I would like to make this declaration for anyone willing to read it: Traveling does not equal changing the world. There are a handful of people in the history of all mankind that can legitimately take credit for changing the world. Most of them now have religions dedicated to them or wars on their resume. None of them were short term mission team members. None of them spent a week as a voluntourist in a notoriously poor place. Very few, if any, were from a white middle-class majority. And none of them ever had to declare their status as world changers on a t-shirt.
And we all know how sensitive I am towards bad mission t-shirts. This one that I saw recently broke all of my rules. “World Changers” it said. Some Bible verse was on there. Neon green, orange, and black, colors only appropriate for Halloween costume store employees to wear. And on a squad of short term mission teamers in Haiti. All middle class white Christians. Some of them, even friends of mine, whom I adore. Yet my face has been in my palm ever since seeing their t-shirts. But it’s not the first time that I’ve seen shirts like this on teams coming into the country. Some leaders of this particular group might even read this blog but most of the team was teenagers who probably loved the shirts and they still deserve to be encouraged. I wouldn’t want to crush any dreams.
Because it is a noble dream, to change the world. And far be it from me to ever discourage big dreams. If someone actually has a decent plan of how to change the world, I will be the captain of your cheerleading squad. (I shake a mean pom-pom). But let’s be real about what constitutes “changing the world”. Swooping in to Haiti from a privileged life and spending a week hugging kids and fixing roofs is not changing the world. Making a difference? Sure, I’ll give you that. Having an impact? I can meet you there. A good investment of the funds that it took to do it? Extremely debatable, but there’s still a case to be made for it. But changing the world? Please, spare me. There’s enough sugar in the coffee around here already.
I am not saying this to discourage short term mission teams. I just want to be clear that changing the world should not be the goal of a short term mission team. Set a goal that you can achieve for crying out loud! And don’t think that just because you’ve seen a different part of the world, that that means that you’ve changed the world itself. Be realistic. Set out to get involved in one community for example. Instead of “World Changers” the t-shirts could say “Awesometown, Haiti Partners” instead. (No, there’s no place in Haiti called “Awesometown” so don’t try to look it up on Google Earth. Although if I ever invent some sort of genius alternative housing solution for Haitians and decide to create an entire community of people with those houses, maybe that’s what I’ll call it.) Or you could just set out to improve the situation of one family who’s struggling. Then you wouldn’t have to declare who you are at all. You could just put a drawing of two horses eating hay and drinking tea on your t-shirt and write “going to hay-tea”. (I might even sign up for the mission team with that t-shirt, as long as it wasn’t neon. I vote navy blue.)
I know that the people back home at the church that sent these mission teams into the world want to think that they’re changing the planet. It makes them feel like the $10 they spent at the team’s fundraiser supper was well spent because $10 is a pretty small price to pay for changing the world. But that team is going to spend their week abroad, come home all energized and changed themselves, and wake up the next morning to find that the world is still the same as it was before they left. They’ve undoubtedly gone through some personal transformation, and as I said, have probably made a difference in the lives of a few people that they encountered and helped out on their journey but the other 7 billion people on this planet aren’t going to notice.
Maybe I’m just being a cranky old man here. The truth is I’ve been here in Haiti for 6 years and I’ve been responsible for starting and coordinating many community programs that have made a difference in the lives of hundreds of people. But I certainly would never claim to have changed the world. And there are many people in this country, Haitian and foreign, who have lived here much longer and accomplished much more than I have, whom I admire greatly, but I would never say that they’ve changed the world, although they’ve definitely done some extremely important things. But they’ve accomplished those extremely important things by first simply wanting to get involved, taking a simple step into a situation where they might be of service. And can all of us, together, with our combined efforts great and small truly change the world with many steps taken in solidarity? Of course. No one believes that we are interconnected with all of humanity more than me and that every action we make does have effects in ways that we may never see or be able to describe. In this grand philosophical way, yes, we can each change the world and I hope that we can believe that in our hearts while not publicizing it on our clothes or our websites, or in our presentations. We must realize that it takes each one of us through our shared humanity to do so. It is nothing that any one of us can do by simply hopping on a plane and landing in the middle of a bunch of people who are poorer than we are and look very different than we do. If that is the definition of world changing, then we’re trying too hard. We’re much more likely to change the world when we are trying the least. Unknowingly we may set off a chain reaction of kindness and hope with a gesture that seems unremarkable to us that reaches much further than our intentional actions of helping others. And that comes from a state of being, not from a decision of doing.
If we’re actually hoping to change the world, then we need to stop saying that we are doing it, thinking that we’re doing it, trying to do it, and for the love of all things fashionable, stop writing it on t-shirts.