We arrived on Monday and visited the children in the orphanage. Tuesday, we followed our normal mission trip routine: breakfast, individual devotions, walk 300 meters to the orphanage, play with and visit the children, lead them in music/story time/recreation, walk back to the guest house for lunch, go back to the orphanage to practice English with the children, walk back and have dinner, have a group devotion and discussion, and then relax. This routine has marked each trip for the last three years.
Each trip has evolved based on experience and our readings. This year, in preparation for the trip, we read Toxic Charity by Robert Lipton. We work to do ministry with, instead of ministry to, but we still fall short. We still bring our North American prejudices with us. Even the fundamental question, “Should we go?” remains.
After multiple trips, getting to know the children, and experiencing the spiritual growth of traveling on a mission trip, suspending the ongoing trips and relationships would be tantamount to heresy for the ardent participants. However, unpacking this question about whether or not to go seems legitimate. Each trip costs over $1,000 per person. For a dozen people, churches and individuals raise over $12,000. Thus, the question, “How much good could that money do?” makes sense.
Since last coming to Haiti, the orphanage has purchased a 15-passenger minibus for $24,000. The entire cost of the minibus was possible with a gift from one church. The cost of the minibus is equivalent to two groups visiting and singing songs with the children. The harsh reality is many people will donate to support people they know who go on a short term mission trip, but they would not give money to buy a desperately needed minibus for people who they do not know and who live far away.
In Jonathan Katz’s book The Big Truck That Went By, he presents an insightful look at post-earthquake Haiti. The subtitle is How the world came to save Haiti and left behind a disaster. There is a reason Haiti is poor. John Collier presents a clear summary of some of these reasons in The Bottom Billion. Katz’s book illustrates how Collier’s economic theory plays out after a horrific natural disaster.
Sending $12,000 instead of going to Haiti might do some real good. However, it misses the human contact. Those who do not go miss experiencing personal transformation. Likewise, the recipients of short term mission projects do not see people coming to their land and showing affection, if no one comes. Can there not be a balance between sending money and going?
The answer to this question might be in modern trends in technology. Video conferencing is ubiquitous. Haiti, especially Port-au-Prince, as 4G and LTE data coverage, even though few people have consistent electricity throughout the day. Crowd funding websites allow grassroots participation in new technologies and projects. Perhaps, the children in the orphanage could develop relationships with people in North American churches, without the North Americans spending thousands of dollars to come to Haiti. Small groups could still come, but with more money, the orphanage could employ more workers to better prepare the children for good jobs in Haiti.
The net effect of using technology to build relationships could free more resources for the orphans and a richer mutual experience for everyone. Church groups could plan regular gatherings with international counterparts. Over time both groups could get to know one another better; over time, they could grow more comfortable with the technology on both sides of the geospatial divide. Elderly women in North American churches who meet to pray for missionaries could video conference with the children in, for example, a Haitian orphanage.
What is the downside? First, paternalism remains difficult to avoid. The North Americans often ask questions that betray a belief in the superiority of their way of approaching questions and issues. Over time, and by getting to know one another, they could avoid some of these cultural snafus. Some people on the other side of the video might find it inconvenient to chat when the North Americans want to chat. The meetings must be mutual in time and length.
Second, technology replacing short term missions misses human contact. There is something metaphysical about a hug. Seeing people in real life is different than seeing them on a screen. Technology would reduce the physical exchange, but more contact over a longer period of time could reduce paternalism and deepen the connection. Thus, when a group travels (either north or south), both groups would know one another better when they meet.
Third, new technologies are not free. Even existing technologies carry a cost. Internet access has a monthly or ongoing cost. When someone is paying an ongoing cost, there is an implicit assumption that the one paying will have a voice in how the recipient uses the technology. Currently, the advantage to a tech-based short term mission project is the technology does exist and the cost is not exorbitant.
Fourth, the time involved might be a challenge for people on both sides of the geospatial divide. Both groups would need to be committed in order for the program to work. This might be the greatest challenge. Why allow North Americans open access to video-chat at regular intervals? Why not send people from North America to places like Haiti? In many churches, the answer would be: we have always done it this way; we have always taken up a collection, sent a group off, and heard their testimony when they returned.
Being open to God means being open to new ways to follow God, especially as we enter firmly into a new millennium.