarian aid relief for half a century. Due to the isolated nature of the mountain villages and unreachable-by-road territories of Belle-Anse, very few organizations and relief workers have been able to infiltrate the area, leaving it untouched and unaware of stigmas and behavioral adaptations to the aid being received and the individuals providing that aid.
Before I go any further, I want to point out that in no way am I against humanitarian aid or service. I think NGO's and government organizations are 100% needed and necessary especially in the provision of interim solutions for issues, disaster and crisis of catastrophic proportions. But it when it comes to the day to day, the systems we condition foreign nationals to adhere to, those are the areas I find have some of the biggest problems.
One of the fundamental issues I have with the "handout" mentality, is the exacerbation of poverty and the poverty mentality.
By immediately swooping into a situation and providing a means without knowing the situation, cause and effect or background of individuals involved, you assume an authoritative position, providing someone something you think they need. This in turn glorifies their lack, even if it is something that has been apart of their life and culture for centuries. It reminds them that that are crippled by the unfortunate environment and circumstances they have been born into and causes them to lose a sense of dignity and self-worth.
You give them what you think they want, not what they actually need.
For example, let's say you visit a small village in a third world country and notice women cooking outside over charcoal and fire. You immediately think to yourself, using your own societal norms and culture as a reference, that this is such a sad and unfortunate reality that a woman is so poor she doesn't even live in a home with a proper kitchen. Instead of having the luxury of a stove, she is forced to use archaic methods. So the solution (you think) would be to buy her a propane stove, this way she won't have to use charcoal, and could perhaps even cook within her home. You purchase the stove and present to the woman, who receives it with the utmost of humility and gratitude, however... the factor that has not been included into this scenario is the nearly impossible ability for this woman to be able to upkeep this new way of life. You see, propane stoves can cost anywhere from $15 to $20 US dollars, an exceptional amount for someone living in third world level poverty, and potentially be extremely inconvenient to obtain.
But maybe if you had taken the time to talk to the woman, get to know her and her family, you would learn that there were about hundred other ways you could have offered help that would have been much more effective than the propane stove. Or perhaps, you develop a job for this woman to have so she can earn money and better provide for her family.
This story is a complete alliteration of the effects of providing someone with someone based on your assumption of their need, rather than their actual need.
This woman has now been conditioned to open her hands to any foreigner that seems to represent money and prestige and expect that some type of good will be provided. Her own capabilities and intelligence have not been reinforced and she has become dependent upon an idea that is impossible to maintain.
When the 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated hundreds of thousands of homes, families and individuals on January 12, 2010 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, hundreds of relief teams and organizations rushed in to international recovery. Many of these organizations stayed for one, two, even three years, but recently, it seems as though a mass exodus took place, leaving behind a gaping vacancy within the communities who became so heavily reliant upon the resources being provided.
Billions of dollars poured in for reconstruction efforts and housing for the hundreds of thousands displaced persons. Yet, even with all of this money, the effects of the earthquake worsened rather than improve. An article published towards the end of 2012 discussed the sequence of events, which was the potential cause of the dissimilation of results promised and results displayed.
NGOs followed their own agendas and set their own priorities, largely excluding the Haitian government and civil society.
And here my friends is my point exactly. They followed their OWN agendas and priorities, rather than consulting the Haitian government and people.
I fell prey to this trap my first few months in Haiti. I came to serve an orphanage as a marketing strategist and photojournalist, and felt extremely motivated to go above and beyond what was being asked of me each day. When plans didn't play out how I had anticipated them to, I nearly unraveled. How was I supposed to make a difference or have any type of impact if things weren't unfolding the way I thought they should?
If I wasn't raising thousands of dollars for my cause with my photos and stories, I was failing. If I wasn't motivating people to take action, I wasn't fulfilling my purpose.
But then one day, I stopped and prayed and asked God what His thoughts were on this matter.
And it all became so clear.
Could it be that simple?
But what about all the starvation, death, disease and plethora of other issues revolving around poverty?
What about the impact that I'm supposed to make?
What if those agendas were thrown out the window? What if our to-do lists and pre-made schedules were tossed aside and we listened before taking action?
What if we took the time to learn the people and community whom we serve?
What if we allowed our observation from time spent building relationships and living in community to structure what is that needs to be done and the most effective way for it to be executed?
What if we learned how to disciple, empower and educate the individuals we serve, and really took to heart the true meaning of service?
Not to be served but to serve. Not to live up to our own set of ideals and expectations, but to meet the needs by coming to a place of humility and servitude.
Above all, being motivated by LOVE.
We can't do this on our own mind and strength. We can't do it according to our time table and agendas.
But maybe by following the model of the very first missionary, and take heed to His words and example, change has the possibility of taking place.
Without love, we are nothing.
Love overcomes the largest obstacles.
Love finds beauty amidst ashes.
Love covers a multitude of sins.
Stop. Listen. Love.