Stephen W. Moore

July 17, 2017

A Critical Look at Short-term Mission Trips

Filed under: Uncategorized — Moors @ 5:56 pm

This essay was first published June 17, 2013 and will be part of a series of past writings considering the Westernized Church.

I recently went on a short-term mission trip to Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Part of our team was to assist locals in creating a sustainable microeconomy of raising poultry, while the rest the team ran a medical clinic servicing a different region each day. Noble goals, I thought.

Our flight was early Saturday morning, a typical non-business time popular with tourists and vacationers so to not compete with business travelers. This was great, because I got first-class upgrades. Few passengers heading to Guatemala City on Saturday morning are serious business travelers with premiere frequent flier status. Transferring through Houston Intercontinental Airport en route to Guatemala City, I noted the airport was heavily populated with “matching t-shirt teams”: groups of young adults wearing colorful coordinated t-shirts advertising volunteer or humanitarian organizations. Their t-shirts announced projects in destinations such as Costa Rica, Belize, or Honduras. Boarding the flight to Guatemala City that morning, the plane held no less than 4 large volunteer teams wearing coordinated t-shirts headed off on a short-term trip.

Chichicastenango is an odd place. Dominican Monks built the first Mission in Chichi over 400 years ago. The Chichians readily accepted Christianity. They simply combined Christian rituals with their existing Mayan beliefs. Saint Thomas was blended with the Mayan sun god, Christmas blended with their yearly winter pagan festival, and the Catholic Church in the town center is used by both Catholic and Mayan brotherhoods for worship and sacrifices. Chicken fat burns daily on the altar, obstinately to a combination of Mayan and Christian hybrid deities, as have been burning on that altar for centuries. It’s a shocking juxtaposition to stand under the crucifx – complete with the suffering body of Jesus – while His alter is being desecrated with burning chicken fat to a local god. Can anyone say Ezekiel 8:16?

Since 1545, the village has been heavily evangelized by westerners. Humanitarian efforts have become routine and a part of everyday life. My team arrived at Hotel Casa Del Ray, a resort-like hillside fortified compound boasting shotgun-toting security guards, nestled just south but within walking distance of Chichi. The hotel is run by Mission Frontier and serves as a base of operations for various volunteer teams. When we arrived that Saturday, there were already three teams there. Over the weekend, more new teams arrived, and spent teams departed.

Our costs were about $2000 per person, for a total of approximately $52,000 for all 26 members. This included $650 per person airline tickets. Subtracting the cost of the airfare, the team brought $35,100 to be injected into the Guatemalan economy:  lodging, meals, ground transportation, supplies, translators, private security, and whatnot. This was in addition to whatever personal donations and personal cash we were intending to spend on souvenirs and tourism.

Humanitarian or missions travel is classified as “volunteer travel” by the Travel Industries Association, as a type of tourism used to “increase international awareness, to contextualize poverty and its effects, as an education opportunity, and to help people while having a morally rewarding experience.” It has also been referred to as Philanthropic Travel or Voluntourism. It’s easy to view a volunteer trip as a highly evolved form of conspicuous consumption:  a wealthy westerner spending large sums of money seeking to contextualize poverty by selective exposure to third-world conditions, under the watchful protection of shotgun-toting private security guards.

So Chichi is accustomed to this. After 400 years of continuous missionaries, our white faces are an integral part of their culture. The customs officials in Guatemala City airport, for example, are masterful at spotting missionaries with suitcases laden with antibiotics and medical supplies. As I breezed through customs looking like a clueless tourist, wearing sandals and linen pants with my camera swinging around my neck, airport officials were busy detaining heavily organized t-shirt teams and extracting bribery money – eh, duties – to get their suitcases through customs. It’s hard to get exact numbers for volunteerism travel, but some estimate that humanitarian teams from USA spend several billion dollars annually, and that number is increasing. That number should catch someone’s attention.

Mission Frontier is run by “Matt”. I had an opportunity to talk with Matt, and he immediately struck me as a shrewd negotiator not to be trifled with. No wonder. Matt had a background in finance before moving to Guatemala. He resides in two estates, enviable by even American standards, one in Chichi and the other in Antigua, commuting weekly in his British import SUV, managing a small army of private security to guard his wealthy voluntourist guests. Matt certainly caught my attention, and he also brought to my attention the huge business case of volunteer tourism.

Missions have been big business in Chichi for generations. Ever since the Dominican Monks arrived, the influx of western money has been a huge part of their national economy. It is noteworthy that the CIA factfile on Guatemala indicate tourism accounts for 57% of Guatemala’s GDP ($1.42 billion), employing 35% of the national workforce. Short-term missionaries are considered tourists, but it’s difficult to separate how much revenue comes from selfish tourists vs. philanthropic tourists. Judging from the number of seats filled on airplanes to and from Guatemala City airport, I reason a significant part of that tourist revenue comes from philanthropic tourism: short-term mission trips.

Assuming the amount of money raised by our team represents the average short-term trip budget, Matt should net about $1.3M revenue in Chichi during the 10 weeks of summer with a throughput of 3 teams per week. That’s not including the remaining 44 weeks of the year, when he manages commercial income from hotel properties, a coffee plantation, off-summer volunteer teams, and additional teams in Antigua. Matt turns these resources around towards the local economy, orphanages, and schools. Big business and big money nonetheless.

So now I face a cynical reality. The people of Guatemala, Belize, Costa Rica, Honduras, and other popular Latin American or Caribbean destinations are some of the most evangelized societies in the world. Centuries of missions, spanning countless generations, have made humanitarian visits a daily part of life. From cradle to grave, from one generation to the next, they can count on weekly visits from westerners to bring cash and medicine, while young energetic volunteers who are contextualizing poverty are morally rewarded by performing humanitarian acts. A sophisticated business model has grown to encourage and sustain this economy. My first reaction to Matt was envy. His financial brilliance has harnessed the golden goose, and he runs a small empire as tangible proof. But as my first reaction quickly faded away, it was replaced with another, larger realization. It’s the fact that the big business of volunteerism requires a dependent culture to thrive. And the people of Guatemala have been maintained to meet that requirement ever since Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

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