by Ronne Rock Posted on Tuesday, September 06, 2016
In the jungles of northeast India, cheers can be heard in the distance as the van slowly winds its way along rutted mountain roads. As it rounds the corner, children begin dancing in front of the old school that’s been transformed into a safe harbor for healing and community. Their welcome is an expression of their gratitude and love for the people who have traveled more than 30 hours to visit for a few precious days. For the children of Gan Sabra HIV Home, family looks a lot like the world.Back in the United States, a team of medical professionals and veterinarians is collecting backpacks and school supplies to be delivered to students at a remote school in Bungoma, Kenya. A group of women is working on curriculum that will be taught to children in a home in Honduras – a pilot program focused on trauma-informed care for the children who have been rescued from abuse and neglect. And a church in Washington is sharing the highlights of their time in Guatemala, where they built homes in a remote area filled with the sound of Mayan dialects.Each year, around 50 short-term mission teams travel with Orphan Outreach to serve in Guatemala, Honduras, India, Kenya, Latvia, and Russia. The teams are as diverse as the countries they visit – traditional churches, individuals from across the country, like-minded groups and organizations. All share a similar passion – to care for orphans and vulnerable children. But what purpose does a short-term mission trip truly have when it comes to caring for orphans? Social media feeds are filled with stories of potential harm being done by teams from the United States who pack bags with gifts for orphans in developing countries, and the term “voluntourism” has become a popular one to describe trips in which little sustainable ministry is actually done.Mike Douris, President of Orphan Outreach, has seen both the best and worst of missions in his more than 30 years of working in specialized care for children and teens. Yet when he sees the impact of well-designed mission trips, he can’t help but believe there is purpose in supporting ministries with manpower. “A current ‘hot topic’ amount Christian missions is the value – or lack thereof – in short-term mission trips,” Mike shares. “Is it best practice to send our people, or should we stay home and send money to those who are working in the field? Missions is, at its core, relationship. And it’s hard to have a relationship with a check. Most of those who give much-needed resources do it because of the relationships they’ve developed engaging with the children on a personal level. Or people give because of the stories of those who have been transformed through those relationships.”Katherine Cheng and Sarah Herbek understand both the benefits and the challenges of sending teams of people into a country to serve orphans and vulnerable children. As Missions Director for Orphan Outreach, Katherine’s focus is on making sure needs are truly being met on each trip. “Orphan care is seeking the best interest of kids,” she shares, “whether that is helping them find families or have a healthy environment where they can feel safe, secure, loved and have their needs met and are given a chance to thrive. Sending teams allows the greater church to be a part of that, opening up their eyes to orphan care so that they may play a role in children finding families and quality care.”Sarah focuses specifically on Central America ministry for Orphan Outreach, and works with more than 35 teams each year – including a number of vision teams designed solely to introduce church partners to areas of need. As she works with teams on training and preparation, she sees opportunity for even greater focus on coming alongside to lift communities. “It’s important that our teams understand this isn’t about building self-esteem or becoming a “savior” to a developing country. We don’t want our teams to do things that locals could be doing – rather, it’s important for us to support rather than take over. We want to equip communities and reinforce dignity in the lives of all we serve. So we have to ask ourselves hard questions about what we are teaching both our teams and the people they are serving – what values are we instilling about culture and love and true service? We’re continually working on better ways to train our teams so that they invest deeply in long-term relationships that are compassionate and transformative.”Katherine agrees. “Orphan Outreach has included short-term mission trips as part of their ministry outreach since we began in 2007. We believe it’s a way for the church to fulfill God’s mandate to care for orphans. Discipleship happens on mission trips. The Gospel is lived out on mission trips. Locals are empowered and supported on mission trips. Powerful tools of healing – therapeutic play and nurture group counseling – are provided to benefit the children we serve who have often been traumatized.”In India, the children are learning about conflict resolution and the importance of forgiveness. Testimonies are being shared by both the mission team and the children about difficult moments with friends and family. Distance melts away as the common themes of pain, loneliness, and need for understanding and love fill the conversation. There are tears and prayers, followed by a traditional Mizo meal served on banana leaves on the floor of the dining room. The children carefully instruct their North American family members on the delicate task of eating without utensils. Rice is gathered between fingers and pressed into a small bowl to then scoop up the dal and delicate curried chicken.Rey Diaz, Executive Director for Orphan Outreach, sits with them, and sees impact in both the conversation and the communion. “There is something about moving people out of their comfort zone and into a situation that pushes them to their limits. On a mission trip, people are asked to teach, serve, and share. In those moments, when they are serving children in the name of Jesus, fear can threaten to get the best of them. Maybe for the first time they start praying in their own words. They can feel overwhelmed and under-qualified, but they’re holding on to God for dear life. Their faith is stretched to its limit. Nothing grows our faith like putting it in action. I’ve led somewhere between 175-180 teams and I see this happen on every single trip. People’s faith begins to blossom and flourish in ways they never thought possible. And when our faith gets deeper, stronger, and bigger it begins to change everything.”“Real care for orphans and vulnerable children – regardless of where they are on their journey – encompasses the physical, spiritual, educational, and emotional,” reflects Katherine. “Mission trips allow the Church to meet these areas – to provide basic physical needs out of an abundance of what God has given us in Christ; to preach the Good News of the gospel and to share our own stories of grace and how God is writing each of our stories like He’s doing theirs. Mission trips allow us to educate and support staff and teachers so that quality education is being provided, and so that those adults know they are heard and cared for. They let us address the needs of the children served, help them find healing by walking alongside them.”On Facebook, pictures are posted of children studying at the Madeleine School in Bungoma. The teachers write,” We are counting down the days to see our friends again from the United States! We welcome all in person or by proxy. Thank you for the love you provide to our kids!” Because of mission teams, children are now sponsored in school, cattle have been purchased to provide milk for the students, a kitchen has been built to prepare the more than 250 meals served two times a day, and a water well is in the works.“We see first-hand the impact mission trips have on ministries, kids, their communities, and the Church when done well,” shares Katherine. “That’s why we go.”Mike Douris understands the inherent risk of sending teams that may not have the best interest of the children they are serving at heart. “Yes all of us in ministry need to evaluate how we do mission trips and make sure they are the most effective they can be, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We need to strive to engage with best practice, but let those we minister to see Jesus in the lives who sacrifice much to go and serve.”For Rey, the answer to why Orphan Outreach continues to send teams is summed up in a conversation he witnessed at Gan Sabra. “I heard the director of the children’s home tell a pastor who simply wanted to send resources to fund the ministry rather than send teams, ‘I don’t want your money if you and your church are not willing to come and build relationships with our kids.’ This pastor couldn’t understand why. She explained, ‘These children have been abandoned by everyone who was supposed to be there for them. Their self-worth and identity have been shattered. All they have ever heard is ‘you’re not wanted, you’re not valuable, you don’t matter.’ So what do you think you communicate to my kids when you take a week away from work, invest significant amounts of money, spend over 24 hours traveling to our home, and visit us from all the way around the world? You coming here communicates God’s love and their worth more than any message I could preach to them. Please come and serve our kids and tell them they are worth it.”#ServeOrphansWell is a five-part series on the impact of short-term mission trips in caring for orphans and vulnerable children. Our thanks to all who have shared insights and testimonies in the development of each article.