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.