How I’d Make the Perfect Mission Opportunity

I was going to write a blog post, in response to some requests from my frequent readers, about the perfect mission team. I was going to write a fictional account of one mission team that did everything right and could serve as a positive example that other teams could look to for inspiration. But as I wrote out all of my ideas of how I think volunteer teams could approach cross cultural service in a more effective way, it was becoming much too far-fetched to actually represent any real group. It started turning into more of a proposal for an organization that should exist to facilitate these sorts of teams and provide them with the resources that they need to carry out the relationship building that I believe should be the foundation of any good mission/volunteer/work team.

Now, I’m not starting this organization, for the record. I’ve got enough on my plate already. Although if I was looking for the next great idea to pursue, it would be this. So, if anyone else wants to take this and run with it, feel free to contact me for more brainstorming. I’d love to be on the board (thanks for asking). It’s possible that I’ve even already drawn up logos and thought of a name and color schemes and slogans and a brand identity. I have a sickness that causes me to automatically do that for any idea that enters my head. But this one, I really feel like is worth pursuing, just not for me at this time in my life.

The future of mission, voluntourism, international relief, and anything else that falls into the good-doing basket, is changing. It must change if it wants to keep up with the way the world is evolving. In order for that to happen we who are involved have to be willing to change the way we do a few things too. I don’t know exactly what the future holds, but based off what I’m continually seeing in the present times, I think that we need to move away from a mindset of projects and programs and focus more sincerely on people. I think that we need to start connecting with people on a human level where we don’t define them based on what they need but who they are. Right now I feel like this is one of the greatest problems facing mission (read: volunteer, aid, relief) in today’s world. The people that are claimed to be on the benefitting end are always defined based on what they need. They need medical help, or they need house repairs, or they need educational opportunities, or they need business support, or they need encouragement, empowerment, or justice. There’s already a problem here because most of these needs are decided upon by the external party and seldom voiced by those on the receiving end in the first place. However, what’s at the root of why this causes problems is because when we define people through their needs such as this we always miss out on seeing who they truly are.

My proposal for how to address this issue while still encouraging cross cultural experiences and doing good things while still being able to travel, is for an organization to exist solely for the purpose of connecting people between cultures that have different needs. Share their stories and then create connections across cultures between people whose stories resonate with one another. That’s it. There would be a website featuring stories of people from a particular place, a community in Haiti, for example. And people wanting to go on a service trip could browse the site and choose a person or people that they want to get to know. There would be a people budget assigned for the group to raise money for rather than a project budget. Teams would be kept small to facilitate the greatest possible relationship building. When a team selects the people that they are interested in connecting with, they would have an application to fill out, a chance to tell their story. And the original storyteller on the receiving end would have to accept their application before having them come. It would be their choice who gets to come and invest in them personally. Once a connection is agreed upon the team or volunteer would come and simply spend their time getting to know that person and their family, and others that are close to them. They would learn about their culture and their life. They would spend all of their time investing in their personal relationship with that person. Teams with multiple members, and an ability to raise higher people budgets, could select multiple people in the same community as long as they were spending enough time there to sufficiently build the relationship. The money would be given directly to the person without conditions, without proposed solutions, but for them to do with whatever they felt they needed most. They could start a business, buy all new clothes for their family, give it to their neighbor who is in greater need at the time, deposit it in the bank, or go bet it all on cock fights. They would have to report how they spent it but wouldn’t be told how to spend it. And then the team would go home. After spending their time getting to know each other both sides can decide to what extent they want to pursue the relationship further. Just like real people do. There would be no dependence based on skewed expectations. There would be no unsuccessful projects due to lack of cultural understanding. There would be no helium filled donations floating off into the world of need hoping to do some sort of good. Just people investing in relationships with other people that they would never have had the chance to otherwise and allowing organic mutually beneficial actions to evolve from those relationships.

The theory would be that we each have a story worth sharing and those stories have power. Rather than trying to help someone, we each would have the chance to find someone whose story we want to become a part of. Once their story draws us in, we can take the chance to get to know them and find out how we can play a role in the next chapter of their story and how they can play one in ours. I guess I believe that the grand story of humanity is more beautiful the more its different pieces overlap. This system would allow that overlapping to happen naturally whereas the current system of aid causes the pieces to collide and ricochet.

Oh, but alas, I can hear the naysayers and tradionalists already wailing, “Wait! Won’t this create jealousy?” Yes, it probably will. Good things usually do because human beings tend to be petty and don’t want to see others have good things. Whatever you do is going to create some jealousy unless absolutely everybody benefits from it. And that’s not going to happen, so let’s all agree to get over that excuse for crappy do-good methods right now. “What about accountability?” Our Western ideal of accountability has long limited the rest of the world’s freedom to create their own solutions to their own problems. By telling someone they have to be accountable for our money it is our fancy way of saying “You need to prove to me that you did what I wanted you to do with this money even though it’s your life that’s going to be affected.” It’s our fancy way of saying, “I don’t trust you.” That’s the difference between giving a gift to someone that you care about and making a donation towards promoting your own ideals of what the world needs. If it’s a gift, then the person becomes the priority, but if it’s a donation requiring accountability, then your precious money is the priority.

