Much has been written charging that short-term missions are, if not a waste, at least a poor use of time and money. For the host of one such mission to Liberia, they are nothing of the sort.
An argument can be made that short-term mission trips are a waste of time and resources. Some say these represent new instances of colonialism and paternalism. Christianity Today hosted an interesting dialogue some years back that included some of these critical perspectives. On the other hand, Faith and Leadership’s recent pieces are more appreciative of such endeavors.
From where I sit, directing a boarding school in Liberia, such trips are neither a waste nor a new example of colonialism or paternalism. They are a matter of genuine partnership in the gospel.
I invited a former teacher of mine from Mercer University in Georgia to visit our school and to discuss ways we could collaborate in service to God and humanity. Richard Wilson accepted my invitation and visited Liberia for the first time in 2007 to learn about our school and lead daily devotionals.
He returned to Ricks Institute in Liberia in 2008. At our dining table a casual conversation arose about his church coming to tile our school auditorium. Our vinyl tiles had suffered the toil of many years of use as well as 15 years of civil war. Random shooting of guns on the roof and the smashing of windows had allowed rainwater to enter the auditorium, destroying the tiles. The tiles needed to be replaced.
Some may argue that precious resources should not be used for short-term mission projects to replace mere tiles. If funds were again available, they should be given directly to the school for educational purposes. In normal human reasoning, it may seem nonsense to purchase tiles for an area of more than 5,500 square feet and ship them all from the United States to Liberia, not to mention all of the necessary tools and adhesives for installation. In normal economic terms, it made no sense to have five people travel from that congregation in Georgia to Ricks Institute to lay vinyl tiles. Surely the nearly $25,000 could have been spent more efficiently, right?
It is within the “nonsense” of such service that God’s transforming grace is often manifested (1 Corinthians 1:24-25). Most practically, the auditorium is the most useful space on our campus. More intangibly, the project connected people from two economic extremes and involved them in embodying the scriptures by becoming partners on the way to a mutually transformative experience.
There were at least two outcomes to our particular short-term mission project. One, the project was a collaboration that was free from any form of domination. Everyone had input in the conversation. All worked together to tile the floor. There was a genuine spirit of sharing ideas and serving together, born of us not being expert tile layers, but all equally novices. Serving together is not necessarily about how much one knows, how much education one has, or the credentials one brings to the service. It is about willingness to work together with love on whatever is required.
Two, amid the respectful collaboration on this project, more than 600 people from our community and the small group from the United States experienced the process of transformation. Lessons from this exchange can be made applicable to the lives of each of our community members, many of whom have experienced the ugly face of a civil war that has left many hopeless.
With America’s new economic reality, a reality of scarcity the rest of the world knows intimately, trips like these will likely be casualties of budget cuts. I hope they do not vanish totally. For without them we lose the benefits of genuine collaboration and promising transformation among world citizens situated in the extremes of human affluence and poverty.
Olu Menjay holds a Ph.D. in church history and directs the Ricks Institute, a boarding school outside Monrovia, Liberia. His column first appeared on the Faith and Leadership blog and is used with his permission.