This past Tuesday I met with a group to discuss the potential for giving support for a World Mission Coworker through the Presbyterian Church (USA). These Mission Coworkers make great efforts to legitimize International Christian Mission by living and working in communities for a minimum of 3 year terms. (Although the vast majority decide to lengthen their stay for decades at a time.)
The great significance of these WMCs is in their efforts to work in solidarity with the local communities they are serving. They meet with town leaders, minority groups, refugees, and other existing sites to define areas that need funding and support. This type of model allows for more sustainable mission as well as more useful service to the community by addressing the areas that they identify as important.
One of the examples as to why this type of community-driven mission identification is so important was presented to us by Rene Myers, the Regional Development Manager from the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
In a rural hospital in Mexico, without a current WMC, groups of volunteers were organized to come down for week-long mission trips to work in the hospital throughout the summer. Without a knowledgeable community liaison, these volunteers, some with clinical experience and some with only willing hearts, arrived to the site without any clear direction for their week of service.
Some of the first volunteers looked at the brown stucco walls of the hospital and decided a fresh coat of white paint would be a facelift project both valuable to the community by providing a new look for the space and would be a reasonable task to take on for their week stay.
So the local doctors and leaders followed their cultural customs of graciously hosting these visitors as they prepared the walls, repaired any stucco imperfections, let the walls dry, purchased masonry brushes and exterior white acrylic paint, painted the entire building and at the end of the week left a white hospital building and lingering paint fumes with pat-your-self-on-the-back-for-a-job-well-done grins.
Then the next week’s volunteers arrived with more willing spirits, limited experience and little direction. These volunteers took a look at those white sterile walls and thought a fresh coat of yellow paint would be just the facelift project, pleasing to the eye and accomplishable within a week.
So they sanded down the stucco walls, purchased more masonry brushes and exterior yellow acrylic paint, painted the entire building and left a yellow hospital building and lingering paint fumes with the same self-satisfied grins.
The next week’s volunteers preferred a soft baby blue. A few weeks later it was a pastel green. And then back to white.
Over the summer the rural hospital was painted 5 different shades over the course of 9 weeks they hosted mission trips. The local doctors and community leaders didn’t want to dissuade the volunteers from their projects as they were gracious for the gift to their hospital – although the summer did little to meet their actual needs for upgrading clinic supplies, purchasing medicines, wheelchairs or offering further training to their staff and nurses on proactive health advisement and sterilization techniques.
Not all short-term mission projects result in this kind of unsolicited “service” to the community. But the same risk exists for any kind of short-term placement by imposing whatever vision or specialty the visitor has onto the work done during their stay. A surefire way to avoid this quandary and to make sure a community’s needs are being addressed – is to ask them!
But asking a community what they need requires taking the time to demonstrate respect. To form bonds and relationships with those you are serving. To become “one of us” and develop solidarity for the mission you are living – not breezing through for the week to give to a vague, undefined “them.”
And in order to form this kind of in-depth community, mission organizations and long term volunteers like the World Mission Coworkers are desperately needed. So I am personally very excited to continue these discussions and try to discover the exact type of WMC and community we want to commit to supporting.
I am curious, what are your thoughts on short-term mission? Are they effective? Do you need someone stable on the ground in order to do any mission work?