Equal Exchange

equal-exchange1MISSION asks  families to volunteer in their communities before they are eligible to earn a new house through our program. We actually get a lot of questions about our process. Wouldn’t it be more loving if we just built a house for them, no questions asked or strings attached? Short answer: no. Long answer: continue reading.

OPTION 1: Fly a team in and build a house for a family of 6 that currently lives in a cardboard box in the rainy mountains of El Salvador.

OR

OPTION 2: Ask that they become engaged in their community and in the process, meet many other people just like them who live and work in their community.

Let’s fast forward 10 years:

OPTION 1 IN 10 YEARS: The family lives in a decent house that is beginning to fall apart. The really good news, however, is that no one living in the house has died from hurricanes, mud slides, earth quakes, or respiratory problems.

OPTION 2 IN 10  YEARS: The family lives in a decent house that is beginning to fall apart. The really good news, however, is that no one living in the house has died from hurricanes, mud slides, earth quakes, or respiratory problems. The even better news is that most of the community knows each other from when they all helped build each others’ homes. If the neighborhood watch program works in America, imagine how much more engaged these community members are. How would you feel about your neighbor if he actually helped build your house? Also, the community now has access to reputable doctors, pastors, teachers, and government officials because they interacted with them while volunteering to earn hours for a new home.

Which option seems more loving? A community who “does life” together or a bunch of individuals that received something for free from some foreigners?

If you still think option 1 sounds more loving, you are probably motivated by feelings and emotions more than truth and authentic development. The remedy for this usually requires two things. The first one is observing a genuinely dependent community and seeing the harm caused by dependencies first-hand. The second one is some honest personal assessment about why you’re in this line of work in the first place.

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Make the jump

Edgar 2I started out as a great white missionary who was going to move to Mexico and save the world. Now, I’m a full time advocate for local development who is generally against great white missionaries going into the field. That was a big jump. Someone recently asked me how I went from one extreme to the other. I met a guy named Edgar.

I work for 1Mission. We’re a nonprofit giving people in poverty the opportunity to earn a new home by serving in their community. One way we do that is by hosting short-term teams who come for a weekend at a time to help build homes. In March of 2009, we had a group cancel last minute because they said it was too dangerous to come to Mexico. Regarding the danger, it just doesn’t exist but that’s not what this is about.

We had already purchased the materials, the house needed to be built whether the group was coming down or not. We gathered up some people we’d built for in the past and the neighbors of the family receiving the house. This is the first house we built using exclusively local labor. It was a powerful thing to be a part of.

At the house dedication, Edgar (the man to the furthest left of the picture above), gave a small speech. He said, “If there are a bunch of Mexican crabs in a bucket, when one tries to escape, the others will pull him down. Today, we got down on our hands and knees to serve each other. We gave of ourselves to create a ladder so that each one of us could get out of the bucket together. We don’t need anyone else’s help for us to serve each other.”

Needless to say it was an inspiring moment for the local volunteers and for me. We saw a glimpse of our future in real life.

Fast forward to today. Just a few weeks ago we built over 16 houses in one weekend. Those 16 houses represent 3200 volunteer hours served in the community (by locals)! We could have parachuted a team in, built a house, and lives would have been changed forever. Instead, we encouraged community members to get involved and to become active participants in their development, not passive recipients.

It all started with a group that cancelled last minute. What obstacles are you facing right now that could become your future reason for success?

Success Story

luz 1When people have lived in poverty for generations, why do we think we can bring them out of it in even a few years? It can be a very thankless job because successes can be very few and far between. You aren’t alone if you wonder if you even have a success story. Here is one example of what success looks like:

Amparo is a single mom with eight kids. She has been volunteering with us for over a year.  We weren’t able to build for her because she has no legal ownership of the piece of land she is living on.  Over the course of a year, she built friendships with some of the other women she volunteers with.  They began encouraging her to apply for a piece of land nearby that she could gain ownership of.  Two ladies that have been working with us for a while walked her through the steps to acquire some land.  The biggest obstacle was the $300 required for a down payment.  She had exactly $0 saved.  She hasn’t had a steady job since we’ve known her, and barely makes enough money for a little bit of food each day.

One of the ladies who met her through volunteering came to us and wanted to help with the down payment.  Maricela is a mother of 5 kids.  Her and her husband have not had steady work since we’ve known them either.  They gave $40.  Thats about two weeks of income for them but to her, Amparo needed it more than she did.  Maricela believed that others were there for her when she was in need, and now she had the opportunity to help when someone else was in need.  Over the course of four days Amparo’s community came beside her and raised the money needed for a down payment.

