I arrived back at Los Angeles International Airport late in the evening. By the time I picked up my car where it had been parked at a friends house for better than a month it was after midnight. The often busy boulevards in the San Fernando Valley were empty as I drove home. But whenever a car approached me, or even past a wary pedestrian, I kept absent-mindedly honking my car horn. Over and over again, without even thinking about it, I just kept honking. The cars must have thought something was wrong, the pedestrians wondering if I was suffering from road rage.
In LA, we just don’t honk. At least not that often. To honk is like yelling. It’s almost always considered rude unless it is a genuine emergency.
But I had just returned from a month in Haiti. And in Haiti, everyone honks. When I was in Haiti in 1985, many of the roads were newly paved for the first time. Because of that, many of the villagers who were used to hearing cars noisily bumping down dirt roads were unwittingly getting injured by walking out in front of cars that were now passing by in virtual silence on the new pavement. So, in order to be safer, everybody honks. You honk when a car is coming at you, you honk when you are passing a boy who is walking his cow down the middle of the road. You honk when you are approaching a women with five kids and only two hands, and a bundle of clothes on her head. NOT to honk would be considered rude. And dangerous. And unfriendly too. (You also honk in order to say hi.)
After driving in Haiti for a month, I now “naturally” honked when I drove in Los Angeles. At least for a day or two… Within no time I was back to my “honk-less” ways.
It took me a month to learn a new habit, but less than a week to unlearn it. To return to “normal”. To go back to the way I was. What happened to how I had been changed?
Taking up the gauntlet thrown down by two professors who questioned and discussed the genuine and lasting effectiveness of Short Term Missions, I have suggested that there are (at least) three elements that must be part of every Short Term Mission trip to make it truly transformative for both mission trip participants and those who receive them.
Relationship: the longer, deeper, more frequent and mutual interactions between teammates who go, churches that send and those who receive, the better.
Reflection: Especially on returning home. The more the mission trip causes all parties to reflect on their cultural and spiritual assumptions, the more that we reflect on the gap between our stated beliefs and our expressions of faith, the more we reflect on the differences between our life and faith at home and that of our new friends made in mission contexts, the better.
Now for the final R. Reintegration. The more that we can consciously and deliberately reintegrate the lessons we have learned, the awareness gained and that spiritual focus we maintained on a mission trip into our “home” life, the more transforming the experience will be.
For many of us the changes that occur on mission trips are in far more significant areas of life than driving and honking. Spend a few weeks in a foreign mission field and you begin to take up the ways of that land, the examples you have seen, the lessons you have learned in life-enriching and awareness-building ways.
But soon after returning home we "lose" it.
While on a mission trip, we will think nothing of praying for someone in need, sharing my faith with a stranger we meet, identifying ourselves as Christians (and missionaries to boot.) But put us in a coffee shop at home and we quickly pull back into our own little worlds, fearful of sharing our faith, forgetful that wherever we are, all believers are always missionaries sent into the world.
For STMs to truly transform, then we need to maintain relationships and continue our reflections until the very convictions that became clear to us while on the trip become part of our lives at home. Again, this puts the onus on what happens AFTER the trip.
A conviction that God wants us to feed the hungry in Africa can lead to service in a local soup kitchen. Two weeks of regular prayer and Bible study with mission teammates can lead us to join a small group when we get home. The experience of overcoming biases to learn from Christians of other cultures can lead us to question our unquestioned assumptions of what Christians “look like” in North America. And so on.
Next post I will finish this with some things we can do to live out these three Rs and make our missions truly transformative.