February 6 – Short Term Mission, Long Term Commitment

Atitlan3:45 tomorrow morning.  That’s church parking lot time for the members of the Guatemala Mission Away Team.  We complain and brag about it in jest.  In fact, there is no virtue in it and it’s a minor inconvenience.  But it is how the week begins and it says something about a week marked by minor inconvenience for the sake of something important.

Technology willing, those on the church email list will receive “Guatemala Diary”  updates throughout the week as we try to tell some stories and share some photos that might help explain this week on the shores of Lake Atitlan in the highlands of Guatemala.

We don’t know all that is in store for us. If past trips are any indication, though, a life might be saved as one of our doctors detects a heart defect in an infant, and from our make-shift clinic in a village across the lake or a dusty settlement beside the highway to a hospital in Guatemala City, what is commonplace in the U.S. is rightly remembered as a miracle in Guatemala.  Someone’s vision may be saved, and family members will join our North American construction crew in building a brand new house (three of them!) in a week. Bible stories will be told and children given an hour or two of respite from the noisy streets as they quietly complete some craft project in the kid’s program. The love of God will be shared in word and deed.

If things like that happen – and they probably will – they will be framed by long days, short nights, grumbling stomachs, sore backs, tedious hours of sorting pills, and maybe even a clash of personalities now and then.  Ignore our complaining; it’s what we signed up to do.

The short-term mission movement that our Guatemala trip reflects is a phenomenon that has changed the face of mission work and the North American church for good and maybe not always for good.

At its best, a short-term mission trip is a small piece in God’s redeeming work in a particular place; the gospel shared and the Kingdom proclaimed.

At its worst, a short term mission trip leaves a bunch of overindulged North Americans feeling better about themselves, amazed at the “joy” of the oppressed and impoverished people they barely got to know, and a bunch of poor children with some tacky trinkets given as a reward for putting up with a poorly told Bible story.

If I’m harsh in my assessment of the worst, it is because the worst endangers the best and we are always at risk from it.

LPC has been in a growing and evolving mission partnership with Promised Land Ministries in Guatemala for more than a decade.  We’ve experienced some of the best and maybe a little bit of the worst of short term missions during that time.  Our prayerful goal is the best.

Our mission committee has studied “best practices” and measures our work against high standards.  You may be interested in these standards of excellence from soe.org.  Our committee members have read the landmark book, When Help Hurts, and have tried to apply its lessons to our work.

Next week and beyond you will hear some of our stories, stories of God at work in, through, and among us.  For now, let me share some of those things we think are important as we journey through our week:

Mission with, not mission to:  We go as partners with the Guatemalan staff of Promised Land Ministries – the teachers in the school, the year-round clinic staff; Roberto, Ita, Jorge and others.  They set the agenda, we follow their lead.

A Hand up, not a hand out: As much as possible, our work is focused on development rather than emergency aid. As important as our medical clinics are, a newly installed stove that gets smoke out of the house and uses far less wood than the stove it replaces, may be our best investment in the health of a family.

Leave No Trace:  Not a wilderness camping ethic, but a reminder that our mission is to share the love of God, not to introduce North American ways of doing things.  When we’re gone we want them to remember the love of God we may have reflected, not the things we brought or our pushy ways.

“Be there while you’re there.”  Just a week.  With wifi at the hotel and the mission house and with international calling plans on our smart phones, it’s all too easy to know more about the weather forecast for Langhorne and a family members’ frustrating trip to Wal-mart, than about that father and husband who doesn’t know how to provide for his family since the coffee crop was poor this year.

A short-term mission with a long-term commitment:  Some among us are able to travel to Guatemala twice a year and have been doing so for ten years or more.  Some of us make one trip and never return.  It’s as God calls.  But LPC has a long-term commitment to PLM and the school in San Lucas Toliman, the clinic down the street, and a program of short-term mission trips.  There are no heroes in this business, but if there were, it might be the faithful LPC family that sponsors a couple of kids in Promised Land School year after year after year – children they will never see face to face, but who they love for Jesus’ sake.

Poor me, the alarm is set for 3:00 a.m.