(RNS) This summer, thousands of well-meaning white Christians are embarking on the youth group rite of passage: the beloved mission trip.
This white American pastime features house painting, rice bagging, devotion leading, church basement sleeping, group bonding and future college admission story-making.
Unfortunately, mission trips can also feature harmful impact on communities of color as groups of white volunteers arrive.
Any church group seriously invested in positive community engagement emulating God’s justice must be realistic with the ways church mission trips have been informed by systems of domination and colonization instead of grace and partnership.
White privilege and racism are part of these systems. Writes the Rev. Bryan Massingale: “For beneficiaries of white privilege, lament involves the difficult task of acknowledging their individual and communal complicity in past and present racial injustices. … It is a form of truth-telling and contrition that acknowledges both the harms that have been done to others and one’s personal and communal culpability for them.”
We’re not saying mission trips are evil! Far from it. The prophetic scholar and writer bell hooks describes the call plainly: “Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege.”
As Christians, we are called to invest in working for freedom and solidarity. Yes, mission trips can be life-changing experiences for participants, but it’s not acceptable for white learning and spiritual development to flourish at the expense of people of color. We can mobilize together to end unjust human systems. It takes hard work, humility and creative critical minds open to learning.
There’s very little literature examining Christian service and whiteness specifically on mission trips. In acknowledgment of our mutual investment in building Christian community combined with a shared commitment to ending racism, we hope trip participants not only avoid mistakes, but also work to actively build God’s righteous and loving city of justice.
So what can you do as mission trip leader or participant?
1. Lift up leaders of color.
Acknowledge the good work that was going on long before you landed at your site and must continue long after you leave. Consider providing recognition and support for the specific people of color who are “in the trenches” doing sustained daily work on justice issues in the community.
Acknowledge the community assets and individuals working tirelessly and know they are not waiting on you but desire to work with you. If these leaders can’t be physically present, technology has afforded us various ways to connect. Use Skype or a conference call. If you have a concluding praise worship on the trip, celebrate the community leaders in an authentic way and involve them as full partners in the worship.
2. Watch your language.
Using intentional anti-racist language means more than never saying the “n” word or “those people.” Consider the ways your language could be whitewashed or patronizing. During orientation, trip, and post-trip, be aware of the ways those in your destination community might be negatively categorized as “other” or somehow “exotic.” Instead of seeing the work as being done “to” or “for;” see it as “with” or “in partnership.”
Jesus has called us to be “friends.” The folks that mission trips work with are not helpless and waiting to be saved. Instead of describing the experience with terms like “address," "solve" or "provide,” try using fellowship-centered words like “listen," "learn" or "accompany.”
3. Reconsider “leisure time.”
On one trip, we recall observing a room full of white mission trippers with a local black musical group expertly playing. The “volunteers” danced and laughed loudly with no regard for the musicians, who were positioned as a spectacle.
We can all do better than this. Intentionally build your group’s free days and cultural nights to emphasize the resources, skill and humanity of those in the area as opposed to oversimplifying the complex network and resources of the local community. Focus on people and relationships.
4. Expect no easy “solve.”
We know that God’s city is unfolding and God’s work is never finished, because we are beautiful yet imperfect people raised on unjust human systems.
Let’s admit humbly when we make mistakes or realize we are part of harmful structures. We can give and receive critique with humility, knowing that not everything will be stitched up nicely at the end, but often must remain painful and open or “un-sutured.” This underscores the need for pre- and post-mission trip reflection and processing. Pray for good courage -- the courage to experience discomfort and to stay engaged, remaining with your neighbor through that discomfort.
Some final suggestions, reflection and resources:
- Question images of Jesus: Consider Jesus as a man of color who has been historically whitewashed.
- Ask why: In addition to addressing the issue at hand (like a meal to serve or a house to paint), consider systems of structural inequality, like the prison-industrial complex, food deserts, policing, intergenerational cycles of poverty, equal housing access, reproductive health, funding for public schools, etc.
- Look inward: Ask your mission trip group to consider its own complex identity and privilege before entering the trip. The term “intersectionality” describes how we’re each made up of intersecting identities like gender, race, class, sexuality, ability and others.
- Rethink photos: Do the photos you take respect the individuality, dignity and privacy of those you serve with, or are you taking them to make you or your group look good?
- Consider your community: It’s tempting to go “out there” where the mission trip happens and, when you get home, forget that issues of inequality exist in every community. Once you return, ask yourself: “What still needs work in my local community?”
- Steer clear of common offenses: like declaring yourself an “honorary” member of another’s racial or cultural group, mimicking accents, claiming "They’re so poor but so happy,” or thoughtlessly sporting attire or hair that offensively appropriates culture.
- People of color in the church group: Don’t ask people of color on the mission team to speak on behalf of a racial or ethnic group or expect them to be “translators” or experts. They do not speak for all people of color. They are there to work with the community to build God’s city of justice the same as everyone.
- Authentic prayer: Instead of only prayers of thanksgiving for good weather, safe travel and family at home, consider prompting prayers of thanksgiving for the specific lives, stories and hospitality of those you are working with and accompanying in their community.
In addition to the prayers for courage we suggest above, experiment with prayers of supplication, asking for an end to inequality, racism, violence or oppression. Finally, pray for compassion, as modeled by Jesus.
As Mother Teresa said, “I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that (God) will guide me to do whatever I'm supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I'm praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”
(Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer is a writer and assistant director at St. Norbert College’s Cassandra Voss Center. Tynisha D. Meidl is an associate professor of education and co-chair of the teacher education program at St. Norbert College)