Out in the ocean, Carly and I stood in the center with everyone surrounding us in a circle. The morning sun shone over and around 10:00 a.m., right as the sermon began in the 9:30 worship services, I baptized Carly and the group gathered spoke the words of the Trinity, “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” She had been talking about it for a couple of months and though I assured her that this did not “count” for our congregation (who values the congregational participation and witness to the commitment of our lives of faith), she persisted. Out amidst the open expanse of sky, with no cell phones in hands, we tasted that glorious part of a mission trip – where we do not fully understand where we are or what is coming next, but that we know that somewhere among us there is a mysterious and transforming Love at work.
It is the mysterious power of the mission trip. The high school mission trip transforms and redeems and restores in ways that I could never fully ever understand, predict, or quantify. All I know is that it is real and happens every year.
However, I know the bad reputation that short-term mission trips can carry. Tonight, I shared with our high schoolers about that bad reputation. As Andrew Root writes, “The poverty these kids encounter in the Mexican village becomes just a tool, an environment that middle-class youth workers can use to get kids to commit to their religion. People are dying because of poverty, but their poverty is being used to make middle-class kids religiously rich.” I told them how there are books and articles and blogs dedicated to the hidden atrocities of short-term mission trips that are used as tools for churches to evangelize their own people by simply bringing them close to poverty. “I learned how lucky I have it,” becomes the saving mantra for teenagers in churches and parents are happy and hopeful that they might be more grateful for what they already have.
Yes, it is true – a change in perspective is helpful and gratitude is healthy. And yes, it is true – these kind of trips bring our people close to those who are in need and they are greatly transformed in the process.
However, what is it exactly that we are doing here? Are we here to help our young people develop faith and espouse the values of servanthood back to us? Are we developing a proper moral compass so that they may do no harm? Are we giving them another experience to add to their resume or a new profile picture for social media? Are we just helping them have a fun time that they can later look back to and cherish?
Yes, it is true – all these things may happen. Yes, it is true – these trips transform our youth for the better. But polishing up the illusion of perfect teenagers in a perfect youth group at a perfect church building a perfect world is only that… an illusion.
We are here because God desires us to imitate Jesus who left his own daily life in order to seek after those in need, offer aid as able, and build relationships where Love transforms us all. We are here because Highland’s youth have fallen in love with the community of Overtown and Homestead. The people here have made their way into our hearts and minds so we are called to build our lives together – coming close to the struggles and joys they experience so that we might discover the ways God is acting in their lives. In so doing, we do discover the ways that God is acting in ours, as well.
In order to keep our eyes on these reasons, we have to ask God to rescue ourselves from all the self-focused reasons we may have gotten on the plane and committed here for the week. We have to liberate our hearts and minds from thinking solely of our own best interests so that we might care for our neighbors and wonder about God’s dream for the world. Rather than focusing on self-preservation, we are called to focus on self-resignation.
In eight hours, 11 of our group will leave for the 45 minute drive to Homestead, Florida, to begin camp at Open House Ministries. In nine hours, 15 of our group will drive the three minutes to Overtown to begin camp at Touching Miami with Love. Curriculum will move from paper to spoken word, from ideas to action. We will renew relationships made from previous trips and make new ones in Homestead.
We are grateful for your prayers and support as we seek to be the body of Christ in this time and place.