Whether you’ve never traveled far from home or you’re a frequent flyer miles millionaire, welcome! We are excited to invite you into a conversation that is near and dear to the heart of 127 Worldwide– short-term mission trips (STMs). STMs are a perfect example of how 127 embraces nuance; we see the shortcomings, the failures, and the potential harm and accept the challenge to be better and to do better for the sake of the global church.
At 127 Worldwide, we believe that we can best serve the vulnerable and proclaim the gospel when we collaborate as brothers and sisters in Christ. Physically linking arms with our partners across the globe is a crucial part of that collaboration. We want to learn the complexity of the challenges they face directly from them, getting our hands dirty right by their side.
For many, short-term mission trips have a reputation of being selfishly-motivated, counter-productive, and more harmful than helpful. We recognize that lurking just outside our periphery are power dynamics, a long history of colonialism, and cultural barriers that make entering another community for a short amount of time fraught with the potential to create lasting damage. We also have witnessed mission projects that strip the dignity of the receiver in order to make the giver feel heroic, and we are happy to say “good riddance” to that model.
Our solution to the conundrum of wanting to be present with local leaders without repeating past mistakes hinges critically on our relationship with those local leaders. We partner alongside them so that we minister with rather than to. As Christians, we minister to one another, but 127 GO Teams emphasize working with our partner ministries to highlight participation together in gospel work as opposed to the idea that we can come in and solve every problem. 127 Worldwide recognizes God already at work among our local leaders, so our first question is always, “How can we join you in what God is currently doing in your community?”
For these reasons and more, you will never hear a 127 Worldwide staff member describe our visits to partners as a “mission trip.” We’re done with the narrative that the West has all the solutions for the developing world, a narrative whose aftermath carries severe complications for locals. We’re all about building mutually-edifying relationships and moving together beyond relief work into the long-term toil of development that empowers vulnerable communities to flourish.
Departing from the familiar “mission trip” moniker, we’ve abandoned “mission” in favor of “GO” because the 127 focus isn’t on what we do. We don’t visit our partners with a checklist of goals to accomplish, and we don’t leave with a picture of ourselves in front of a freshly painted building while a local painter goes unemployed. We go to learn, we go to encourage, and we go in order to collaborate more effectively when we return.
We see our short-term projects as part of a much grander narrative both in the lives of our advocates and partners. 127 local leaders serve vulnerable communities year-round, and we refuse to apply temporary approaches to their long-term needs. In a similar way, all of our advocates are on what we like to call their own “justice journey.” A GO Team is likely neither the end nor the beginning of that process, but it is a crucial intersection with the journeys of other believers across the globe. Our desire is that GO Teams are a significant source of discipleship and edification for everyone involved.
We’ve replaced “trip” with “team” because collaboration is key and because we hope that participants return empowered to advocate on behalf of the larger 127 Worldwide team. A trip has a definite end point. It is over when you return home. Our aim with advocates is that coming back home is not the end, but a launching point for greater collaboration with local leaders. A team keeps working together until the goal is accomplished.
While those who have seen it with their own eyes are our most ardent advocates, we would never suggest that their experience is worth the cost of a vulnerable person’s dignity. We connect westerners to our partner ministries, but we also labor to ensure that the recipients of their care never become the human version of an African safari.
127 intentionally and carefully designs GO Teams to expose westerners to justice work happening around the world, to equip partners and advocates with skills to better serve their communities, and to encourage local leaders in their ministries among vulnerable peoples.
To laser focus the purpose of our GO Teams, we subdivided these projects into two more specific categories. Connect Teams champion exposure and encouragement. They are tailored to allow for maximum opportunity to witness the work of local leaders, to learn from them, and to consider how we might better advocate on their behalf. The emphasis is less on what ministry we do for vulnerable people and more on what we need to learn about the complexity of meeting their needs so that we can accurately share with our networks at home how 127 partners are ministering in their communities.
Connect Teams also serve as a wonderful encouragement to our local leaders and their staff. Day in and day out, our partners shoulder the effects of brokenness in their communities. Our aim for the duration of our visit is to be helpfully present. We humbly take “behind the scenes” tasks off their plates for a week to lighten the load. We’re eager to pack food baskets, clean classrooms, or organize distribution items to allow the ministry staffs more time with the people they serve or uninterrupted hours for needed refreshment. We aren’t surprised by down-time, knowing that our partners are still living their lives while we visit. We don’t burden them with the expectation that we be entertained or catered to. Instead, we offer our “ministry of presence” to them with a listening ear and an engaged heart, and pray that as we rally around them, our partners are empowered to press on with the physical reminder that they are not alone.
Sometimes our partners in conjunction with the 127 Worldwide staff identify a particular need that a team can travel to meet. Equip Teams function as this kind of special-ops unit. When specific needs align with expertise, an Equip Team can serve local leaders by introducing new resources to teachers, initiating a sustainable project, providing counseling or pastoral training, or offering some kind of reproducible skill.
While these teams are less frequent than Connect Teams, they play a vital role in our relationship with 127 partners. Just as we learn from and are edified by the local leaders we work with, we hope to reciprocate this as well. 127 Worldwide listens intently to the needs of local leaders, and when we hear something that will potentially enhance their work we eagerly invest in those projects.
As an organization, 127 Worldwide has not done this perfectly in the past. As we reflect on ways we’ve all royally messed up short-term trips, we rejoice to know that God’s kingdom is not impeded by our foolishness. We’ve all done harm that we wish we could undo, and we all daily uncover sinful attitudes in our hearts that we fight to correct. The good news is that God is still at work restoring hope, in us and through us.
So we do the work. We repent of the ways we’ve unintentionally harmed people in other cultures. We reflect on hidden biases that encourage us to elevate ourselves above the vulnerable. We labor to think critically about cross-cultural and cross-socioeconomic engagement. We right what we have gotten wrong. And as we learn and grow, we trust that God is still reigning over his kingdom and still completing his work in each of us.
It’s not as simple as a quick decision to reorient the way we think about a particular topic. We have to retrain our brains and cultivate new habits– work that is often uncomfortable. Our prayer is that as you travel with 127 Worldwide, you find yourself taking inventory of your attitudes and actions to better honor human dignity and help vulnerable communities flourish. It might change the way you take pictures, or talk about impoverished people, or give to charities. Becoming a thoughtful, global Christian is hard work but it’s a good and worthy work.
So now the ball is in your court. Are you willing to lay down your expectations of what it means to do “mission work” in favor of this revised, collaborative effort focused on exposure, equipping, and encouragement? 127 Worldwide is eager to welcome you!