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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Misguided Missions: Toxic Charity and The Case of Cuba

You know what inspired this blog series about short-term missions?  Cuba.

A few weeks ago I was reading an article from Christianity Today:

Subtitle:  With relaxed travel rules, Cuban leaders wonder whether Americans will dampen their churches’ zeal.

The article describes some good things that have been happening among Cuba's Christians, and their leaders' fears that a potential influx of American travelers and goods will be detrimental to the church's health.

Some of the fears are guess-able:
On the pessimistic side, Christian leaders wonder whether US visitors will destroy Cuban culture with their materialism and lifeless nominalism -- or whether Cubans will destroy themselves.
I'd be scared of materialism and nominalism, too, after watching what they've done to my own country. But what caught my eye was this line:
Another challenge: the avalanche of outsiders wanting to help.
Americans see an open door to Cuba and might think, "Finally! We can get in there and help these people! They are a poor country and we are a rich one. Maybe they need the gospel... we have that too! There's so much to do!"

Meanwhile, some Cuban Christian leaders are already worried about the potential influx of "helpers."
"There are many birds who want to land in Cuba," explains Eduardo Gonzalez del Rio, rector of Easter Baptist Theological Seminary in Santiago de Cuba -- "people who want to bring in their doctrine to help us." ...
Overall, Cuban church leaders are eager to collaborate with more American churches. But they want respect, despite disparities in size and wealth.
"Our problem is when foreigners come to tell us what we need to do. We've been here for many years, we've spread the Word under many difficulties, and we've been able to succeed," says a Western Baptist leader. "We love the idea of collaboration, but not imposition."
 Another leader said,
"Of course we are not perfect. But we are experts on Cuba. The Cuban church is an example of revival for the world. What others have to offer shouldn't interrupt what we are doing."
These are words of warning to the American church.

Have you read the book Toxic Charity?

I wish I'd read that book back in high school, before I ever took a trip abroad, before I ever donated to a food pantry, before I ever did a service project. (In fact, if you want to buy it but don't have the $9, let me know and I'll send you a copy.)

The author lays out the following "Oath for Compassionate Service":
1. Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
2. Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said — unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
Above all, do no harm.
In the case of Cuba, following these principles might mean that Cuban church leaders are first asked what they most need before any team is sent (Principle #4, Principle #5). It might mean that American Christians provide training and collaboration, but not cash (Principle #2). It might mean that you decide not to go at all, if your mission trip is not needed or hurts the local people (Principle #4, Principle #6).

My own opinion is that these principles are particularly helpful for social justice efforts, where money, time, and work are given freely to people in need, by people who expect nothing in return. It is in these one-way exchanges that economics, power, dependency, and motives can result in some terrible unintended consequences.

But you know a few things you can give freely without risk? You can give prayer. I don't see any way that visiting a community and praying to the living God on their behalf will result in toxic consequences. You can give friendship and fellowship. You can give a listening ear. You can give the gospel.

When it comes to short-term missions, I think I've done all the wrong things at least once. I've hugged orphans I'll never meet again. I've raised money to do work that wasn't really needed. I've gone with the wrong motives.

I've also been on trips that got a lot of things right. They were based on long-term partnerships and collaboration with people on the ground. They trained me well. They opened my eyes to the great big world that God made, and spurred me on to try to love people from many nations.  Short-term mission trips led me into longer-term cross-cultural work and have unquestionably changed the course of my life.

Let me leave you with a challenge to thoughtfully and prayerfully examine your own views on short-term missions. Evaluate if you should go, and where, and why. Evaluate where your giving goes. Pray for your church leaders as they lead your church in how to approach short-term missions.

Here are a few resources:
Please leave questions, observations, experiences, and challenges in the comments!

This is the last part in a short series on the evolution of my views on mission trips. With two million Americans going on short term missions yearly (according to, it makes sense to evaluate whether these trips are worth the expense, and if their outcomes are generally good or generally bad. My intention here is to highlight the nuances I now see and give us all some questions to think about, not to criticize you, your church, my church, or my own self.

Part 1. Misguided Missions: Analogy with a Side of Cookies
Part 2. Misguided Missions: The Problem Defined 
Part 3. Misguided Missions: The Culprit is Me (...and You?)
Part 4. Misguided Missions: Toxic Charity and the Case of Cuba
When Helping Hurts: A Misguided Missions Follow-Up

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