Perry County, Alabama is among the poorest counties in the United States.
Some studies say that 46.9% of Perry County’s residents live under the poverty line.
A study that was done just a few years ago showed 41% of the county, with 72% of all children in the county, are on food stamps, which is the 11th highest in the nation.
If you don’t live in Perry County, then these are just statistics. But this is my home. These are the people I go to church with and wave to every day. These are the people that ask me for a couple of bucks at the gas station just to get home. These are the people I’m in line with at the grocery store as they sift through all of their WIC stamps and EBT cards or sit beside at the doctor’s office. These are my friends and family whom I love.
My church does what it can but often does not have the man power or money power to help in truly beneficial ways. So we have several churches and colleges come to do mission or humanitarian work. I have been involved with several of these groups, helping organize projects, giving them tours, and helping them get immersed into the culture.
Here’s what it is typically like being a mission project: demeaning. A group of white kids come, pity us, do some painting around town, play with some local kids, and leave thinking about how they are glad they don’t have to live in this run down town.
This doesn’t have to be the case.
Over the years I have learned some principles on how to go on a mission trip by actually being a mission trip for others. Here they are:
1. Understand the spiritual poverty.
Many of the students and adults that come to Perry County don’t get that 46.1% do not even claim to have a religion. That doesn’t include the amount of people who do claim to be Christian and go to church once or twice a year and have no true relationship with Jesus Christ.
Mission trips are usually taken in places of poverty. So whether it’s Haiti, Skid Row, or parts of Africa, understanding the spiritual poverty of the people there is key. When we think that all we need do is give out some t-shirts or a free hot dog, then we are sorely deceived.
These places need hope. The only hope that lasts is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
2. Understand the relational poverty.
In When Helping Hurts* by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, they diagnose all forms of poverty as ultimately “relational poverty.” Our relationships with God, ourselves, each other, and the rest of creation are all broken; that’s what poverty really is. When we see that as poverty, we understand we are all poor. That’s why so many rich, American Christians go to a third world country and are blown away by how happy people are, how they laugh and dance, and are thankful for what they have. Some people can be materially poor but have good relationships. These Christians believe their wealth and knowledge will save these poor, uneducated people. Corbett and Fikkert give a scathing rebuke to this mindset:
“Until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do more harm than good. I sometimes unintentionally reduce poor people to objects that I use to fulfill my own need to accomplish something. I am not okay, and you are not okay. But Jesus can fix us both.”
Poverty isn’t all about wealth; it’s about relationships.
3. Understand that the best work is done with not for.
This is where it gets messy. This is where it gets difficult. This is where you go beyond painting something for someone, to teaching someone how to paint and having them paint along with you. This is where you go from putting on an evangelistic rally, to watching the locals do it with your minimal help. This is you stepping down from lead Backyard Bible Club teacher and handing it over to someone who knows the people and lives in the situation.
This takes relationship building. This takes time. This is not a quick-fix, but it is a long term solution. The people who you are trying to help cannot be effectively helped if they see you as the expert that does everything for them. They need to be empowered to do the work year round instead of waiting on the mission team from First RichPeople PresBaptiMethoCostal Church to come every year. These people are made in God’s image and are highly capable of being creative, constructive, and strong. You just have to guide them into that through love and patience.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of how a church should approach a mission trip. This specifically deals with mission trips taken to low-income areas; obviously more would need to be said about trips taken to other areas. However, these three principles are a good start for now.
*I highly suggest reading and engaging with this book for a much more thorough understanding of these thoughts.