Monday, April 9, 2012

Let's Talk About STMs

A while back the internet blog world exploded with talk about the effectiveness of short terms mission's trips (STMs). For spring break this year I went on a short term service trip through my university to inner city Philadelphia. I will shamefully admit I mostly did it for the credit and I was nervous about how my new found thoughts on short term trips would play out. As part of our follow up assignment I wrote a fictional letter from a community member to our group that I hope highlights some of my thoughts on short term trips.

Dear volunteers,
I can tell you are here because you want to help. I can see that this is not a fun spring break trip for you- no one is forcing you to be here or rewarding you if you do well. I can tell you care. There is something to be said for knowing that people care enough to get on a bus and drive three hours to be with us for a week. It tells us that we are noticed and that our community and all its challenges are not being ignored by the rest of America. But I do have to stop and wonder whether you care about us or whether you care about the idea of us. Did you get on that bus for this week to help poor inner city kids or did you get on that bus to meet new people and learn and grow from them? Are you here for the individual or the collective group? Are you leaving your stereotypes and preconceived notions at the door or hauling them along with you as you serve?
The truth is, while admirable; your work here is not going to change anything. Sometimes we are left wondering whether these trips are about us at all. Are we merely tools in a journey for you to find yourself, earn a credit, and feel good about how you spent your spring break? The kids you tutored you just left behind. The trash you picked up is already back on the streets. The walkway you built could have been done by community members who actually knew what they were doing and needed jobs. I do not mean to sound ungrateful, because we truly did enjoy visiting with you and could tell you genuinely desired to serve us, but I did sense a bit of naïve about the effect of your service. In trips such as these there seems to be a lack of evaluation of the long term effects and sometimes I cannot help wondering whether the money spent to bring you all here could have been put to better use.
I guess I am left with the hope that meeting us and working with and for us did bring about lasting change in you. Perhaps you will tutor children in your own neighborhood now, perhaps your mind was opened and you feel you better understand others in similar circumstances now. Maybe one day you will grow up to do inner-city work full time. As a member of this community, I would be glad to have been a part of helping you grow in these ways. I hope you were able to learn from us and that you let yourself come away from the idea that you were only there to serve and teach us. True learning and community is only built when the serving goes both ways.
That is where the beauty in this arrangement is found. When we are able to put aside the idea that you are rich and I am poor, you are educated and I am not, you are white and I am black, you are suburbian and I am urban. When we take all those differences and still find a safe place to find what we have in common. When both you and I have our eyes opened to the fact that we are really not that different after all. You might learn that I graduated school with straight As and I might learn that you grew up as a minority in your community. With those revelations we accomplish what would never have been accomplished before, we break down stereotypes and preconceived ideas and we form an unlikely, although brief, community. That is the ultimate, and my hope is that is what we can accomplish through these trips and experiences. 
Community Member

Let us know your thoughts! How do we do STMs well? How do we avoid the dreaded "savior mentality"? Have you been on a STM trip? Do you find them beneficial?

1 comment:

  1. work with a well-established church or organiztion that has a history in the community in which you work and will continue once you're gone.

    Serve, don't help. Service can only be done in person and impacts both the server and the served.