Personal Narrative Essay on a Mission Trip

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A short-term mission trip can be defined as a trip in which volunteers travel to a new location for one to three weeks to serve communities and often share their religious beliefs. On a mission trip, teams may partake in activities like painting or building houses, hosting clothing giveaways, or simply building relationships with residents and teammates. Mission trips are becoming increasingly popular in churches across the United States and have come to be a central activity for evangelical teams and youth groups. My own life has been influenced by a mission trip in which my parents took part in 2006. After traveling to Honduras with a church group, my parents discovered a love for Latin America and the service of others. They immediately began to sponsor the education of disadvantaged children, embarked on the adoption process of a girl who would become my sister, and planned future trips to return to Honduras and spend time with people they loved. Their love for missions spilled into my own life, and I went on my first trip to Honduras in 2016 as a freshman in high school. I left this trip with a new perspective, feeling in awe of the planet and more compassionate for my friends in Honduras and my own community. I have seen short-term mission trips as beneficial for most of my life, but I have learned that not everyone feels the same way. A few years ago, I started to hear opinions from mission trip opponents about the damage of missions and the money wasted by self-righteous Americans. These arguments gave me discomfort about trips I had once regarded as life-changing. Consequently, I set out to answer a question: What are the impacts of short-term mission trips? My research revealed both their positive and negative potential consequences, such as the infusion of hopeful energy into a community and the global perspective experienced by volunteers but also the perpetuation of ignorance and unsustainable donations. Overall, I found that short-term missions can have a net beneficial impact when approached mindfully.

Short-term mission trips seem to have some indisputably positive effects. When energetic, well-intentioned people travel to an unfamiliar place, they bring positive energy to the area and the people they visit. Even Jennifer Sutherland-Miller, a long-term missionary and opponent of short-term mission trips, acknowledges that “the missionaries… have a sincere belief in their philosophy and a genuine desire to do good in the world” (Sutherland-Miller). This desire enhances trips and helps needy communities in multiple ways. First, many short-term missionaries want to provide material support to the communities they visit. When mission trip participants are aware of and humble about their fortune, they can utilize their money in ways that meet the specific needs of impoverished people. I had the opportunity to talk to my father, Joel Booher, to learn more about the support he has provided to friends in Honduras over the years. Mission trips awakened his desire to help people in ways that would directly impact their lives. He said, “Our church is the primary supporter of a children’s home for thirty to thirty-five kids which currently has limited financial support, and we are paying for the full college education of three impoverished young women” (Booher). If spent carelessly, donations may be wasteful, but they can contribute to radical change when spent “in the most efficient and sustainable manner possible” (Sutherland-Miller).

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Another benefit I found is that when missionaries assist existing projects and organizations, their enthusiasm can be contagious. There are a number of charitable organizations that exist in underprivileged countries and are staffed by long-term employees. These employees long to serve the communities in which they work, but according to Micha Odenheimer, director of a Haitian/Nepali NGO, “however dedicated they are, local staff cannot keep up this level of excitement about development work” (86). Staff may be more focused on steadily achieving the long-term goals of their organizations, but this comes at the expense of enthusiasm and, sometimes, motivation. On the other hand, short-term volunteers recognize that they only have a short period of time to serve, so they want to make the most of it. Odenheimer says that “an important contribution of the volunteers is to keep the staff motivated and enriched through their infectious desire to make the most out of their stints of service” (86). When well-intentioned, volunteers use their short time to work diligently. Their vivacity encourages staff members and can significantly enhance and contribute to the progress of organizations that serve local communities.

The infectious enthusiasm of volunteers on short-term mission trips also benefits and encourages the residents of the areas they visit. Residents are generally “excited and curious about the volunteers and appreciative of how far they have come to share their knowledge” (Odenheimer 85). Because people look forward to seeing the volunteers, they can bring hope to destitute communities and positively influence the spirit of areas they reach. Relationship-building is also typically a very important part of short-term mission trips. I examined a study conducted on a mission team visiting Haiti, which analyzed the reactions of the volunteers throughout the duration of their trip. According to the study, “building relationships also proved to be an important factor in the participant’s experiences and the connection with the children deepened over time” (Bennett, Eberts 323). Even after mission teams leave, the relationships between residents and visitors can enhance the self-esteem of community members and leave them with cherished memories and friendships. These relationships also have a lasting effect on the visitors, who benefit from the trips as well.

