“They are so poor, but so happy.” I was talking with someone about a mission trip to Honduras and those are the words chosen to sum up the trip. “They are so poor, but so happy.” I merely smiled and nodded in response. What could I say? For this person, that phrase represented what they learned. It was the great truth that they came away with. But what if it is not the truth, or at least not the whole truth?
Over the past ten years or so, I have spent part of every year in Honduras. I taught for a number of years in bilingual schools. I volunteered at a local Christian school, and I led small groups of Canadian Christian school teachers who came to visit and help out some schools. These experiences enabled me to get to know people, to hear their stories, to become a part, in a way, of the community. I learned how to speak Spanish, how to eat tortilla with every meal, how to greet people on the street, and how to rest in a hammock (that one is not too difficult). I attended wakes and weddings, fifteenth-birthday parties and graduations. I was privileged to be invited into this community—the community of the Juan Calvino Christian Reformed Church, in Barrio Los Mangos, in the city of Choluteca, Honduras.
And so mission trips make me feel a bit uncomfortable, and also conflicted. What are we doing, what am I doing, when we enter into someone’s community armed with resources and good will, hoping to make a difference? As mission trips become ever more ubiquitous in North American evangelical circles, perhaps it is worth our while to step back and consider what we are doing. Are we really making the difference that we hoped for? Maybe we need to reconsider how and why we do mission trips, especially if upon returning we reduce our experience down to the mantra, “They are so poor, but so happy.”