As I walked into Woolworth’s she grabbed my arm. “Lady, can you get me a drink in there? I have bread. I only need a drink.” “Sure,” I told her without really thinking about it and walked into the store. I ambled through the aisles looking for the things I’d come for and when I came to the drink section I picked a water and apple juice for the lady outside.
Upon leaving the store I saw the lady waiting expectantly and asked her to come around the side of the building with me so I could chat with her a bit. I asked her name, where she lives, general things you would ask a new friend over coffee. She answered shortly while staring at the bag on my arm. I pulled out the water first. “Water?!” she cried, “I don’t want water!”
Taken back a bit by the strong rejection to clean water I put my hand back in the bag and pulled out the apple juice. “There,” she said and reached out to grab the bottle, “Bless you, sister. You’re a kind lady.” And with that, she turned to leave.
As I walked home I mulled over the exchange. Did she need a drink? Upon closer inspection, I’m not sure she did. She has access to clean water at a free public spring about a kilometer from where she lives. A spring that we frequent to fill our own water bottles. And, does anyone really need the sugar rush of apple juice?
I began to think about my history with missions, specifically short-term, and I realized this is where my automatic, “sure,” response in answer to her question had come from.
As a Westerner, I see a hurting world and want to help. But so often my short-term experience was to help in short bursts in search of immediate results. I painted buildings, passed out food on the street with no questions asked, built walls, picked up trash, and carried bricks. I wanted to help so badly that I ended up doing things for people that people could be doing for themselves. Robert Lupton, who has served in inner city Atlanta, GA for over 40 years, brought it all into perspective for me in his book Toxic Charity when he wrote, “Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people.”
A big problem is people often don’t need what is given. According to Roger Sandberg, former country director of Medair in Haiti, aid should be divided into three stages: relief, rehabilitation and development. Relief is only to be given for a few short months, and usually only after a crisis when basic needs have to be met. Like in the weeks and months following a natural disaster when the country is in upheaval or during times of war. Rehabilitation is the process of turning aid-provision over into the hands of the community. Development is empowering local leaders inside the community that create self-sustaining ministries by locals for locals with the goal of long-term community change and eventually working themselves out of a job.
So how do I do short-term missions different, better even?
I definitely don’t have the end-all-be-all answer to that question, but here are some ideas.
1. Ensure that your short-term team is partnered with a long-term missionary.
The benefit? They are in the thick of the community day in and day out. They, hopefully, know the real needs within the community and can point your team towards things that will leave a greater impact than simply fixing the things you can physically see are out of place.
2. Ask a hard question.
Does the community you want to serve in need what you have to offer? If the answer is no, be willing to change what you offer to match the need of the community or be willing to move your trip to a community that needs what you are bringing.
3. Release control.
Present your “plan,” then humble yourself before the people you are working with. Let them change things to meet the needs of the community.
I love short-term missions, and I always will. My heart is to see things done smarter moving forward. Instead of seeking a “thank you” and instant gratification for ourselves we need to consider the community and people we are serving and be willing to do the things that bring about the best end result for them.
Next time I see the lady at Woolworth’s and she asks me for a drink I’m going to have to turn her down. Instead, I can connect her with a local ministry leader that works to see the homeless rehabilitated and give the power to change her life and current situation over to her.