Four Ways We Need to Shift our Perspectives on Missions Trips and Global Volunteering

I work for an organization that is actively preventing poverty-related vulnerabilities through holistic local partnerships and empowerment. We’re preventing kids from being orphaned. We’re preventing people from becoming homeless. We’re preventing women from being pulled down paths towards human trafficking and exploitation, and it’s working. It’s small and tiny but it is working.

Questions I battle every day: Do I post more or less photos of myself with those I work with in other countries? Do I run out of the room every time I feel like I’m being credited for work that certainly doesn’t involve just me? Do I share tough but valuable lessons I’ve learned over the years?

For quite some time, I’ve wanted to write out some perspectives I’ve developed about non-profit work, missions, service, and the role of Americans in global development. Years ago, I began with perspectives on these things that were defined by a massive American social media revolution that enabled us to witness hardships around the world straight from our screens, paired with the message that we could make a difference. I was enlightened. I was empowered. I dove straight in, and have emerged years later with perspectives that have been re-shaped by genuine, trusting relationships with some of those whose lives we were promised to have impacted by buying a cool t-shirt, or whatever. American culture promised me I could be a hero, and that was totally inspiring. It was also a lie that is hurtful to the heroic people in other countries with whom I work, and I was thankfully quick to run far, far away from it.

My message here is to those whose hearts are coming alive upon learning about the realities of the world. Those young people who want to say no to selfishness and the status quo; who want to follow a calling, and are trying to figure out what that looks like. There are a lot of options that will compete for your attention, time, and money, and I want to help you navigate that by sharing some lessons I’ve learned. After all, what good are lessons if I don’t share them?

Know, even as I post this, that I actively encourage people to come to East Africa with me. All the time. At the end of my post, you’ll find out why.

1. Don’t confuse social media with real impact
Social media is a gift and a curse; I think most of us know that by now. We’ve heard of the psychological damage we’ve inflicted upon ourselves by staring at all the insta-stuff and comparing our ho-hum with someone else’s highlight reel. It happens to the best of us. Social media enables us to communicate in some really good ways; social media does not always reflect reality. Volunteerism and service reflected in social media posts also presents a complex reality; I won’t go too deep here except to say that a photo of something that looks impactful may or may not have had an impact in reality. 
(I work in communities who feel very exploited by Americans with cameras; they tell me that they have seen volunteer groups come in with cameras, play with their kids, say that they’re going to use the photos to raise money, and they never see them again. It’s damaged the trust of those I work with. Keep that in the back of your mind when you see photos of good-hearted people on missions trips on your Instagram feed.)
2. Don’t confuse adventure with sacrificial mission
You want, need, crave adventure. You see the social media posts of friends who have been able to explore parts of the world, volunteering as they went, and you can’t miss the chance of doing something like that with your life. Sleeping in sleeping bags, riding across beautiful scenery on a bus, carrying all your belongings on your back – wow. That’s an adventure you just can’t pass up.
I want to first tell you that the fact that you even have the opportunity to sleep on the ground and eat rice for three meals a day in lands far away from your home is a sign of a remarkable amount of privilege, and not necessarily a sacrifice. IF you’re feeling drawn to global volunteer work or missions trips only because of the draw of adventure, just go take a trip to a National Park or sign up for a rainforest trek or safari that will help build the local economy of another country. (Side note – I have a HUGE love of National Parks, and have hiked about 20 of them across the continental United States so far. Seriously, they’re some of the best adventures).
Why am I saying this? Because of point number 2:
3. Don’t confuse adventure with sacrificial mission because real sacrifice is HARD!
Like, real tears, real sleepless nights for years, real empty bank account, real being-told-no-by-potential-supporters-every-day hard.
Yeah, there might be a handful of glorious, fulfilling moments scattered around in there, but the vast majority of your work involves fighting a really tiring uphill battle. When I tell people I spent like two years without really sleeping on an actual bed, it sounds inspiring, but it was actually really annoying. And that was really the least frustrating thing. See, when we’re working for the Kingdom, it’s something that runs contrary to every single system of this world, and you start feeling like you’re running a never-ending race. That’s what it is. But it’s worth it. And Jesus never said it would be easy, so there’s that. 
I’ve seen an interesting phenomenon unfolding in the lives some American young people in the last few years. They take a year off school, raise a LOT of money, and spend a year hopping to different volunteer projects around the world. I think this is interesting. It can’t be easy. It shows a willingness to make big sacrifices, at least for a year. Young Americans: Keep doing this – I think you’re learning some important things. But as you do, think about whether it’s something you’re willing to do for the rest of your life. If it’s not, maybe you should reconsider. Think about whether you will be able to maintain the relationships with the people you meet around the world for the long-term, and what kind of real impact your big investment is making. If you can’t come up with strong answers, maybe you should reconsider.
Because if it’s not just for the adventure, and you are willing to learn, and your desire is to make the biggest impact possible, I want to dare you to do this a different way.
4. Look for long-term opportunities
You want to learn about the world and serve so badly. You don’t think you can commit to living in another country for the rest of your life. Is going somewhere short-term a bad thing?
Sometimes, but not always.
I want to dare you to do this, but do it differently from how most sending agencies out there are asking you to. Instead of visiting a bunch of different countries, visit one. Instead of meeting so many faces along the way that you lose track, just find one. One country, one face, long-term. It could be Florence in Uganda, it could be Neema in Kenya. Walk alongside her for the rest of your life. Come alongside a single mom at risk of giving up her children to an orphanage due to extreme poverty. Help tell her story. Enable her to be enrolled in a program that empowers her economically, preventing her from becoming a victim to poverty-related vulnerabilities. Visit her. Watch her children grow. Learn from her. Go to church with her. Hear her heart. Make her a part of your family. Let her make you a part of her family.
Don’t do it for a week or a year; do it with your life.
Do it with your life.
Under the Same Tree is a non-profit organization that exists to partner with local initiatives in communities faced with the effects of extreme poverty around the world, working to equip these communities to prevent key poverty related vulnerabilities through economic empowerment. 

What does this mean? We’re preventing kids from being orphaned, and keeping families together, thriving. We’re preventing vulnerable youth from becoming homeless. We’re preventing women from being pulled down paths of human trafficking and exploitation. It’s working, and you can enable this to happen in the life of one more person.
Do it with your life.
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