Every year millions of American Christians go on short-term mission (STM) trips around the globe. They go with desires to help and serve those they believe to be in need of their help.
A decade ago, the top destinations for megachurch STM trips were Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. When broadened to include all U.S. churches, Honduras ranks 5th and Guatemala 6th. Furthermore, 59 percent of all STM trips were to Latin America. During these trips churches have been built, people fed and buildings painted (in some cases, 3 or 4 times each summer).
Although accurate data are difficult to obtain, researchers estimate that each year nearly 2 million American Christians participate in a short-term mission trip – a total of more than 22 million since 2007. Nearly 13 million of those traveled to Latin America.
That’s a lot of U.S. Christians getting to make friends among people like the Central American refugees who have been walking for weeks through Guatemala and Mexico toward the southern border of the United States with babies and grandmas and what few material possessions they have. These are people who are literally walking for their lives – walking from gangs, drugs, poverty and death at an unnatural early age. I wonder if any of them during the days before their departure shared a meal of empanadas or perhaps communion with Christians who were in their community as part of an STM trip. You know, a farewell gathering where hugs are exchanged accompanied by emotional comments like “I’ll never forget you or this trip” and “I’ve been forever changed by this experience.” I wonder if any of those walking may even have worked beside STM participants to construct a church building, dig a well or treat the sick in a medical clinic.
“These are people who are literally walking for their lives – walking from gangs, drugs, poverty and death at an unnatural early age.”
I wonder where those 13 million participants are now when their voices and actions are most needed. I wonder what they have been thinking as these Christ-bearers from Central America have trudged for months to save their lives and the lives of their families. I wonder what they have been thinking amid the hateful, inflammatory rhetoric about the invading horde. I wonder what they have been thinking after one of the migrants was identified as a person who had committed a crime and then held up as an archetype of all those on this desperate pilgrimage. I wonder what they’ve been thinking as American troops are being sent to the border to harden it against mothers, fathers and children who, by all accounts, plan on lawfully presenting themselves at the border as asylum seekers, as is required to apply for asylum in this country.
I have to wonder because of what I have heard – and not heard – from Christian leaders and churches across the country. I would have thought those who have shared the bread and cup with, or worked alongside, brothers and sisters from Latin America would be pushing back against the dehumanization of people labeled in high places as “animals” and “invaders.” I would have thought they would be generously supporting groups that are helping to provide for the needs of those in the “caravan.” I would have thought they would be advocating for more judges and translators to be sent to the border to process asylum claims.
Sadly, these things, by and large, have not been happening. That leads me to wonder what this says about the role of STM trips in helping to change lives and produce disciples who care about the plight of those whom they served. And what it says about the state of the Church in America.
If you have participated in an STM trip to Latin America in the past 10 or 15 years, I challenge you to view those in the “caravan” as people you might have shared your life with. Perhaps doing so will give you the needed perspective to truly care about these refugees – persons who bear the image of God, persons who are worthy of the love of Christ and the compassion of Christ’s Church.
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