When I was a sophomore in high school, one of my classmates asked for donations through a GoFundMe link on her Facebook page. When I clicked on the link, I expected her fundraiser to cover the cost of family medical expenses or new books for a low-income school. Instead, it called for $2,500 to fund her summer mission trip helping children in South America.
Her GoFundMe description said these funds would help her pay for the plane ticket and additional expenses. It would not be funneled toward the children in Guatemala who she was planning on “saving.”
Something about this rubbed me the wrong way. What would she be doing in South America that would warrant $2,500? Why couldn’t she just send that money straight to an organization for Guatemalan children or somewhere that helps low-income kids in her own town?
Every year, the short-term mission trip company Mission of Hope hosts thousands of participants globally. On their website, the cost of their $895 week-long trip to the Dominican Republic (without the cost of airfare) is broken down by meals, lodging, translators, and a beach day — let me repeat, a beach day. Reading this made me feel sick to my stomach. Poverty-stricken communities in foreign countries are not an excuse to go on vacation.
The company website says trip-goers will spend the bulk of their seven days working on community evangelism and small construction projects. This translates to leading Bible study groups for young children and repairing broken windows. This does not in any way help to progress a community. Do people in other countries not have the ability to install air conditioning and rebuild houses themselves? Anyone can read Bible passages and nail a hole in the wall.
Another Missionary organization, Ethnos360, charges $2,400 for a two-week trip to the Philippines. That’s $72,000 for a group of 30 people to paint a house. Teenagers and college students do not need to be flown in to do this. Think about what $72,000 alone could do if it was directly poured into a community.
The mission trip movement started in the 1960s and began to take hold in the ‘80s. A HuffPost article reported that in 2008, U.S. Christians spent an estimated $2 billion annually on these missionaries, according to Dr. Robert Priest, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School missiology professor. The money people spend on missionary companies should be redirected to citizens of countries these swaths of “saviors” visit. Skip the cost for translators, airfare, and housing by hiring a skilled local worker to build a house for decent wages.
I’ve listened to dozens of other young adults come back from their two-week stint where they brought canned food to children in South America and talk about how much it “changed them.” Another former classmate of mine traveled to Cali, Colombia to, as she described in a lengthy Instagram post, “feed their people.” She created a GoFundMe and sold baked goods on campus. Her 2015 Instagram post reads: “Proceeds from these sales go directly to support our mission trip to Colombia in November, where we will be visiting a home that houses children with cancer who live in extreme poverty, often abandoned or orphaned.”
This felt performative to me. How does ogling at sick children help them? Instead, her church group could have fundraised to send money to pay for medical treatment for children with cancer. In the week that followed this classmate’s trip to Colombia, she posted countless photographs of young impoverished children, detailing how she and her church group provided them with food and spent time with them. Poverty is not a two-week fix. This is not going to magically erase their daily struggles and overall lack of resources.
Both ministries and trip-goers exploit these children for personal gain. This act of showcasing benevolent charity work strokes their ego. Minority children are not there for you to use as fodder for your “I’m a good person” Instagram feed. I understand that young people might see distributing food and playing with kids as a way to help, but this is not the way to effectively create long-lasting change. The children are still poor when you leave.
The popularity of these trips seems to reside in how the general public perceives them. When a young person says they are embarking on a mission trip, others see them as generous do-gooders. On the surface level, they care about those less fortunate than them and want to aid these communities firsthand. However, this usually means quick fixes to much deeper problems.
It seems like it’s more important for these Christian organizations to influence as many young people that they can to join their faith. Mission trips make it clear that the purpose of these trips is to indoctrinate young children into joining a religion, not to offer them support for their well-being, regardless of religious affiliation. These ministries offer handouts with the understanding that basic human needs, like food and shelter, only come with the contingent of upholding Christian ideologies.
To offer support that actually makes an enduring difference, consider helping out organizations that directly help fund resources for destitute neighborhoods overseas. The Malaria Consortium and Innovations for Poverty Action charities work toward prevention of the spread of Malaria in children and help recover agriculture and underfunded schools in 21 countries, respectively. The only ones who benefit from missionary trips are the people who pay to go on them. If you want to engage in philanthropy, partaking in a mission trip is the bare minimum.