Voluntourism Isn’t So Bad.

travelOver the last few years, the term “voluntourism” has come into the missions vernacular. It’s generally used as a derogatory term for people combining vacations, with serving, with a dash of poverty tourism thrown in. It’s a simple term, but it’s more complicated than the black and white way most people present it.

I’ve you’ve watched cable news or visited any social media website in the last few years you’ve seen a widening divide. Whether it’s Democrat vs. Republican, opinions on gun control, or any one of dozens of topics, the reasonable middle ground can be hard to find. The problem is, in most cases, that middle ground is where logical solutions are found. The calm voice of reason has been silenced by the shouting from both sides in too many discussions.

I, along with my team, host a LOT of short-term mission groups in Mexico every year. Are some of these trip more about tourism wrapped in projects? Sure, it happens, it’s actually a sliding scale with any group. Some people come for purely educational or recreational purposes, some come who only want to serve, most come with a mixed agenda and we’re OK with that. As long as the groups coming down are respectful of our home, and the people we serve in the community, we want the groups here. We want bigger groups, and we want them to tell their friends to come.

The term voluntourism paints all service trips with a broad negative brush. It claims that service trips are all about the people going on the trips, and those people looking good on social media. We’ve all seen the pictures of American teens surrounded by poor children. The thing is, for this current generation, everything is documented to social media. Whether it’s dining out, giving birth, or the Pinterest wedding, everything is now photographed for online publication. Is it odd that service trips are also so well photographed and shared? As long as the people being photographed have given permission, and the local culture is respected, is this a problem? Or does showing people the need in various areas of the world actually help to promote aid to those areas? Few would argue that’s it’s better to keep needs hidden. When these trips are healthy and respectful, everybody wins.

People attacking voluntourism without knowing the desires and goals of the people receiving the groups are actually showing incredible arrogance. “I know what’s better for them than they do.” This attitude of well-meaning American’s determining the wants and desires of people groups and cultures they know very little about is actually hugely condescending. Passing judgment on people without knowing them, their needs, and their wishes, is exactly the wrong thing to do. By going and visiting people where they are, talking to them, and getting to know them, real progress can be made. Call it voluntourism if you want to, but it’s a good thing.

Across the board, people in our area want more groups to come down. Even though some groups give just a half-hearted nod to a service project, they still bring huge benefits to our community. There is a reason every city in the US promotes tourism: people who visit buy food, supplies, and create jobs in the local community. Between the several ministries in our area, over 500 missions groups are hosted in our town of 4,000 people every year. These short-term mission teams and their projects are the economic engines that have brought our town from poverty to middle class in the last 15 years. Some groups have been less than great, but the overall effect has changed local lives for the better.

So how do you change the shape of voluntourism? Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Respect the people and culture of wherever you are visiting. Always remember that the people you’re visiting aren’t there for your entertainment, they are just like you but from a different culture and background. Get to know them, talk to them, ask before you take a picture (or don’t take a picture at all). Treat them as you would want to be treated.
  2. Work on real, productive projects. The best way to do this is to find on-the-ground organizations who you can partner with. There are people in any area who know the needs that need to be addressed and how best to focus your efforts and resources. If you’re working on a project, by partnering with local organizations, you’re much better prepared to help, and not cause unintentional damage.
  3. Be honest with your funders. If you call your trip “missions” and have raised money under that title, be honest with yourself and your donors. Is this really just about missions or is it about tourism? If it’s just about you taking a trip, get a job and pay for it yourself. If it’s really about serving others and meeting needs, let people know how they can help. Taking an educational and touristy trip is fine, just be honest about it.

It comes down to respect for the people in the countries being visited. Travel is a good thing, it breaks down walls, changes opinions, and works against racism. If we can learn more about our world, our fellow man, and help others while we’re at it, it’s a good thing. Voluntourism suddenly doesn’t sound so bad.

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What is an Orphan?

Armenian_orphans_in_Aleppo_collected_from_Arabs_by_Karen_Jeppe

What is the definition of orphan? I know this sounds pretty straightforward but depending on who you talk to the definition of what an orphan is can vary widely. Most people assume that an orphan is a child that has no parents. But orphan can also define many other situations where the child might have a parent or two; they just aren’t around to care for the child. Both UNICEF and World Vision define an orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents.