The day her house was completed, her neighbors and friends surrounded her, all crying as they looked at Amparo’s new home, which they had each helped make possible.

How we measure success is through locals serving in, and giving to, their community.  We are happy to see more and more community members taking ownership in making their neighborhood a better place to live.

Measuring Success

I’m a strong advocate for the saying, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” That means that if you aren’t measuring something, it’s probably not getting better. If you are a runner who isn’t tracking your time and distance, you probably aren’t improving as a runner. So many churches measure attendance because it’s an easy number to obtain. What happens when all you measure is church attendance? You have a lot of shallow people filling your church every week who aren’t connecting to God or to each other. The evangelical church has been guilty of this for years.

In international work more than ever it is important that you have measurable results. There are countless ways to measure success. In the work of a Christian, one possible way is laid out for us at the end of the second chapter of Acts.

Acts 2:42-47 says:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

This is describing what a Christian community looked like right after Jesus died. One thing we have to be aware of, is that this passage is a description of what the early church looked like, not a prescription of exactly what our communities should look like. Too often we read passages like this and try to force fit our culture into it, this can have very damaging results.

That said, here are some measurable results you can use to know if you are on the right track. Since a lot of our success is spiritual and therefore intangible, it’s easy to fake. Be very cautious of this, it will only harm you and your ministry by pretending to have results. The real challenge, however, is it’s even easy to deceive yourself! Sit down with a trusted supporter, board member, or colleague every month and measure your success based on the following results:

What is a disciple?

Why development?

Recently, someone close to me told me that they’ve found a lot of scripture to support caring for the poor but nothing really says we need to focus on development work. My answer was something similar to:

  1. Caring for the poor should not be taken out of context from the rest of the Bible. We are still called to disciple, to teach, and to empower regardless of a person’s materially wealth. Thus, we should care for the poor in a way that honors the rest of scripture. That means we should value everyone as stewards of resources, not helpless victims.
  2. Development works better than relief in truly serving the materially poor. God gave us brains to come up with good strategies for dealing with things and we should implement those strategies when they work.
  3. Jesus treated the material poor with dignity and when we don’t we aren’t honoring them as God’s children, equal to us.
  4. A sign of a true disciple is someone who gives and helps others. If we aren’t careful, we could be robbing a local of the joy that comes from giving and serving. Short-term mission trips are especially guilty of this.
  5. There’s clear support for caring for the poor throughout scripture. When we use our brains and take the entirety of the Gospel into consideration, it’s clear that development is the best way to truly care for the poor.
  6. Does God hand us everything we want or does he provide us opportunities to grow and fail and succeed and struggle and celebrate? Why should we take those opportunities away from other people?
  7. God’s overarching purpose is not that no one goes hungry but that everyone is redeemed and given the opportunities to be what they were originally created to be. Relief work only does part of that, development is all about that redemption process.

Short-Term Missions (again)

There’s been a lot of talk about short-term missions (STM) lately. Most of it is well grounded and theoretical but not super practical. I really want to dive into why STM are the way they are and what we can do about it. This is incredibly hard to do because there are so many STM organizations and so many different groups of people that want to do something about it.

It would be one long (and hard to read) post if I tried to answer all of that at once. Instead, I’m going to do a series of posts looking at STM from a bunch of different angles. Churches, organizations, groups, and individuals all look at STM in completely different ways. Just like community development work should be done holistically, so should developing a new definition of STM. I’ll start off with a few links to other useful resources that introduce different perspectives on STM.

Here’s a blog post I wrote so you can see my bias right off the bat (though I’ll try to keep it objective throughout the series).

Here’s a book I highly recommend about the subject. I’ll be doing a review on this book shortly.

Lastly, a blog post I’m not affiliated with that does a good job explaining the big picture of STM.

Some things I’ll address in this series of posts:

  • What does an individual need to know about STM?
  • What should you be on the look out for when searching for a good trip to go on?
  • What types of organizations can host an effective STM?
  • Why do STM have such a bad reputation?
  • What can someone do to be most prepared for a STM trip?
  • What are some basic dos and don’ts?
  • How to take and how not to take pictures on a STM trip.
  • What is our role in world missions and community development?

Just so you know: I will not say that you should not participate in any short term missions. I do not think that you should stop giving money. I still think STMs can be an incredible way to share life with people all around the world. It’s an opportunity that my grandparents certainly didn’t have and I’m appreciative that my generation can now do things like this. That said, with great opportunity comes great responsibility. We must do everything we can to make sure STM are helping who we say they are meant to help.

