“But they're just so happy.”
It doesn’t matter whether you go to a Native American Reservation, Appalachia, a developing country, or anywhere in between, this is often one of the primary takeaways of mission trip participants.
“They had so little, but they were so filled with joy.”
“They lived in squalor, but they always had a smile on their faces.”
I hate this sentiment, for two main reasons.
First, it’s not true. While those who live in poverty can certainly experience joy and happiness, just because they smile at you—an outsider— doesn’t mean they’re always happy. Suggesting otherwise perpetuates gross stereotypes and caricatures of those who are poor.
Secondly, it robs those you’re serving of their dignity. Rather than acknowledging the very real ways in which poverty harms people, it inadvertently suggests poverty is no big deal because people can be poor and happy. This perpetuates systemic injustices.
If we really care about those we seek to serve during summer mission trips, we have to do better. Here are 8 ways to help your mission trip team conclude more than “Poor people are happy.”
Before you go:
1. Ask your team to research where you’re going. Have them find out what typical jobs and salaries are in the area you’re serving. Then compare those with typical jobs and salaries in your community. Engage their imaginations and invite your team to consider what their lives would be like if they were a coal miner from West Virginia, a convenience store employee on a Reservation, or a day laborer in a developing nation. How tired would they be at the end of a day? Would they have easy access to medical care? Would they be able to afford food, shelter, and childcare? Considering these questions before your trip will help cultivate empathy in your team, which will enable them to serve more compassionately during your trip.
While you’re there:
2. Be ready to discuss the idea that those you are serving are “just so happy” as soon as it comes up. Ask your team to talk about what they’ve seen that contributes to or contradicts that stereotype. Then ask them to consider how a short-term guest in their own home might conclude the same thing about them because of the way we’re taught to “put on a happy face” in order to welcome guests.
3. Get to know those you’re serving. You’re far more likely to conclude that someone living in poverty is happy if you’re observing them from a distance rather than actually getting to know them. So regardless of what kind of work your team is doing, before you ever pick up a tool, take time each day to talk to those you’re serving. Ask those you’re serving to tell them about themselves using question like: What’s your family like? How long have you lived in the area? What do you love about where you live? What’s challenging about where you live? The more you get to know people, the more those you serve will feel as though they can drop their smiley facade.
4. Process everything. Take time each day to process your team’s experience. Give your team a safe space to share their observations with one another and to challenge each other to think deeply about what they’re seeing and experiencing so they can integrate it into their lives.
After you return home, before you share your experience with others in your community:
5. Don’t just show the before and after pictures.
As you put together your team’s slide show, eliminate pictures that could cause your congregation to conclude that poor people are always happy. Show pictures that emphasize the relationships your team formed rather than the work it did. Include photos of those you served working alongside your team. Let them be the heroes in their own stories.
6. Change the narrative. When you invite mission trip participants to share their experiences in worship or at events, rather than have them share about the people they served, invite them to share what they learned from them. Instead of sharing what they did, invite participants to reflect on what God did.
7. Ask your speakers to imagine giving their presentation in front of someone they served. What would leave those they served feeling uncomfortable? What would they not want someone they served to hear? Adjusting their language to reflect how they’d want someone they served to hear them talk about their trip will greatly reduce the chance of objectifying anyone they served.
8. Don’t tie it up with a nice neat bow. It can feel tempting to try to end every mission trip presentation with a neat bow, to quickly show all you accomplished in order to show donors their money was well-spent. Rather than doing so, graciously thank donors for their investment—and help them understand that the real investment is in your team and that God is still using your trip to form their faith. Acknowledge the complexity of short-term mission trips and openly wrestle with that as a congregation, knowing that doing so will also inform how your community engages in justice work locally.
As we disciple teams through mission trips, our goal is to glorify God, not poverty. Implementing these 8 practices will help us do just that.
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