If I had written this post two years ago, the title probably would have been, “Why Short-Term Mission Trips Are Of the Devil and You Should Never Ever Go On Them.” Catchy, right?
And also a little inaccurate, I think.
Let me explain: I’ve been on short-term mission trips, four to an inner-city kids’ ministry every Spring Break during high school, one to Mexico to run a VBS and do work projects, and one to Indianapolis my sophomore year of college to help with another kids’ ministry.
That last one was where I broke a little. Here are these kids, who have lived a life of people leaving them, and you want us to go in, spend seven days getting to know them and telling them they’re special, and then leave?
No, thank you. I’ll be over here scrubbing mold out of the freezer, cleaning the toilets, and organizing the library. (That’s completely what I did pretty much the whole trip. No joke.)
I came back thinking that short-term mission trips did more harm than good. Jesus told us to love our neighbors, not to go somewhere else and love other Christians’ neighbors for a few days before leaving again. (This was very similar to my “TOMS shoes are evil and a terrible model for a charity” phase.)
There are lots of reasons why I changed my mind, but the most important was that I realized who my neighbor was.
If the example story of the Good Samaritan teaches us anything, it should be that our neighbors aren’t limited to the people who moved into the brick, white-picketed houses next door and are planning on being there a while.
My neighbor is the receptionist and the hair stylist and the person on the other end of the customer service hotline when I’ve been on hold for twenty minutes listening to canned jazz. It’s the prospective student who stays with me for a night, the granddaughter visiting town who comes to one church service, the airport taxi driver who laughs too loud about things that aren’t funny.
You might not remember their names tomorrow. You probably won’t have deep spiritual conversations with them that change their lives. You might only get five minutes with your neighbor.
Refuse to believe that those five minutes don’t matter. Do not accept the lie that only the relationships of a certain length are important, that only encouragement coming from close friends will be remembered, that how you treat someone just passing through doesn’t count. Don’t wait until you know someone is going to be a long-term part of your life to love them.
(Note that what I’m not saying is that you should form a deep emotional connection with every person who crosses your path. That would be unhealthy. What I mean by “love” is do whatever you can, even in little ways, to be considerate and respectful of others, to make them feel included and valuable.)
I know I often pull back from connecting with people, and I think it’s because I instinctively know that by loving someone, even for a brief time, I will miss them when they’re gone.
We weren’t meant to have temporary neighbors. Something in us rebels against the idea. That’s what I felt when coming back from that last short-term missions trip: anger at sin and separation for existing and making goodbyes a part of life.
I think one of the great spiritual crises faced by people in their twenties, whether college student or young adult, is “How can I love people when I feel so temporary?”
When I miss church for so many events and breaks that I don’t feel like I’m ever there at all. When all the married couples with kids are busy chatting about—I don’t know, diapers and family stuff—and they don’t seem to notice me. When I know as soon as the summer’s over, I’ll be moving on. When I might leave town as soon as I get that job I’ve been hoping for.
When I don’t know if “home” is where I grew up, where I am now, or some future location that I’ll find once I’m settled and secure…if I ever get to that point.
No one sets a welcome mat outside their guest bedroom. You don’t break out the “Home Sweet Home” needlepoint for your camper. Nor would you rearrange the furniture in a hotel room to get it “just right.”
We aren’t meant to be temporary.
Really, though, all of us, no matter our age or stage, should have the vague feeling that we’re temporary, that this really isn’t our home. And we need to love people anyway, because people are not temporary. They are eternal. They are gardens and orchards and brick walls in a world of fast-food wrappers, plastic silverware, and disposable contact lenses. They matter, and they will last, even when our places and goals and accomplishments won’t.
That’s why we need to decide that loving others is worth it, even if it doesn’t feel like it all the time, even if it’s just for a little while.
Love your neighbor…and remember who your neighbor really is.