I’ll update this post with links to each new post in this series so you can always come back to it for reference. This is such a big topic, I’d love to get a discussion going. Email goodmudblog [at] gmail.com if you’re interested in something like that and I’ll help set up a google hangout or a Skype session.

Chronic vs Crisis

I wrote a post on short-term missions that wasn’t super helpful. It explained a problem without even starting to talk about solution(s). That’s not the way I like to do things.

One solution can be found in the “Chronic vs Crisis” discussion. One way to determine if relief work is necessary (as most short-term mission trips are), is by asking the question, “Is this situation a crisis or is it chronic?”

A crisis is usually caused by a natural disaster, a war, or some other act of God that cannot be predicted. After the earthquake in Haiti, it’s perfectly appropriate that organizations went there with airplanes full of food and medical supplies to hand out. Like I’ve said before, if someone is about to drown, it’s not a good time to teach them how to swim; just pull them out of the water.

What probably isn’t appropriate, however, is that years later some of those same organizations are still handing out food and medical supplies without any local involvement or ownership.

Chronic is everything that isn’t a crisis. Normal life. Every day. Most poverty around the world is chronic poverty and although it’s getting better it’s been around a long time and probably won’t be going away tomorrow (though I still believe it could go away in our lifetime).

The solution to a crisis is immediate relief.  The solution to a chronic problem is long-term development.

If you try to do development during a crisis, people will die. If you try to do relief work in a community with chronic poverty, you’ll be reinforcing their poverty.

It’s crucial that we understand the difference between the two and implement solutions that are fitting.

Missionary Community

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First off – Just found this blog which is mostly really great. It has a lot more to do with life as a missionary than it does what missionaries actually do, but it’s still some good reading.

While digging around the blog, I came across this post – 10 Reasons Not To Become A Missionary.

Loved every word.

Although my blog is more about actual development work, the missionary life has been a special topic for me after my experiences abroad. Whether you are a missionary or not, it’s a blog full of people with big hearts for people all around the world, and that can’t be a bad thing.

Short-term Mission Trips

DSC_0371Short-term mission trips are almost always more beneficial to the participants than the beneficiaries. I say this knowing it’s controversial. I say this as a participant of countless short-term mission trips. I say this as an employee of a short-term missions organization. Believe me, it’s as hard to say as it is to hear.

Think of your community. What could a group of 20 outsiders do in just a few weeks that could really make any difference? Remember these people have never been to your country, they don’t speak your language, and they probably don’t want your help. That’s not all true, there’s almost always one person in the group that’s “practically a local” because they went on this same trip a year ago; they know all the cool places to eat, shop, and evangelize.

There are plenty of horror stories about short-term mission trips, I’ll only tell one:

A family living in the barrios of Mexico, woke up to the sound of people outside of their home one Saturday morning. They walk outside to see 4 Americans near their home about to begin what looks like a painting project. This family is obviously surprised to see Americans outside of their home but the language barrier makes it hard for anyone to truly communicate. No bother, the Americans say to themselves, love is the international language; this family will feel Jesus’ presence through our being here. So the Americans go about their business while trying to ignore the family because it’s a little awkward. They pull out their paint supplies (that they brought with them from America), and start painting the outside of this family’s home. A few hours pass and the project is over; their home is no longer a boring cement gray color. Finally this family will have some hope! The Americans take a bunch of pictures of the family and then pile in a van worth more than the house they just “served” to go back to the hotel for the afternoon.

This family just became a victim of short-term missions, and they aren’t alone. If they wanted their house painted, they probably didn’t want it painted whatever color the Home Depot in America had on special the day before. If they wanted their house painted, they probably didn’t want it painted by inexperienced Americans. If they wanted their house painted, they probably wanted some say in it.

The worst thing about all of this is when the Americans sit around the campfire and talk about how much joy they saw in the family’s faces when they arrived. These Americans end up taking credit for the joy this family has in their lives despite their circumstances. This family worked hard to have that joy and we take credit for it after just a few hours of doing something that no one wanted us to do. Are most Americans joyful despite their circumstances? We might be able to learn something from this “hopeless” family but we’re too arrogant to think beyond our own perspective.

I think most short-term missionaries go with pure intentions. I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad. I’ve been on more short-term mission trips than I can count. I’m the worst of sinners. We have to start thinking beyond ourselves. Mission trips are fun and you always come back feeling better, BUT we have to start asking ourselves who is really benefiting?

How do you know if a mission trip is helping or hurting?

If you are doing something for a community that it can do for itself, you are doing harm. Think of that the next time you’re digging a well, building a church, or doing a VBS.