The Americans Are Coming: Three Ways You Can Detoxify a Short-Term Mission Trip

Ian North of Refugee Beads Shares Three Things Short-term Teams Need to Know About His Neighborhood.

“The Americans are coming! The Americans are coming!” the immigrant and refugee kids in my apartment complex shout before running out to meet the clean, white church vans that pull into the parking lot.

Short-term teams visit our neighborhood regularly, playing games, talking about Jesus, and feeding snacks. Their visits help to break the boredom of summer, and the kids here seem to have a good time. But over my years of ministry in this place, I noticed that these visits can reinforce ideas that alienate my young neighbors and can contribute to despair, violence, and loss of hope.

Without meaning to, short-term visitors can deepen the belief that our neighbors are inferior by treating them with pity or fear. They can make our kids feel worthless because the visits are quick and the closeness they feel with visitors is discarded once the week is over. And the highest-risk kids, the ones prone to misbehave or act out, are excluded from activities or treated as obstacles.

I believe that short-term missions can be a good thing. My wife became interested in working with the under-privileged during a short-term missions trip overseas. We want our neighbors to hear about Jesus. We want them to feel valuable and interesting. But we need to accomplish these things without making our neighbors feel like tourist attractions, animals at the zoo, or targets for hit-and-run ministry for “Americans” who see them as a summer diversion.

Here are three ways I hope that visitors to my neighborhood can work to love my neighbors well:

Show Respect Instead of Pity

Imagine a billionaire visiting your home and shaking her head sadly at your furniture, apologizing to you with tears in her eyes because you have to drive on road trips instead of taking a private jet, and asking if she can throw out your wardrobe and replace it with whatever brand of clothes billionaires wear. Would you feel empowered after this conversation? What would it tell you about your value and your place in the world?

We do the same thing when we walk into a neighborhood with a mindset of pity. It’s a natural thing to do, but it conveys a terrible message about people’s value, and it blinds us to the better traits of the people we’re visiting.

Within my neighborhood, there are gifted leaders. There are families with a sense of hospitality I’ve never experienced in mainstream America. There are people who are generous, even when it means sharing the little they have. If you come to my neighborhood, come looking for things to praise and admire, and do your praising and admiring out loud. Pity breaks people down. Respect points out their strengths and gives them room to grow.

Don’t Promise To Keep In Touch. Keep In Touch.

“Ian, when will I get a letter from the Americans?”

Every time I hear this question from a kid with whom I work, it stumps me. The promised letters rarely come. I know that a kid will be disappointed, and will believe that she or he isn’t worth the time and postage. I know that the promise was made with good intentions, but visitors go home tired and the demands of everyday life become important again, and our kids are left empty-handed after getting excited about a new friendship.

Don’t promise to write, or keep in touch on Facebook, or send gifts, or visit again next year. Instead, listen carefully, record names, faces and stories, and build follow-up into your plans as a team.

Most of the good things that happen in relationships happen over time. Easy promises set kids up for feelings of worthlessness and loneliness. Follow-up, especially when it’s unexpected, shows a person that she or he is valuable, and opens the door for the good that comes from sustained relationships.

Be A Grateful Guest

Most of my neighbors are Hispanic. Some are documented and others aren’t. Many of them have been harassed, exploited, bullied, marginalized, or at the very least, avoided by black, white, and Asian Americans. The reason they live where they live is because they can be around their own kind, speak a mutually understood language, and feel relatively safe from the injustices they suffer anywhere else they go.

So when a group of “Americans” comes into their neighborhood and knocks on their doors asking for their kids, it can be fairly unsettling.

We have lived here for five years. We’ve helped many of the families with one need or another, we know most of the kids by name, and we greet our neighbors warmly. Because of that and because they are hospitable and generous people, they trust us. So they let their kids play with the teams we bring in.

But it’s important to remember that you’re a guest who is here because of their grace. It’s important to be kind when my neighbors eye you with suspicion, to thank them when they trust you enough to let you play with their kids.

Remember that the people who will do the long-term work of building up this neighborhood already live here. They might be the rowdiest kids, or the most reluctant to listen to you. They might be the kids or parents who have trouble trusting you. Look for them, be grateful that they’re letting you share their space for a time, and encourage them in who they are and what they do.

If you show honor to my neighbors and learn from them well, they will be generous with you, and you will enjoy opportunities to build them up and encourage them.