I, along with an exceptional team, run a large orphanage. We care for about 120 children from newborn up through adulthood in a family like setting. The bulk of our children are not technically orphans in the traditional sense; this sometimes surprises people. “If they’re not an orphan, why are they in your home?” Well, it gets complicated.

If a parent or parents are in prison, rehab, or some other institutional situation where they can’t care for their child, the child needs to go somewhere. Frequently there is no extended family available or willing to care for the thousands of children whose parents are no longer in their lives. These children are technically not “orphans” but still need a home. Of the children in our care, 70% will never see blood relatives again. The parents might be out there somewhere; it’s just that reunification is impossible. We are big fans of adoption, but it’s not a reality for most children. Because there are still parents somewhere, the children are older, or there are siblings in the picture, adoptions are pretty rare.

Some children are brought to us due to severe abuse or neglect. Some have gone through things that would rip your heart out if I were to detail them here. Even though they have been removed from a home situation for their protection, they still technically have parents and are not “orphans.” They need to be cared for, counseled, and brought to a place of healing.

Occasionally a woman will give birth and for any number of reasons decide to abandon that child. The mother might be too young, they might have hidden the pregnancy, or they don’t want to acknowledge it, they might be going through some deep psychological issues. For whatever reason, in any society, a percentage of infants are abandoned by their parents. Once again these children are not technically orphans, they have parents somewhere. These abandoned children need to be cared for and raised in a way to show them how valuable they are. They need to be shown that they are not a mistake or just something to be thrown away. Being abandoned at that level leaves some deep scars.

The work of orphan care is rarely black-and-white, there are a vast amount of gray areas that we work in every day. Many people accuse orphanages of breaking up families just for the sake of filling their dorms. I’m not saying some orphanages haven’t done this, or even continue to do this, but in my experience, it’s less frequent than some people would lead you to believe.

Most of our children are referred to us by social workers just like they would be assigned to foster care families in the US, but occasionally a child will be brought to us by a parent asking us to take their child. We will do everything in our power to keep the family together. Whether it’s counseling, short-term financial help, housing, etc. we fight to keep families together. We’ve even gone so far as hiring qualified single mothers so that they could stay here with their children in a safe place. We feel a healthy family is without a doubt the very best option for a child. Unfortunately, for many children, the family option is not on the table.

So why this rambling explanation of the difficulties of defining an orphan? I just wanted to bring up the idea that orphan care can be very nuanced, complicated, and it can be hard to peg down solid answers. Orphaned and abandoned children don’t fit into our preconceived boxes. In any ministry, there are Solomon like judgment calls made frequently. What is your definition of homeless? What is your definition of a “special needs” child? Words and definitions matter a great deal, but the realities are people are messy, and we need to meet them where they are. We are all on a sliding scale of messed up. Just because a child doesn’t fit our exact definition of orphan, doesn’t mean they don’t have needs. Too many children in this world are desperate for a place to call home, filled with people who genuinely care about them.

In orphan care, we need to see each child as God sees us. God sees each one of us as individuals with needs, desires, and profound pains that are uniquely our own. Psalm 68:5 says, “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows, is God in his holy habitation.” God cares deeply for each one of his children. He cares so deeply for us; we should also care for those lost children all around us, whether it’s a true orphan, an abandoned child, or the lonely child next door or in our church. There are more “orphans” among us than we might realize: act accordingly.

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You Have a Greater Impact Than You Think

Africa3When you’re traveling on a short-term mission trip, how you’re perceived might be very different than you might imagine. Being accurately self-aware is difficult and very few people get it right. You have an image of yourself and who you are, other people have an entirely different image of you, and what you can do. Until we come to a closer understanding of how people actually see us, it’s hard to build relationships and move past the polite niceties of life.

Years ago, I was visiting West Africa with my wife and a small team helping with staff training at an orphanage in Ghana. About an hour from the orphanage was a small grade school that had been, in large part, funded by a friend of ours from the United States. Our friend had asked us to stop by the school to say “Hi”, and to see how they were doing. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal. As is often the case in short-term missions, what we envisioned or intended turned out to be vastly different than what happened.

