Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Don't Be the Team That Refuses to Shower (Rethinking Short-Term Missions, Part 1)

We met the Most Disastrous Short-Term Missions Team Ever about a year after we had lived in Tanzania.

We didn't know these people; we hadn't helped them get to us, but they were there to serve a church that we were a part of, and that's how we ended up stuck with them for two weeks.

They were nice enough people and all, but they had some pretty firm ideas of how they wanted things to go.  Our local pastor had wanted them to sleep in church member's homes, but they insisted they would just sleep on the floor of the church.  (He was too nice to tell them that co-ed sleeping was entirely culturally inappropriate.)  They didn't like the lunches he had arranged for them, and after a few days, they asked if they could eat something else, greatly offending the pastor.

But the worst part was their lack of showering.  For some absurd reason, these [fully-grown] adults decided that it would be fun to have a "No Showering Contest" during their trip.  They bet each other how many days each could go without showering.  Of course, there was a perfectly good shower available to them, and there was an abundance of water available at the time.  But apparently their malaria medication affected their good judgment [or something like that] because these otherwise normal people decided this would be funny.

Not only did they refuse to take showers, but they constantly discussed it.  Even around the local people,  who at best were confused why Americans would come to their country and not shower, and at worst, were terribly offended.

We were horrified.  But we were very young and inexperienced, so we kept our mouths shut.  I can tell you for certain that if a team attempted that kind of shenanigan around me now, I would drag them to the shower by their ears.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the only bad experience we saw.  We saw a good friend who had an American church insist on sending him 20 people.  He had a desperately hard time finding them all housing, food, and "ministry" for them to do.  Many of them ended up painting walls....despite the fact that there are many qualified painters available in a city where there is 40% unemployment.  Considering that it cost $50,000 to paint those walls, I hope they did a good job.

We had other friends who had a short-term team member vocally and repeatedly criticize their ministry....in front of other team members. [Which was, of course, devastating....missionaries have feelings too.]  Apparently living in Tanzania for a month made him more of an expert than our friends who had lived there for a decade.

Now, in case this all seems a little judgmental of me, please know that I went on some short-term trips before coming to Tanzania, and as I look back, I can see how I blew it too--how I was culturally insensitive or inflexible.  And to be perfectly honest, there have been multiple times I have blown it as a long-term missionary as well.  I realize that I don't always get it right, and that God can use us regardless of our foolishness.

But over the years, we've learned a lot.  There definitely is a "right" and a "wrong" way to do short-term missions.  Sometimes the line is not perfectly clear, but we can at least work towards getting it right.  So in the next three posts, I am going to share what we have learned.

Part 2:  The Limo From Beverly Hills in Your Neighborhood
Part 3:  How to Make Sure They Love You on the Other Side
Part 4:  Don't Be So Predictable


Heather L. said...

This is hysterical to read but how very sad that it actually happened! Sadly, it seems these types of things are more the norm than not....

Anonymous said...

We have been missionaries for 34 years and have many experiences like you describe. One of the worst was when the group came and we finally found something for them to do - paint a church. We were horrified and the pastor of the church was deeply offended when the group got into to a paint fight and began painting themselves and each other and got paint all over the place. Years later some of that paint on the floor still reminds us! We no longer accept teen missionary groups. Sorry!

Jeff said...

We had similar things happen while serving as missionaries. Once we had an extremely well organized, but extremely large (~40 people) church group come over. We had been struggling to find projects for them to work on but had finally arranged things and had all the transportation, lodging, etc. lined up. They got there and told us they didn't want to do what we had planned for them to do. I told them we didn't really have any other alternative projects and so the only other option they had was to hang around our office area... which they did for the rest of their time there.

Bea said...

I wonder if there's a web site that compiles stories like this. Not that complaining should be encouraged, but people who go on mission trips need to be aware, and it would be very beneficial as a way for people to learn what not to do, right?

Anonymous said...

I teach missions in a seminary in the US. I served on the field for 19 years. I wish this were an exaggeration, but I fear it is not. At the same time, there are good stories to tell that overshadow the bad ones. I will use this series to remind the students of the difficulties of short term missions. Funny thing, my own church once talked about sending a team to help build a building in a country that could hire skilled workers with the money the team would have spent just getting to the field. Thankfully, our church did not send the team! It would not have been a good use of resources!

Amy Medina said...

I like your idea, Bea. We need to encourage a better stewardship of our resources!

And to the last comment--you are right, teams can definitely be done the right way and be a big blessing. That is what I will write about next.

Joey Espinosa said...

Ugh. Sorry for this. As having been in-country "missionaries" for 3 years now, we've seen similar things, but fortunately have been spared from the worse. We've had great partner churches, so that helps.

And, I haven't been afraid to tell others "No, you can't come to work with me." I think that's surprised many.

Unfortunately, this is what happens with bad church/mission trip leaders, who let the team members think that missions is about them.


Linda said...

These stories,sadly, make me laugh. After being in Rio for 20 years as missionaries we had our own horror stories to tell. Added to our problem was that we lived in a tourist place. We had a team come down, criticize us for 2 weeks and in the end one couple on the team said they only came so they could go to the beach. (Where they got fried because they refused to wear sun block even after multiple warnings!) Gotta laugh or you cry. I'm glad you're writing about this Amy! We did have some amazing folks come down too though. We are grateful for the ones that come down with hearts to serve. And they're out there!

Amy Medina said...

Linda--yeah, we laugh too. What else can you do? We have to laugh at ourselves as well.

Thanks for all your comments and shared experiences, everyone! I'm so pleased that there is so much interest in so many people in wanting to improve in this area.