It’s a typical Sunday. My family walks over dirt roads about a mile to a little cinder block church. We are the only non-Haitian’s there. We sit amongst our friends – people with hard lives that get down on their knees and pray prayers that make Jesus feel palpable in that room. The kids sit mostly well-mannered in fear of being shushed by some of the elders in the church. There is no fanfare. We sit in our usual seats. A couple guys bang on handmade instruments to worship. It is beauty.
Several weeks later I sit within those same walls. This time a group is visiting on a short-term mission trip. Today there are plants and decorations lining the “stage” and the crackling of a mic with a short in it makes it impossible to understand much. The pastor spent last week’s offering on gas for a little generator to power a mic and keyboard player just for today, for the group. The handmade instruments I love sit unused in the corner. The blan (white) pastor leading the team gets up and introduces his team by name, making them parade to the front.
As the service wears on, a few of the moms of the group motion for some kids to come sit with them. They proceed to chat and play with them while, unbeknownst to them, the congregants are praying. The elders that typically shush the kids shake their heads and don’t say anything because they don’t want to insult the visitors. The kids know this and take full advantage of playing with cameras and phones and other gadgets, being generally disorderly in comparison to the usual way they’re expected they behave. I sit there and wonder how we would feel if we were sitting in a church in the States and a group of people from another country came in and acted that way.
Church ends and the visitors go on to do their week of serving the community. I watch as the labor they do takes away jobs from the nationals, like construction and painting. The money from their airplane tickets could provide employment for Haitians which in turn feeds families.
Sometimes service from foreign groups can be fruitful and I can see the need for it. They leave the village better off by training pastors, educating Haitians, and supporting the long term missionaries. I wonder, though, if the risk of having a group who might do more damage than good is too great.
I’m struggling with the good of short term missions. I see the side of it that is good because it shows people a different part of the world and challenges their faith. But are we searching for substance in our lives at the mercy of those we came to help?
I don’t know the answer. Let’s talk. What has your experience been with short-term teams? What methods effectively help all those involved, nationals and foreigners alike?
Shannon Kelley lives in a rural fishing village with her family on the Southern tip of Haiti where they fight for families. Follow their journey here: