It took me by surprise when I learned that not everyone back home was excited about my mission trip. Of all things, my motives were questioned! Maybe I was subconsciously craving adventure and the chance to see the world. Perhaps I was acting out of guilt as a rich Canadian. It was pointed out that the money spent on my airfare could do twice as much good if sent directly to them. Why did I really need to physically go out there? According to a few of the most seasoned cynics, impoverished areas of the world are littered with failed projects implemented by well intentioned mission teams.
I've been conflicted about these questions ever since. How do we assist people who are clearly in need of help? Shouldn't we reach out a hand to save someone from sliding off the edge of a cliff? But maybe the poor aren't sliding off the edge of a cliff. Maybe they're more like the Chilean miners trapped thousands of feet below the surface. Hastily grabbing the closest shovel and digging frantically at the dirt wouldn't contribute much to their rescue effort. So I've conceded that a knee-jerk emotional reaction to poverty isn't the best foundation for a mission trip. A strategically planned trip is more appropriate, just like the creative plan that was implemented to save those unfortunate miners.
But the poor aren't like the trapped Chilean miners either. Is it fair to envision the impoverished as a group of helpless miners stuck in a mineshaft while the problem-free planners sit in their comfortable chairs strategizing how to get them out? Its not only unfair, it doesn't represent the truth. The poor are not stuck in a shaft waiting to be saved. Rather they are caught in a sticky web, a web that doesn't come off easily. And the transparent strands can't be seen except in the best of light and with persistent patience.
Though we pulled a lot of teeth during our stay in the Dominican Republic, helping the poor wasn't as easy as it appeared. We were unable to provide the ongoing care needed to prevent teeth from rotting in the first place. And even if I were somehow able to put together a mission trip aimed at prevention, the program would last only as long as I was willing to drum up funds for it. Chances are, these poor would rather wait for the next group of gringos to come and impart their benevolence. What else could they do?
So why do I still go on mission trips if not to help people? The problem is that the word 'helping' implies a one-way street. It shouldn't, but it does. It also implies that I know what to do; which I don't. Sure, I have access to resources. But in reality, when I try to help, I get hung up on that same sticky web. Am I really any better off than they are? I certainly don't have plans and ideas that are superior to theirs. Eliminating the web is not simple. It doesn't require a helper. It calls for a connection. A two-way exchange. So rather than helping, a mission trip is more about getting to get to know the poor and the web that entangles them.