Mission trips can leave a lasting impact. Being in fellowship with people who are unimaginably poor, yet have the same dreams that we do, is humbling and shifts perspectives on the importance of possessions. Fellowship is as important to people who are poor as it is to us, but beyond that, a mission trip should have a stated purpose: exactly how are we going to help the people we encounter have better lives?
The answers may be quite different than you imagine. This is why we must consider the lasting impact of the mission trip. If the goal is to help make hunger less devastating, will you bring suitcases bulging with food or will you also bring seeds and help your new friends plant gardens that will provide many meals long after you are gone? Gifts of clothing are always appreciated, but a treadle sewing machine and tools to make and repair shoes will give people the equipment they need to make a living and the pride that comes from being self-sufficient. A carpenter can set up a business with just a few basic tools.
A common inspiration is to see the handicrafts people make and think there could be a profit for the craftsman or woman by selling the crafts in the U.S. Of course, buy as much as you can afford, but do not promise an on-going income stream before you do your research. Goods shipped to the U.S. have shipping and customs charges that increase the price of the product. Locate markets beyond the church, friends, and family. Ask local stores if they will stock the products. Ten Thousand Villages is a good place to market exceptional indigenous crafts. Also, consider how to return the profits to the craftsperson. Sending funds to the local church or charity is probably the best method. Cashing an out-of-country check can entail confusion for people who have never used a bank, and some overseas’ banks add hefty fees to process a check. Your local contact is your best resource for payment suggestions.
Think Long Term
We see the world through a first-world lens and can miss some realities of people in poverty. For example, a humanitarian organization drilled many wells for Africans living on arid lands. They installed electrical pumps. They did not leave the people with spare parts and did not train them how to fix the pumps. Less than a year after they left, the land was littered with broken pumps and all the new wells were useless. A US government agency sent a shipload of powdered milk to a poor Caribbean country. People had milk for their children, but the dairy farmers were forced out of business. The question to ask is not “what is the immediate impact of our gifts?” but “what are the long-term effects of our gifts?” Making assumptions about people in developing countries from a first world perspective often ends in surprises.
A charity discovered a village in a part of Africa so arid that women would walk four hours each way, every other day, for water. The nearest water source was not only a far trek, the water was polluted. Many small children were dying because of the bad water. The charity dug a well and workers were careful to use non-electrical means to bring clean water to the surface. The pump had few parts that needed replacing, so they left replacement parts and taught the villagers how to repair broken pumps. When the project was completed and the women no longer had to go so far for bad water, they asked the women what they thought was a silly question: what difference has the pump made in your lives?
Of course, they would say, “We no longer have to spend a whole day getting water, and our children have stopped dying from the dirty water.” Their answer was “We no longer have miscarriages from falling on the rocky trail, and we are no longer attacked by wild animals.” The project was a worthy one with long-lasting impact. But what it actually meant to the woman was a complete surprise. The charity workers agreed that this type of education is not taught in schools but comes only from personal experience. Be assured that your knowledge will grow as you reach out to people in love. Expect surprises. Most charity workers agree that they gain more than they give by working with people in material poverty. Their spirits are often rich resources of love and wisdom that they are eager to share with visitors.
Talk with Locals
Any help we can offer people in material and spiritual poverty is a blessing both for the people we are helping and for us. A mission trip offers an opportunity to give impoverished people joy in fellowship plus immediate help with critical needs such as ministry, food, medical care, and clean water. You can also provide assistance that will be ongoing long after you have returned home. Your best resource for this information is the people on the ground who will be facilitating your visit. Ask them what would be most practical and meaningful. Remember that “just” showing up is not a small thing. Your presence shows that people from far away really care and that knowledge gives more hope than you can imagine.
Stay in Touch
After the trip, participants like to keep in touch with new friends overseas, and there are easy ways to accomplish this. If people do not share a common language, locate someone who will translate. To keep the translation burden low, short encouraging letters to the group, postcards, and colorful greeting cards mean as much as individual letters. The message is that the caring the mission group showed was not limited to the trip itself. The cost of overseas postage is beyond the reach of most impoverished people, so do not expect a reply. Some groups leave stamped addressed envelopes so their new friends can keep in touch. These groups also explain that a drawing will be very much appreciated if some of their new friends have not had the benefits of education.
The lasting impact of your mission trip is up to you. It is the trip of a lifetime for people who want to help to build a better world. If you are new to this type of travel, check with people who are most experienced in this space, like our mission travel specialists. They can help your trip make the greatest possible impact for participants and the people they serve while meeting your group’s desire to make a meaningful difference.