We had scheduled our “down day” from the work at the orphanage and had called the school to ask permission to come by in the morning to visit. Not a big deal, we thought we would meet with a teacher or two, maybe shake hands with the director, and hit the road. Yikes, were we wrong. When we pulled up, it looked like they had some traditional festival going on. We quickly found out that the “festival” was because some FRIENDS of the guy who funded the place were dropping by. They had suspended classes and put together a program with a few speeches honoring our visit; then each class performed a traditional dance for the benefit of our small team. After the dances they brought out some cookies and a few cokes for us as refreshments. It was a heart-warming, special time. It was also wildly awkward. We were nobody, we hadn’t done anything, but they shut the school down for us for the day. Afterward, it led to some great discussions and a lot of soul-searching among our team.

Money, or the perception of money, changes everything. In hindsight, we realized us showing up to that school was like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet (two of the richest people in the world) stopping by for dinner. Our team collectively was fairly broke, but in the eyes of the people at the school, we were wealthy beyond their imagination. Just the idea that we could pay to travel halfway around the world was a mind-boggling amount of money for them. We wanted to have a real conversation with the school director, but we could tell right away that it was just too weird all around. She was too intimidated by our perceived wealth and connections; she was too afraid to offend, the relationship was just out of balance. We did everything we could to tell them we were nobodies but it just wasn’t going to work.

We need to think about what our impact is in missions by just being present, for good or bad. We assume just showing up and watching might have no impact, but as we saw happen at the school, our visit might have wildly unintended consequences.

Here at our orphanage, we hold Sunday service on site in our small chapel. The service is kid-focused and a special, set-aside time for our family here in our home. We have a lot of visiting groups, and they’re sometimes surprised when they find out they’re not allowed in our service. “But we just want to watch and experience it.” OK, but if we add 10, 20, 30 Americans to our service, it just becomes a show for the American teams. It shifts the focus from our kids, and God, to a cultural presentation for our visitors. Not our goal.

We love our groups; we love when they visit, but for the good of the children in our home we need to maintain boundaries. If a group wants to experience a local service that’s great, we just send them to one of the many local churches in our area. We know their presence will change the dynamic of the local church service, but we’ve talked to the local pastors, and they’re fine with the groups joining in. The groups are welcome there. But the reality is they will change the “feel” of the service just by being present as foreigners. Foreigners that are perceived as being financially wealthy and well connected.

Short-term missions are important. Organizations around the world need help and want teams to come. I’m a huge advocate for short-term missions, and the powerful changes trips can bring into the lives of all those involved, both the teams going and the teams hosting. But it’s so important to do it in as healthy a way as possible.

We need to serve with humility, to serve with sensitivity, and to serve in a way that has as positive an impact as possible. Place yourself into the minds of the people you will be visiting, imagine the impact. Seek to be self-aware, to understand how people view you and be aware of how you are perceived. To be empathetic to others, to understand what they are experiencing, is one of the first steps to effective ministry.

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Mother’s Day Sucks

pain2Anna Jarvis is credited with “inventing” mothers day back in 1908, and it became an official US holiday in 1914. Shortly thereafter, Anna, realizing what the day had become, spent the rest of her life fighting against what she considered her enormous mistake. (footnote) She fought to abolish the holiday not just because of the pain it brings out in so many people, she realized that it had become just another reason to sell flowers and expensive greeting cards. Mother’s day had turned into another pointless commercial endeavor. I’m all for making a buck; the thorny issue is the agonizing emotional pain this day can bring.

Few holidays elicit such an immediate and emotional response as Mother’s Day. Father’s Day? Yawn. Presidents Day? Big deal. Fourth of July? A BBQ, big whoop. Thanksgiving is bigger than most holidays but not exactly an emotional event. Mother’s Day brings along a tangled string of emotional responses in almost anyone. When one hears the word “mother” it’s part of our shared human experience to have memories ripple through our minds, some loving, some not so loving, but the memories are almost never without deep sentiments.

The mother-child relationship is one of the strongest and most important in our lives, for that reason, it is so celebrated. Because it can be so remarkable, it makes sense that is can also be one of the most painful and damaging of relationships when it goes wrong. For a large percentage of the population, the emotions that this day brings forth are a long way from joy. For anyone involved in ministry, it’s important to be acutely aware of the land-mines this holiday places all around us.

Writing here as one who runs a large orphanage, you can imagine the pain Mother’s Day can bring out in the children in our care. We stopped attending church in our town on Mother’s Day years ago because it was just too agonizing. For our children to attend a service dedicated to honoring mothers, it brought up way too much baggage. They would sit there and listen to how wonderful all the mothers in the church were, they would watch as flowers were passed out to the mothers present, and they would sit quietly holding back the tears. Besides church, every year our kids have to participate in the public school’s Mother’s Day program knowing their biological mothers will never see it. They watch other children being hugged by their mothers and wonder what they did wrong to make their own mothers abandon them. Our staff here does a phenomenal job of loving and caring for the children in our home, but it can still be a very complicated and painful few days around here.

