In addition to the personal aversions, I wrestle—still do—with lots of questions about many caricatures of ‘mission trips’ I’ve encountered through the years: a group of loud teenagers in matching fluorescent t-shirts, traveling to some remote place in order to take Jesus to those people (whoever those people might be, and as if Jesus would fit neatly into their suitcase) to them; or adults traveling to school Christians in a different place, culture, and religious expression about how the professionals (read: overly self-confident, over-functioning, and highly-programmed American church folk) do church things right; or a group of folks, unskilled or unqualified to do the work before them, dropping in for a few days on an unsuspecting village or town to leave them with some eternal ramshackle monument to the salvific arrival of western Christianity in their corner of the world.
I realize that each of these scenarios exaggerates what could very well be very good work being done by many faithful people over many years. Truthfully, I have probably let the exaggerations spin out of control in my own mind, since, after all, I have still never actually participated on one of those trips.
And, let us not forget the historic problems with missionary activity in the world. For centuries, Christians missionaries were an important part of western colonizing efforts throughout the continents of Africa, South America, and North America, and island groups in all the major oceans of the world. Missionaries organized to “civilize” [sic.] indigenous peoples in non-European lands while armies and traders and merchants swooped in to claim and tame their lands for political domination and economic exploitation. It’s really not honest to talk about any modern work using the word “mission” without acknowledging the word carries very real and heavy baggage. Any time we use the word, we should strive to distinguish what it is we are doing from the justified negative connotations it rooted in other experiences of the present and past.
I experienced a different kind of ‘mission trip’ with our St. Stephen’s group last week. And now that we have returned, I have begun to reflect. I can say that it was something really special. I don’t mean to say, by “special,” that our work was particularly unique, (A Vacation Bible School is hardly a new thing, after all; and cleaning and painting a classroom does not require many special skills, except a good manager/organizer to keep us at it!), it was an experience of joy, of love, of transformation.
As Episcopalians, we are members of a worldwide communion, a church rooted in the Anglican tradition of Christianity. ‘We are members of one another,’ as St. Paul wrote to the Romans. When our group traveled to Costa Rica last week, our mission was simple: to be good partners in ministry with Anglican sisters and brothers there. We went willing to be directed, to serve, to offer ourselves in the service of the ministry of Church of the Good Shepherd (El Buen Pastor). We took with us a few resources, but most important was the joy, the creativity, and the purpose planted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. We returned with renewal in our hearts, new friendships (both in Costa Rica and with fellow St. Stephen’s parishioners), a sense that we belong to something bigger than ourselves.
I hope you will ask someone who traveled on this year’s mission about their experience in Costa Rica.