HERE I AM, SEND ME
The term “cross-cultural missions” can elicit a lot of different emotions
— for some, excitement, for others, doubt. We’re analyzing the desire to evangelize.
Words by Kelly Powell | Illustration by Sophia Deciappo
The season of spring is typically seen as a period of renewal, revival — a refresh on life. It is a period where the heart seeks cleaning, maybe a good spiritual Swifer sweep. What is the antidote to this? How is the urge for a spring cleanse solved? For some, it might be the short-term mission trip. Churches and mission organizations across America will gear up to apply for visas, board international flights and spend short moments with Nicaraguan, Indian, Spanish and Dominican children.
These trips don’t always take the same shape. Sometimes the short-term events lead to long-term dreams. Sometimes the long-term dreams lead to paid positions. And sometimes, in a different vein, an inability to pursue any of the above lets people draw close to hometown missions. There is an unending well of support for those who choose to chase these experiences — but there is also an unending well of criticism.
There are flies everywhere. So many flies that, no matter how far you walk, you can hear their wings rubbing together, creating a humming in your eardrums. There is a smell, too. So much of one smell that it doesn’t seem to leave your nostrils for hours after you leave the area. People emerge from their homes on either side of the aisle — homes constructed from garbage. They are all smiling, pairs of lips opening to reveal a welcoming spirit. The recipients are 12 members of a college church, white twenty-somethings experiencing Hyderabad, India, for the first time.
A young boy, no more than 10 years old, begins to walk alongside their pack. He wields a log around every time he hears a rabid dog barking, ready to protect those he steps beside. He has only known these people for five minutes, but he is defending them like he has known them his whole life.
A.J. Ozanich, a full-time staf member at H2O Church, was one of the 12 — an unintentional parallel to Jesus’ disciples. He has been a part of eight mission trips: four international service trips, two international vision trips and two local, Pittsburgh-oriented trips. And he is arriving at his ninth, another weeklong venture to India. When averaging all of these missions together, the time frame is roughly 18 days. Ozanich has a track record for short-term mission trips. He’s done enough fundraising to understand the praise and blame they might elicit.
“We want to be careful about how we spend our money,” he says. “Some people might ask, ‘Why should I spend $2,700 on one person to have that experience rather than putting $2,700 straight into the orphanage to bless these children?’ There’s probably a number of answers, but part of this [solution] is the American mindset that we’re going to fix everything. Part of the problem with pouring money into different projects and mission works, especially in other countries, is that they’re not learning to self-sustain.”
He has a Biblical perspective — a mindset that advises him his money is not his own. In fact, to him, it is God’s. In a society that fails to be generous with time, funds and energy, Ozanich seeks to live in a countercultural way with the attitude of a student. He is eager to be educated.
“We need to go to say, ‘We’re going to learn about the people in this culture and pray and hope that God uses us in some distinct ways maybe only we can fill, but we certainly don’t have all the answers,’” he says. “We’re going to avail ourselves and make ourselves available to whatever is happening.”
Two arguments often presented against missionaries go as follows: The foreign places they are traveling to have issues with deep roots which cannot be pulled within the course of a week, or the individuals on the team are going for the location, not for the mission. Ozanich recognizes these bad aspirations and motivations, but he feels his church is aware of the pitfalls.
Through pre-trip research, he recognizes India as part of the 10/40 window: a term coined by 1990s missionaries for the area 10 degrees north and 40 degrees north latitude. They are “unreached” parts of North Africa, the Middle East and Asia, places untouched by the Christian Gospel. Complementing the India trip is a Puerto Rico trip, in which a group of college evangelicals will go south to assist with Hurricane Maria cleanup.
“The question we’re constantly asking is: What does Scripture call us to?” Ozanich says. “I kind of addressed that with orphanages, but also, what’s happening in our culture? What’s relevant to us here and now? Hurricane relief might not be a very specific calling from Scripture, but it is something that’s relevant to our context right now, and so we’re responding to that.”
ALBANIA AND CANCUN, MEXICO
The buildings are complete, but unless you are an Albanian, you are unable to tell. From an outside perspective, the structures look more like piles of cinder blocks. Upon entering the dorm buildings, American college students call out to Albanian college students, awaiting a human response from the otherwise inhumane conditions. A man opens the door to his living quarters, revealing a room similarly sized to one in the United States. The difference is the lack of furniture which fills the space — instead, only two mattresses, a stack of books and a hot plate furnish it. The floor is concrete, and the walls are cinder block.
This was the setting of Matt Cooper’s first mission trip, a seven-day excursion with national college ministry organization CRU. Cooper is the United States director for Back2Back Ministries’ Cancun and Mazatlan, Mexico, locations, a believer in the power of abbreviated mission work. All that said, he understands the perspectives of those who see evangelism as enduring or nothing. There are some who may “take a jab at short-term missions,” the in-and-out approach some organizations take when entering the inter- national realm. But Back2Back is stationed in these third-world nations 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
“Picture Back2Back as this five-lane super highway, like, ‘This is where we’re going,’” Cooper says. “We know what our goals are. We know what we believe God has us here to do in the lives of children and families. When you come for a week, you just on-ramp onto the super highway. We’re not paving a new lane for you. You’re just literally joining us in what we’re already going to do, and then you of ramp, and we keep going.”