“But I have this really cool idea for a project that could really help people!” Allow it to change your life first, and if you decide it’s good enough to share with your friends, then you can do so. If it’s some extra healthy meal, cook it yourself and eat it on a regular basis. Then if you still think it’s a great idea, when you’re building relationships, share the recipe with your new friends, but don’t impose it on them as a solution to nutrition. If it’s a pair of shoes, wear them yourself and if your new friends like them, help them to get a pair for themselves, but don’t dump them upon a population without discretion. If it’s a new type of house, build one for yourself and your family to live in wherever you come from, and when you travel, share photos of your house with your new friends and if they like it help them figure out how they can build one for themselves. But don’t use poor people’s lack of options as a way to make them live in your poverty-solution-houses. Even if it’s information that you think needs to be shared, build a relationship first and share your knowledge casually with your new friends, and then if they find it valuable and interesting, then encourage them to organize a meeting with their friends and neighbors to share the information. But don’t schedule a seminar with a bunch of people in a community that you’re entering just because you assume they need to know the information. And if your new friends decide that they don’t need any of those things, so what? Just spend time with them. Give them some money and let them decide what to do with it. And if they decide that the most important thing that they can do with that money is open a bar to sell booze and cigarettes, so what? If they decide they want to open a brothel, it’s their decision. If you don’t like that decision you don’t have to be their friend anymore. (Once getting to know each other, its doubtful that anyone would use your money to open a brothel if it’s clear you wouldn’t approve. Booze and cigarettes, however, could be a very plausible result, in Haiti anyway)

I think that our mission as humans needs to be getting to know as many other people as possible. Not helping as many as possible. Random acts of kindness in our everyday life to help people that we encounter, yes, by all means, do them without hesitation. But making plans to actually spend thousands of dollars, leave our home and our families and our work for a number of days, and live in an environment that is unfamiliar and likely uncomfortable to us, probably get sick along the way… lets only do that to get to know people and then help those people that we get to know in any way that we would help any other human that we have a close relationship to. I know lots of mission teams that after traveling talk about all of the relationships that they formed and how precious they were, but they were never the reason for traveling in the first place. They always come secondary to projects that detract from our human need for hearts and spirits that are willing to dance with our own. I know how counterintuitive it seems, but why don’t we forget all about our good-intended projects and programs and make our only mission be other people? Why don’t we make our volunteer trips nothing more than vehicles for people’s stories to travel and grow and reach their full potential? Why don’t we make that the goal and just see what happens? Why not?

Ready to go? You know how to get a hold of me.


  1. Lee, thank you! Indeed, Always get to know the PERSON first. Create a relationship. Understand the culture. VALUE the talent within. See the Gift each person possesses. Listen. One person at a time, one community at a time. Build Together. I’m ready! Let’s DO this. (You already are!) 🙂 HUG, Kristin

  2. Lee, it was good, as always, to read your thoughts. I wrote an extensive reply two days ago, but it disappeared before I could post it. It, of course, was brilliant 😉 – and this is not as good as what I wrote in the fervor of the moment.

    For me, building real relationships is an essential part of any effort for people coming to our part of the world. But, as you know, it has to be reciprocal. It has to respect all parties, especially those who are more vulnerable. It also has to be aware of the power of money and the power-differential between people in the US and those in Haiti and Honduras.

    We are all too aware of people and organizations that come with their projects and the people have to take them. Aid is power – and at times this become control. The Globalizers is a scholarly study on this in Honduras.

    “The people that are claimed to be on the benefitting end are always defined based on what they need.” Some people find it very hard to see the capabilities of the people here. Sometimes their suggestions which come from their lived experience are ignored by people with college degrees or with US-learned skills. I just learned of a sewage project that isn’t working because the technical advisers didn’t listen to a local resident.

    And so moving to an emphasis on people is crucial, as well as being sure that any projects come from the people.

    Emphasis on projects has other problems. Not only do the people here have to follow the guidelines imposed from without, but it makes us beggars.

    Early this year the parish I work with here asked its US sister parish for aid for a few months to cover the costs of the secretary and cook. A new priest had come and was trying to deal with certain problems. I was told that this is not what they finance.

    Now they did come through to help with two projects – and the US pastor did ask some people for a special donation for a newer truck for me (that doesn’t break down as much) – and that came through, but through his personal effort.

    Now, about your proposal.

