A lot’s been written about the financial damage short-term missions can do to a community. Let’s look at it from a different angle. Americans love to spend money; we love to buy the blankets, jewelry, and trinkets to remember our journeys. Every youth group has that one kid who will buy the enormous sombrero. All this spending is a good thing. Sometimes the best thing you can do to help a community is let that “money spending” side of being American shine through.
The question of money in missions is a huge topic and comes up whenever short-term missions are discussed. “Short-term missions creates dependency!” “Don’t you know your project is taking jobs away from locals?” I understand the questions and concerns, but I also see the flip side of how short-term missions can positively impact the community from a financial standpoint. Our spending needs to support local business and local workers; this does not create dependency or steal jobs, this creates opportunity and jobs.
To have a positive financial impact, it’s important to not compartmentalize your missions trip. “OK, this is a rest day.” “We will be ministering on these days at this event.” “Today is a shopping day.” I hear these comments from groups all the time, and I understand it. We all like to have clean lines in our life, so we know what to do and when to do it. The problem is, ministry needs to be part of every moment of our lives, not something we schedule on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We have opportunities to minister all the time if we open our eyes to it. I’ve seen groups set up great giveaways of clothing, shoes, or food in town and then be incredibly cheap or condescending in every other area of their trip. “Our ministry time was yesterday.”
The shopping day is one area that most mission teams seem to disconnect from the rest of the trip, but it can be the most impactful service we bring to the table. We need to remember that we represent Christ all the time. Most groups go on a trip to serve the local people and do a fine job during scheduled activities, but when it comes time to negotiate for that Mexican blanket, look out. It’s “take no prisoners” time. It’s normal to see Americans who travel be borderline abusive and really grind the local vendors for that extra dollar. Later they might have dinner out somewhere without thinking about the cost. Then, they’ll pull out a calculator to determined the minimum tip they can get away with.
The idea of saving money is a good thing, we have a responsibility to be good stewards. We also need to be looking at what we do with the money we save. The idea of a group negotiating for the best deal in every situation hit home one day here at our orphanage. We have a gift shop with t-shirts, blankets, and the usual stuff. We use the proceeds from the shop to help care for the children in our home. One day I had a leader from one of the groups come in and try to negotiate on the price of our t-shirts. Think that through. He was here to serve our home, spent hundreds on travel to get here, and then decided to grind us on the cost of a t-shirt in our store.
If we want to bless a community and share with others, spread some money around to people who are working hard and are trying to earn a living. That two dollars you saved negotiating on the blanket might have fed that seller’s family that evening. That five dollars that your group saved on the tip after your dinner might have bought school supplies for the children of your waiter. If your team of 15 people stops at a taco stand, you might be half the sales that day and help keep that stand open supporting a family. It’s good to open the wallet now and then. Christians should be known for being good tippers.
If your team does a hit-and-run into a town and passes out money randomly it can do some real damage. Passing out money makes for uncomfortable interactions, and leaves the families you’re serving feeling degraded. Yes, they can eat better today or maybe buy some needed medications but they will be broke again in a couple of days. I’m all for helping people in need in a community. Our ministry runs a food bank, we build homes for families, we help support a free clinic, etc. but we try to do it in a way that builds the families up and not in any way embarrasses them. When your mission team buys locally, uses local caterers, and uses local transportation, you are directly supporting families in the community and allowing them some dignity.
All healthy relationships are reciprocal. If a relationship is just one person giving to the other it might feel good for awhile but ultimately it will break down, and people will be hurt. By allowing people, when possible, to play a part in their own well being, it builds everyone up.
Go and build the houses, run the medical clinics, do a quality job in whatever you do. But along with focusing on your project, it’s OK to overpay for that blanket, maybe buy two or three; it might be your best act of service all week.
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