It’s not just the orphaned who suffer through this day. For women who have lost children through illness or accidents, Mother’s Day is a vivid, annual reminder of their tragedy and the dull pain that radiates through their lives. While others are celebrating motherhood, they are mourning the graduations, weddings, and all life’s events they will never see their children experience. Along with the many mothers who’ve lost children, are the 20% of women who, for medical and various other reason, will never have children. Society still tells women they are not complete unless they have offspring, for many, this is not within their control.

For many people, Mother’s Day is a painful reminder that the women who gave birth to them failed at motherhood. Not every mother is Mrs. Brady; not every mother is the ideal that we celebrate. Too many mothers abandon their children, too many are mentally or physically abusive. Too many mothers have drug or alcohol problems or just don’t care. For anyone raised by a women who should never have had children, this day is a painful reminder that they never had a normal childhood. They were never held when they were scared; they were never read to at night, the tooth fairy never came. Not a lot to celebrate here, just an aching void where their childhood should be.

So, what are we supposed to do if we have a church, school, or some other organization that needs to acknowledge this upcoming day? Honor all those mothers who get it right, who have sacrificed so much to raise their children in a loving, healthy way. Encourage them, recognize them, shower them with the admiration they deserve. The mother-child relationship can be a profound, wonderful, literally life-changing experience. The mother-child bond is incredible, and it should be celebrated when it’s done right. BUT, please do so in a way that is sensitive to those in the room that dread this Sunday in May every year.

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footnote: http://mentalfloss.com/article/30659/founder-mothers-day-later-fought-have-it-abolished

Reciprocal Missions – The Book

Screen Shot 2018-04-28 at 4.53.28 PMYou’ll notice this blog is a LITTLE different than my normal ramblings so I hope I don’t scare off my normal followers. (thanks for following by the way) This week marks what I hope is a milestone for the work I feel I’ve been called to. After more than a year of partnering with Phil Steiner, a fellow missionary with a heart for short-term missions, our book is available on Amazon. Reciprocal Missions – Short-term Missions that Serve Everyone (paperback or Kindle)

For anyone who’s met me, or read my blog, you know I’m passionate about short-term missions. Like many opinions I hold dear, not everyone agrees with me on this topic. There has been a great deal written in the last few years questioning the value of short-term mission projects. Some circles are condemning them as useless, damaging, or a waste of money. I get that, I’ve seen my share of mission trips that should have never happened. But, I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life hosting short-term mission teams here at our orphanage, and I can tell you without a doubt, short-term missions can change lives.

In Missions the idea of unintended consequences is nothing new. Well-meaning people trying to fix a problem can sometimes create a whole new set of problems. The fight against human trafficking has had a detrimental effect on international adoptions, the worthy effort to protect vulnerable children is causing unintended consequences or preventing adoptions. The consequences of people pointing out the many problems of short-term missions is that, unfortunately, many people have given up on short-term missions altogether. There is a lot to criticize, but that’s true of just about any human endeavor. We need to take a nuanced look at whatever we do and work to improve when we can. If we stopped doing everything that was challenging, we would be sitting on the couch the rest of our lives. God wants us to be challenged; He wants us to stretch and try new things, this is how we grow into the people we’re intended to be.

There is something God does in the hearts and lives of His people when they step out of their comfort zone, travel to a new place, and spend time observing and participating in ministry in cultures different from their own. We are part of a rich, dynamic, wonderful collection of believers around the world. It’s impactful and life-changing to go out and build relationships with fellow believers in central America, Africa, Cuba, or any area you might have a chance to serve.

Just like any effective ministry, in missions, relationships are key. Healthy, reciprocal relationships are critical to successful short-term mission trips. Without them, we will continue to do damage and be ineffective. The book we’ve released is a guide to help people navigate short-term missions in a way that honors everyone: the teams going, the ministries hosting, and the local communities.