    It has merits since it tries to deal with some serious problems of first world initiated relationships.

    I do think it might cause serious jealousy problems – especially in a culture that is so shame-based as Honduras and where rivalry among the poor is one of the most serious deterrents to real change.

    But that is the tip of the iceberg and just a symptom of what I think is a serious issue to be addressed.

    The proposal fits all too well with US individualism. It encourages US individualism, not just in the US partner but also in the Haitian/Honduran/whoever partner.

    It also opens itself to the “my Hondurans” symptom, even though it tries to avoid this by having both sides agree to the relationship. We have to avoid understating the power of money and how it often promotes a disequilibrium of power relationships.

    I’m trying to find ways to promote relationships that move beyond this. It’s hard, but I’m trying to find ways to do this.

    One suggestion came from a few people from parishes in rural Iowa who want to connect with the parish: farmers from Iowa spending time with farmers in rural Honduras. Afterwards they would be asked to help in the establishment of a fund for loans.

    I have made a few suggestions to people in the US sister parish.

    I’ve suggested that Communion ministers in Iowa connect with Communion ministers, simply through sharing pictures and mutual prayers.

    There is now a scholarship program for students participating in an alternative education program that allows students in rural areas to study at middle school and high school levels. I have been able to avoid having the scholarships recipients being connected with individual students, since there are a number of problems with that – and I don’t have the time to make sure that people here respond. It is very easy for people in the US to place expectations on people here that are not feasible.

    I’ve wanted to try connecting religious education students here with students there; there are serious problems of communication. Most rural villages lack computers even in the schools and internet connections are not easy. One suggestion I have is to have students or classes connect with a zone or sector of the parish and pray for them regularly.

    The US sister parish collected, translated, and sent letters . I just gave them to the priest who distributed them to Parish Council. But there weren’t enough so that one went to each village.

    We tried to get three parishioners to the states but they were refused visa – largely because they are poor.

    And so where do we go from here?

    Let’s continue the dialogue.

  3. What about if the people interested in relationship building stayed in the households in which they are finically supporting? The American could pay them for rent and meals so they can earn the money. It would be a recipical relationship which is important. Once that relationship is built…it can go deeper… Example-helping them start a business…helping with tuition.

    It would be healthy for BOTH parties if the main reason for coming is to learn the culture and get to know one another. That would help BOTH parties know that the relationsip is what is most important.

    I think “rich people” also have feelings and can get discouraged if the people they are trying to serve feel like “your money” is the only thing that is important. I have never experienced that because I feel like all the Haitians I have met place relationships on a higher level than money…but I could see that MAYBE happening.

    Everyone has something they can give…staying in a house with warm hospitality and good food would be priceless:)

    Just a thought?

  4. Thanks to all for your insight and ideas! I do think that my suggestion is probably very much a product of the specific place that I currently find myself, a small rural community in Haiti that has quickly become a very, very popular place for mission/volunteer teams to visit within a country that is controlled by NGO’s. This country which has more NGO’s per capita than any other country and is by far one of the most popular international destinations for work teams (I would guess 2nd only to Mexico, but haven’t done any real research on that.) I don’t think that this proposal would work in a community in a country that doesn’t get near the density of teams that we do. That would lead to excessive jealously and inequality issues as well as entitlement. But here in Mizak where I live, I would guess that we’ve had 60 teams here in the community over the last year with an average size of 10 people per team. If those teams were sized down to 6 per team, it’d be even more. And the population of our community is about 17,000. Through partnerships with other local organizations, in a place like this, I think that my proposed approach could result in a very equal distribution of real human relationships that run deeper than just sending foreign money into projects. I appreciate John’s point about “My Haitians / Hondurans / Whateverians” but at the same time I do think it would be reciprocal because those same people would have “My Americans / Canadians / Whateverians” When it comes to money, I am becoming more and more convinced that its best to just give it to people and let them decide what to do with it. Then if they want to support local projects with that money, it’s not a foreign concept of what’s needed. Give a gift, then it becomes their money. And yes that money has a lot of power. Power to good or power to really screw some things up. But at least then that power is completely in the hands of those that will have to live with the results of whatever it does.

    Sure, it’s not a perfect plan, but we don’t live in a perfect world. In such a perfect world, mission wouldn’t have to exist at all, no one would ever have to feel like they needed to help someone else because we’d all be living in peace and equality and all that crap. Then we could all just travel to get to know more places in this world that we live in and more people in this human race that we are a part of. There would probably be unicorns prancing around and children singing everywhere you went.

    I will soon be posting another idea that I’ve had for a long time about how to improve this system, another proposal of sorts that I will probably never have the time to follow through on, but addresses a very different side of the issue. Right now I’m busy trying to get a school built and opened, so it might be a few days before I get that written and posted. Until then, thanks again to all for the reading and feedback!

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