When I was a kid, I loved the book series, A Series of Unfortunate Events. These surprisingly morbid children’s stories followed the tragic lives of the Baudelaire children after the death of their parents. Through every book, the narrator repeatedly warned the reader that there wouldn’t be a happy ending for these children. Despite the explicit warnings, I continued to hope that the Baudelaires would get a “happily ever after.”
Spoiler alert: the narrator wasn’t lying. I think there was a part of me that just couldn’t let go of the hope that they would be happy in the end. After all, happy endings are what we’re programmed to expect. We frame our stories within just the right time limits to see a character’s situation go from bad to good.
The desire for a happy ending is not inherently a bad thing. It reflects our nature as creatures made by God to hope for glory in heaven. Problems begin to surface, however, when we demand a happy ending right now. This mindset can become even more destructive when applied to mercy ministry, especially on short-term mission trips.
A Happy Ending in a Week?
As Americans, we often venture out on short-term mission trips with the desire to provide a happy ending in just one week for the people we go to serve. In our achievement-focused Western mindsets, we want to feel like we accomplished something in our time overseas. So, we frame the story of our service strategically to get a traditional arc of conflict, climax and resolution.
A couple years ago I went with 127 Worldwide to Guatemala. We walked through the small village of San Vicente with 127’s local partner, David, who had graciously invited us on a pastoral visit through the community. After trudging uphill to a cluster of homes, David spoke to a high-school-aged boy for a few minutes, who then shared his situation with us. The boy had stopped attending school because he was discouraged about his future. Why sacrifice making an income now if, no matter how much he studied, higher education wasn’t affordable for him? He felt the weight of the village on his shoulders, knowing that upper-level technical training could advance the entire community socioeconomically. But he couldn’t justify the hours spent studying if future schooling wasn’t even an option for him.
In my Americanism, primed for quick-solutions and happily-every-afters, I thought the answer to this problem was obvious. We could promise him the tuition for higher education, and the whole village’s future would be saved. I’d board that plane comforted with the knowledge that I made a difference in one boy’s life.
Even though my intentions were good, they were pretty reductionist of the issue at hand. I was a high schooler at the time, and if somebody handed me a check to pay my college fees, I would have had no idea what to do with that amount all on my own and all at once. Plenty of other needs would have drained those finances long before I made it to graduation. So why did I think this was the solution for someone in a different country? The truth is it was the easiest and the quickest answer. I didn’t consider what might happen after we gave him money, I just wanted the problem to be resolved before I left. I wanted a happy ending.
Luckily, I wasn’t the one making decisions on this trip. David, who understood the complexity of this situation and the context of his community far better than I, encouraged the boy to be diligent with his school now. He told him that if he showed commitment to his education in the coming months, the local church would help him figure something out for the future. This solution prioritized a relationship over the quick-fix I wanted. I wanted to leave at the end of the week feeling like we had done something good. David wanted to spend many weeks in the future doing good.
David continued to invest in this school boy’s life and now, with the help of a church in Tennessee, he is enrolled at a local technical school. He receives financial help with tuition in exchange for interning at the local church David pastors. What he needed wasn’t a hand-out, but a long-term investment that resulted in empowerment to contribute to his own education and grow as a member of the community and the church.
A Model for Serving
So, if artificial happy endings aren’t the answer, how can we serve other cultures in a way that honors the complexity of the issues they face? 27 Worldwide provides a great model.
- Prioritize and champion the input of locals. 127 maintains partnerships with local leaders who know the needs of their communities and how best to offer help that empowers people to flourish. Their relational capital in the community is invaluable.
- Commit to helping communities for the long haul. The presence of short-term teams is actually a small part of the connecting and equipping that 127 provides with partner ministries year-round.
- Be educated on healthy engagement with vulnerable peoples so you have the tools to help without hurting. When a short-term team member visits a partner’s ministry, they’re trained to ask “How can I join what God is already doing here?” rather than looking for an opportunity to save the day.
Courtney Martin, author of “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems”, sums it up well when she says,
“[D]on’t go because you’ve fallen in love with solvability. Go because you’ve fallen in love with complexity. Don’t go because you want to do something virtuous. Go because you want to do something difficult.”**A version of this article was originally posted at intersectproject.org.