Please follow the link below to read the article in Relevant Magazine by Michelle Acker Perez:
Things No One Tells You About Going on Short-Term Mission Trips

It is estimated that over 1.5 million people from the United States participate in short-term mission trips every year. That is a lot of people. And those 1.5 million people spend close to $2 billion for these trips.

My husband and I live in Guatemala and host short-term mission teams throughout the year. I am originally from California and he was born and raised in Guatemala. For me, short-term mission trips were kind of like camp. Every summer I had the chance to go somewhere new and “help people.” For my husband, hosting short-term mission teams in Guatemala was part of what he and his family did. There were blessings that came from it, but it was mostly a lot of work.


by Katherine Pater, Mission Co-Worker for Our Sister Parish

May 16 entry from her blog The Woman Who Walks Between Worlds
Cecilia looks really happy in this photo. But is it fair to say that poor Salvadorans are “happy” as a rule?
As part of the two-week “itineration period” that I spend in Iowa twice each year, I spend a considerable amount of time speaking with churches, Bible studies, civic groups, high-school students, and pretty much anyone who wants to hear about life in El Salvador and the work of Our Sister Parish. I really do enjoy this part of my job.

But these itinerations are also the most challenging part of my job, by far.

A few weeks ago, I appeared before a (very nice, very welcoming) group of people to speak to them about extreme poverty in El Salvador, particularly regarding issues related to water, food, and education. I was received mostly positively.

One woman, however, who I’m sure thought she was giving me constructive criticism, said to me, “You know, I really feel that you should have mentioned in your speech how happy the poor are. You know, you go to these places where people are poor, and they are always so happy!” Her statement was met with nods of affirmation from around the table.

There are so many things wrong with this.

1. Yes, I know some people who are poor and who are very happy. I also know many poor people who are quite miserable, and understandably so.

2. Do you know the impoverished people with whom I serve? Oh, you’ve never been to El Salvador? Then, pray tell, how do you know that they are happy? Do you know all the people I know who are traumatized by the Civil War that tore their world apart for 12 long and violent years? Do you know the young man I met whose mental health issues are so severe that he recently beat his mother and attempted to burn down their house? Do you know all the women I know who have suffered partner or spousal abuse and do not feel comfortable reporting these incidents to the police, knowing that little to nothing will ever be done to stop the abuse from happening again?

We should never, ever assume that we know how the poor feel about their lives or communities without asking them first and listening attentively to their answers. Even then, we need to remember that our presence in a foreign, impoverished community might affect the answers people are willing to give us, and that the very definition of “happy” is contextual and culturally dependent.

3. Yes, many poor people are happy, but many of them are happy because they have been kept ignorant and uneducated about the systems of power that keep them poor and disenfranchised–and others rich and powerful. This ignorance is an injustice in the world that needs to be corrected. Allowing the poor to remain ignorant and “happy” is keeping those destructive systems in place. This ignorance might help people who benefit from those destructive systems, but it is certainly not benefiting the poor. Au contraire, it is preventing them from building a more just and fair world for themselves and working for long-term, sustainable development in their communities.

4. Yes, I hear you say, but why help people to overcome their ignorance if it is just going to make them unhappy?

Since when did happiness become the be-all and end-all of all human existence? I’m sorry, but did Jesus ever proclaim that the Kingdom of God could be recognized by the happiness it brought to people? He said no such thing, ever. He did say that he came to “bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind…[and] to let the oppressed go free” [Luke 4]. Jesus came to redeem and heal the world and to make it a more just place–not to make it a happier place. Nowhere does Jesus say that he has come to make the world a happier place. Really. Go read the Gospels again.

5. If we in the developed world can convince ourselves that people in the developing world are happy, or even “happier than we are,” then we can convince ourselves that we don’t really need to fight for a better life for them. In this way, the belief that the poor are happy becomes another form of oppression, absolving us from feeling the weight of our privilege and relieving us of responsibility to do something. In other words, happiness becomes a form of emotional colonialism.

6. Convincing ourselves that the poor are better off happy and ignorant is also just one more way in which we inadvertently impose our own value systems on the people of the developing world. Who says that happiness is the most important thing in life? Us. Our happiness-obsessed American culture. Our value systems. Just because a privileged American would choose ignorance over knowledge about their situation in order to be happier about it doesn’t mean a poor Salvadoran or Kenyan or Indonesian would choose the same thing. Who are we to make that choice for them?

Are the poor happy? Some of them are. Some of them aren’t. But we don’t serve with them, accompany them, and empower them with the purpose of making them happier. We do these things because we want to right some serious wrongs, to undo some serious injustices. We do these things because that’s what Jesus told us to do [Matthew 25, Luke 4...shall I go on?]. We do these things because we love them and want them to have a better life.

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