Another positive impact of mission trips is that volunteers experience a new culture, which allows them to see the world in ways they are not used to. American culture can be very fast-paced, materialized, and individualistic, and according to the study on the Haitian mission team, “participants had the perspective that having an abundance of material comforts allowed one to be happy. Their experiences in Haiti proved the opposite to be true in this culture” (Bennett, Eberts 325). Being immersed in a different culture can allow participants to return home with a better understanding of what they consider important, as well as a mature perspective of the diversity and beauty of the world. I frequently think about the beauty of Honduras and miss the ease and simplicity of living there, and my experience has made me better appreciate my own community. Booher also says that his experience traveling to Honduras helped him “to become more loving, more understanding, more thankful, more connected, and having more purpose in life” (Booher). When missionaries approach their trips with a humble and open mind, they can return home with a changed heart and a desire to do good, in addition to the benefits explained above.

However, I found that short-term mission trips can cripple communities and perpetuate inequality when done with poor attitudes. Sutherland-Miller says that “almost every mission trip is centered around going to fix something, solve something, teach something, or provide something” (Sutherland-Miller). If this objective is unchecked, mission teams may develop a sense of superiority, giving the trip an overtone of “‘us’ the wealthy, privileged, enlightened, first worlders, going to ‘help’ ‘them,’ the poor, underprivileged, people of the ‘dark places of the world’” (Sutherland-Miller). I found that volunteers tend to see everything from a privileged perspective unless they work to understand the culture of the community they visit. When people go on a mission trip thinking that they have all of the solutions to the plight of the “poor people”, they certainly do not learn anything from the trip, and their arrogance is felt by the residents. This arrogance is fueled by the “white-savior complex”, the idea that white Western people need to “save” and impose their lifestyles on the people of less-developed nations. The white-savior complex, even if subtle, taints the trip and deepens the divide between participants and the people they are trying to “reach”. Participants with this attitude return home feeling accomplished and proud, but the people they served feel inferior and invaluable.

Mission trips can also be harmful when their primary form of service is handing out food and supplies. Teams like to “be glad that they accomplished something tangible”, so they bring supplies like vitamins, clothing, or food, and distribute them in poor communities (Radecke 23). This model of missions is unsustainable. Mark Radecke says that the distribution of perishable handouts “is undignified... It casts the Norteamericanos in the role of beneficient givers and the recipients in the role of charity cases”(Radecke 23). It’s natural to want to help people in poverty, but handouts create dependency and do nothing to solve the underlying issue. Handouts, especially meals, may alleviate a person’s suffering for a few hours or days, but when supplies are depleted and the missionaries leave, the person finds themselves with the hunger they had before, and their only hope is to wait for someone to come help them again. Of handouts, Sutherland-Miller says that “if there isn’t also a solution to the underlying and long-term problem, then they [handouts] aren’t really helping either” (Sutherland-Miller). Handouts cannot be treated as a long-term solution, but they are popular because “team members have only the perspective of their two weeks” and they want to see results (Radecke 23). Additionally, because some mission teams want to see the physical results of their work, they may be assigned to construction projects that have no purpose and contribute nothing to the well-being of the communities they spend time in. For example, a team may be assigned to paint a wall for a few days. The team “has no idea what the wall will ever be or become, but it keeps the visiting teams busy… and at the end of their time they can rejoice and be glad that they accomplished something tangible” (Radecke 23). Encouraging teams to work on meaningless projects prevents real progress from occurring and allows them to feel proud of the “work” they’ve done. These issues contribute to the detriment of communities and the perpetuation of the White-Savior complex.

My research has led me to realize that the issue of mission trips is very complex and nuanced. Every trip is carried out with different attitudes and objectives, which lead to various results. I’ve learned about how some mission teams successfully foster long-lasting relationships, while others patronize communities. Volunteers may waste money and resources on short-sighted projects, but I’ve seen first-hand how my father has attempted to break the cycle of poverty by paying to sustain orphanages and college educations. All of these trips and acts have the same intention, to travel and serve. Ultimately, it seems to be the attitude and heart of the participants that determine the effect of each trip. For all mission trips to have a positive impact, “there is a need to travel and educate oneself and then go home and put our resources to the best possible use” (Sutherland-Miller). We need to be educated and willing to serve in a way that fits the specific needs of the place being visited, which usually does not consist of painting a wall or taking photos for social media. It looks like I have a lot of learning to do before I head back down to Honduras in January.

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Personal Narrative Essay on a Mission Trip. (2024, January 30). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 16, 2024, from
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