Cooper made it very clear — they do not exist to entertain the youth groups who travel abroad, to decorate the Instagram feeds of Christian college students. They exist to fill emotional, spiritual, social, physical and educational needs of orphans. They exist to put a new roof on a struggling family’s home, to cook a meal with a hurting mother or to take children on an educational field trip.
Thirty Mexican boys, aged 12 to 17, board a boat tour, 25 Cincinnati men following shortly after them. They ride across the ocean for 20 minutes, enjoying the sights and sounds of Cancun for a moment. The day following the ferry ride is the day of their recreational dreams: hanging out at the beach, playing soccer, eating picnic food and going snorkeling. They feel safe. They are building relationships.
“Some people would say, ‘Well, those people that came in were strangers, so they’re spending time with strangers, and what does that do? Is it traumatizing those kids?’” Cooper says. “We would say no because we are the safe adults. As Back2Back, we have a relationship with those young men. They trust us, so they trust the people we are inviting into that space are also safe people.”
According to statistics from the World Health Organization, there are approximately 160 million orphans worldwide. And loving them is as individual, Cooper says, as loving the one in front of himself. It could look like housing a child who has grown up in a children’s home so they are more capable of high school or college education. It could take the form of giving the child fresh clothes, a backpack or good meals. It could look like personal nurturing and wiping away tears. It could be a matter of thinking outside the box.
The clock strikes 2:30. The doors open, the children enter, the nametags are fastened and the games are initiated. Approximately 150 kindergarteners through fifth-graders from Thailand, China, Mexico, India and the Congo, to name a few, flood the halls of what was previously a United Methodist Church. There is a flurry of activity. Nine hula hoops are converted into a child-sized tic-tac-toe board. Boxes of Connect Four, Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders are opened. A sanctuary is filled to capacity with people no taller than four feet, the screen flashing technicolor videos with lyrics about Jesus Christ’s love.
This is Kids’ Club, an every-Friday occurrence for Urban Vision’s staff team. This is what some may argue is an alternative to an international trip, and rightfully so. Since 1992, the organization has pumped blood through the missional heart, originally located in the Elizabeth Park Valley neighborhood and relocated in North Hill. Regina Lewis, the volunteer coordinator, calls it the “go-to place for kids” in the area. Over 30 languages are spoken within its walls, each of them getting a special place on the lobby’s mural, speaking “hello” in almost three dozen tongues. It already is calling for new additions, children from the Congo and Kenya joining the body. Lewis claims it is a “magical place.”
“It is a requirement that [the staff] all live in the neighborhood,” she says. “We live side-by-side with these individuals. We see people in the store like, ‘Hey, how are you?’ We’re not coming from outside because the one thing we want to give people is dignity. Regardless of whether you were born here or whether you came here, everyone deserves dignity.”
Despite being a “vibrant part of town,” North Hill faces its challenges as a neighborhood just like any other. That’s why, Lewis argues, Urban Vision is a vital hub. “Walking alongside people who may not look like you,” she claims, is the mission of Jesus Christ, an eraser that wipesaway most challenges that might etch themselves into the area. This is the magic. This is “what the Kingdom is supposed to look like.”
ORLANDO, FLORIDA [RELEVANT MAGAZINE HQ]
One important argument against the short term mission trip, typically, takes shape in the form of an app, an app whose aesthetic has sleekened, one that probably followed the path of its users over the years. Instagram’s platform has drifted from a place for Clarendon-filtered photos of dogs to a place to start a Canon-captured record of life meant for one-upping. This promotional mentality can trickle down to the mission-trip world without a second thought.
“A lot of times they see the reel of excitement on Instagram and the stories that other bloggers post, and they get so romanticized by it because they only post the good part,” Mikaylah Rouchard, the operations manager at Relevant Magazine, says. “In reality, it’s very, very, very hard.”
What she means is inherent in every community — the pressure to perform, the burden of boasting. It makes its way into the missionary sphere as well. Rouchard warns against a tendency to project a more impressive or positive image than someone is actually experiencing. This can come in the “worth-it” mindset; because the missionaries have people funding them to take the trip, they need to make sure it appears to be the best-case scenario.
“Say you go to New York for a week and it’s technically a mission trip; you are doing mission work, but all you’re portraying is the fancy ice cream and your trips to your sightseeing,” Rouchard says. “That doesn’t project well on you and your missions and what you’re doing.”
In the end, the mission trip is what you make of it. Rouchard says the outcome is all in the mentality. One missionary’s simple “yes” response is enough to counter any “no” from anywhere else. Whenever he sets out, Ozanich recalls Isaiah 52:7 — “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the herald, who proclaims peace, who brings news of good things, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” He wants to have beautiful feet.