By Guest Blogger, Matt Hartzell
If you have been in and around the church for a decent length of time, it’s likely that you have at some point participated in a short-term missions trip. In fact, short-term mission has been on the rise since the 1980’s. In 2006, 2.2 million Americans spent $1.6 billion on short-term mission work around the globe. The North American church’s increased burden for the materially poor is a good thing, but it also presents an opportunity for all of us to pursue mission work that is helpful and appropriate, and more about being and less about doing.
This past October, I had the great joy to travel with a team of a dozen people to Gan Sabra, an orphan home in Aizawl, India that specifically targets and cares for children who have either been directly affected by HIV themselves, or have been affected it by it to the degree that their primary caregivers are no longer available or able to care for them. It’s an incredible place. The kids who live there have been neglected and often abused, as India harbors a deep stigma against those who are HIV positive. You would expect to find such a place filled with sadness and despair, but Gan Sabra actually is one of the most joyful and happy places I have ever experienced. There have been few other places where the gospel has come alive in more vivid, vibrant clarity for me than when I spent time with those kids.
The cost to get our team to Gan Sabra was north of $40,000. During the six days we spent with the kids, we played soccer, made art projects, talked about stories from the Bible, drank chai and sang songs. We played tag, took photos, and went swimming. We had thumb wars and sat silently together. We shared meals, listened to one another, talked about Jesus and drew pictures. It will, undoubtedly, be one of the highlights of my life, when the Lord draws my time on this earth to an end. It nourished my own soul with immense joy, happiness, peace and satisfaction. I did something entirely uncomfortable for me and learned to rely on God’s grace, goodness and provision more deeply because of it.
Those personal takeaways may sound typical of short-term missions, but perhaps not some of our activities. In fact, there was not a lot in our trip that fits into the traditional boxes the North American church has constructed around short-term missions over the last several decades. Much of our western approach to missions has been born out of a definition of poverty built around a lack of material possessions. In When Helping Hurts, authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert define poverty in a context of fallen and broken relationships with God, self, others and creation. Because of the fallen nature of mankind, we are all in immense poverty:
If we are to adopt this definition of poverty, then simply building a school or providing financial alleviation is not enough. In order to combat this kind of poverty - poverty that affects every single person on the earth - we need a different solution. Jesus is the only one capable of reconciling and restoring us to right relationship with God, with ourselves, with others we know, and with the rest of creation. He is the one who brings shalom and restores peace to our lives.
The fact of the matter is that we are human beings, not human doings! The children of Gan Sabra have been afflicted, rejected, abused and discarded. For a group of Americans to travel 10,000 miles to be with them speaks an incredible truth to them and starts to shape a new story about them: that they are loved, seen, valued and desired. That they have inherent worth. That they are not garbage to be used and thrown away with barely a second thought, but that they are deeply loved by the God of all creation, that God has purpose for their lives, and that they can genuinely love others just as God loves them. I think it would have been very hard for me to communicate this message to the kids of Gan Sabra if I was more focused on swinging a hammer or throwing paint on a wall, rather than simply being with them and saying “You are beautiful, and I love you just as you are, because that’s the way that God has loved me.”
The ironic thing about all that, is that while this type of mission work dramatically changes the lives of HIV orphans, it also dramatically changes us. The gospel comes alive! We learn so much about the character of God as loving Father. We come to more fully understand our own brokenness, as different as it is from an HIV orphan in India, and that we need Jesus just as desperately to come and make us new. We learn to more strongly trust in God’s faithful, steadfast provisions, as we deal with the difficulty of travel, culture shock, and being prepared enough to have some fun activities for the kids. We come to the end of ourselves, and discover that God cares for us just as deeply as he cares for the orphan.
Let’s be clear: material poverty is uniquely devastating for billions of people on the planet. We should not ignore that fact. However, as westerners we should work with poor people, not for them. We should be more interested in long-term relationships and partnerships, not a quick fix (that’s why I’m so glad that Westport sends teams to Gan Sabra every six months). We should be more interested in being and not always in doing, at Gan Sabra as well as in our everyday lives. I think we may find, that as we put relationships with people above the things we can accomplish, God will provide more than we can ask or imagine.
I certainly found that to be the case when I went to Gan Sabra. If you get a chance to go and discover this for yourself, you should take it. You will not be sorry you did.