Our book, Reciprocal Missions, has a slightly different flow than most. Phil (my co-author) and I each work through a section from our perspective—a topic in our particular area of expertise; then the other will briefly chime in, sharing their short take on the topic. I write from the perspective of the mission host; having received and hosted groups for over 25 years. Phil writes from the perspective of the short-term trip facilitator, bringing 20 years of experience leading groups into effective service and educational experiences. Our goal is that the dialogue provides insights into best practices for healthy short-term missions.

Purchase the paperback here               Purchase the Kindle here

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You Are the Missions Field

crossThere’s something a lot of people don’t consider. When your mission team travels to Mexico, Africa, or some other country, you’re probably assuming you’re going to share the Gospel. The reality is, the missionaries and ministries you’re visiting see you as the missions field, they see you as someone who needs to experience the Gospel as you’ve never imagined.

When I took my first trip to Africa, I was surprised by the sheer number of churches. Every city, town, and village seemed to have more than their share of churches representing a wide range of denominational and non-denominational faiths. These churches weren’t just buildings; these churches were full and alive whenever the doors were open. There were Bible verses written on most cars, and about half the billboards were advertising churches or church events. I quickly realized that the people we came to serve already had plenty of people come and share the gospel. The population as a whole was more excited about God than any area I had visited in the U.S. It kind of surprised me. “Wait a minute, I thought we came here to share the Gospel?”

People have been traveling the world sharing the good news for a very long time. At this point, it’s actually kind of hard to find a country where missionaries haven’t been working and sharing for many years. When I was in Malawi, I visited a monument in honor of the missionaries who had come from England in the late 1700’s. I was not bringing a new message. So what was the trip to Africa about?

If you’re following trends, or you’ve been in a church lately, you’ll quickly notice that churches in the U.S. are shrinking and closing at a rate never seen before. In spite of all the programs, activities, and trying to keep up with social changes, people are leaving the church in droves. ( pewforum.org: america’s-changing-religious-landscape/ ) Most of the world now sees the U.S. as the missions field, as an area desperately in need of the Gospel.

Maybe we need to look at “missions” in a new light.

For as long as there have been missionaries, the model has been, “We have the Gospel, we need to go over to that country over there and share this with others.” Maybe we need to flip the tables on missions and say, “Those people, over there, in that country, have a faith that’s deeper, wider, and more life-changing than mine. What can I learn from them?”

Around the world, there are missionaries, ministries, and churches that are alive and thriving. In many countries where churches suffer under persecution or severe poverty, they are trusting God and living out their faith in ways that most Americans have a hard time imagining. When we travel on short-term missions, we have the incredible opportunity to bump up against heroes of the faith who are living, breathing, examples of how the early apostles lived and walked.

I’m not saying U.S. short-term missions teams don’t bring something incredibly valuable to the table. U.S. teams bring technical know-how, skilled labor, and tremendous resources that keep ministries around the world open and operating. There are clinics, schools, and orphanages in the majority of countries that might not be open without the assistance of the teams that travel the world to serve. Through teams visiting, ministries in developing countries can share at a deeper level about their work. They can share the many ways people can partner with them to change lives.

We as a church need to view missions as a reciprocal relationship. A symbiotic partnership where both parties, the teams traveling and the people hosting, have something precious to share with each other. The idea of reciprocal missions brings a level of respect to both parties, seeing each other as valuable and knowledgeable, each in their own way.

So how do we walk in reciprocal missions? As in any healthy relationship, we need to communicate. If you’re planning a trip, try to find out what the real needs of your destination are and how to help in those areas. Once you get to where you’re going, listen. Listen to your host, listen to their stories, attend church with them to experience what church is like for them. It really is OK to attend a church in another country and not have your leader preach, or your team perform a drama. Sometimes, just showing up to experience and support a church can be a profound experience.

When we have a team hosted by our ministry, we hurt for them when they’re “here,” but they’re not present. Their eyes are closed to the opportunities to learn. We have a great team here in Mexico, and we love to share with visiting missions groups. I recently offered to have one of my team share with a group around a campfire and was told, “No, we have our own programs, we don’t need your team.” Every night, they had their same leaders, share the same messages they could have heard at home. They missed a tremendous opportunity.

Go on a mission trip, but go with a little different agenda. Go to serve, but also go as an education, as an opportunity to stretch your faith, your walk, and what your life might be. If we go with a healthy, humble, servant’s attitude, everybody wins.

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It’s OK To Be Ripped Off Now And Then

coloured-rugs-1636468A 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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