A Letter to a Friend- Thoughts On Mission Trips (Having Never Been on a Mission Trip)
I’ve never been on a mission trip or anything resembling one, so I always appreciate when people tell me about theirs. Some time ago I fell briefly into the cynicism that mission trips are entirely self-serving endeavors, that people embark on them in order to feel a little less guilty and perhaps get the notion in their head that they are changing the world, when in reality they’re doing nothing more than perpetuating the helplessness of the Third World. After all I had met quite a few people from the most popular mission trip countries in college, and most of them were very much more competent and vigorous than me; it would seem, I thought, that offering them help would practically be insulting them.
But since then I have realized that such an understanding is just as flawed as the understanding that all is Hell in Africa- it allows only one dimension for the object being considered, whereas the nature of our world (and our species in general) dictates that all things are multidimensional beyond our comprehension (though we, of course, can discern a good many of those dimensions through honest thought and observation.) There is indeed a spiritual urge inside us which craves satisfaction, more strongly in some than in others, and service to God by service to his least fortunate creatures is the oldest means, besides hallucinating alone out in the wilderness, of pursuing that satisfaction. I do not doubt that some individuals probably have ulterior motives, not excluding pride and a desire to be seen as good by others, but this does not exclude that many or most likely possess that internal spiritual hunger earlier mentioned- and this, though it is indeed a ‘self-serving motive’ is by no means a wicked one! If the morality of our actions is to be judged by whether we gain anything from them or not, it seems that no one has ever done a truly good deed- for the happiness that comes with service is a treasure on its own.
And the societies to which thus-driven missionaries travel are not merely not-yet-developed versions of our own. The liberal internationalist sees a future world of global prosperity, where no one bears the sword and no one wears the chain, where there’s a chicken in every pot and the freedom from want is as safely guarded as the freedom of speech. I ought not repeat his folly and assume that a high standard of living is on the horizon for all, for all empirical evidence suggests that poverty is an ill endemic to our condition and will never be eradicated. Yet this curse bears with it an opportunity.
For if this world were perfect, what use would there be for virtue? Jesus commanded us to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked; and if there are neither hungry nor naked individuals in our midst, how can we follow such a command? Now of course this is in part a self-serving assumption and of course any good soul would support the efforts of statebuilders and captains of industry to raise up the Third World to par with ours. But so long as the hungry cry, the opportunity to be Christ avails itself to all willing to take the opportunity.
Yet even if the poor nations of the Earth should rise up and assume their place beside the titans of our civilization, the chance to serve would still not be lost. The soup kitchens and orphanages and home-building projects and hospitals which you saw in Dominica are present HERE, in our First-World post-historical society! The scepter of poverty looms below the shining towers of our greatest cities! “Look down and see the beggars at your feet;” If anything can prove the endemicity of poverty, it is that we find it here. And though this is a cruel reality, it presents, too, the opportunity to serve. My youngest brother and little sister have been volunteering at our church’s poor-house for the last several weeks, and it just now occurs to me that they do mission work in doing so.
I am forced to consider myself and my own actions; and in all honesty, my ‘service’ has primarily been service to the organizations of which I am a part (and is thus not service but duty) or has been to the invisible face of the public in the form of conservation and construction work in parks. I have not served performing the corporal works of mercy for quite some time; perhaps that explains in part the loneliness of my soul and the wretchedness of my mind which I have come to know in the last two years. Voltaire admonished us of our guilt for all the good we failed to do in life; perhaps it is time that I, the cheerleader of some mystical quality called ‘balance,’ seek a just balance in my life, and perform service to the lowest tier of Mankind in tandem with those other services to self, duty, and family which I have become so notorious for glorifying.
You will likely find it ironic that I, who have never been on a mission trip, have just delivered a discourse exploring their benefits. Certainly a large part of that is due to my curiosity as to the spiritual development most seem to go through after returning.
Now, I will probably not be going on any mission trips any time soon. Money’s an issue, and beyond that I believe I can do more good at home than abroad. (Time to get involved with the homeless ministry at Church… And continue my studies.) But it’s always interesting to hear from friends and attempt to understand, somewhat, their experiences. Thus my opinions on the usefulness of this growing trend of service can be more informed by ‘experience’ than reason alone.