In late July I had the opportunity to visit Honduras for an evaluation of World Renew’s church to church partnership program, which often includes work teams. What did I learn?
Honduras gets a LOT of short-term missions (STM) teams, as the planes full of gringos wearing matching t-shirts attests. It’s also the home of Kurt Ver Beek, Director of Calvin’s Honduras Program and well-known researcher of the effectiveness of STMs. I’ve read most of the literature; now, I had the opportunity to hear from the community itself how they felt about the North Americans coming to serve them.
Specifically, we interviewed members of two communities — Los Charcos and El Coyolar. We also interviewed Diakonia Nacional staff, World Renew-Honduras staff, and CRWM staff who have interactions with the volunteers. Out of all that interviewing, some common themes began to emerge.
God is already here. On the airplane, I overheard someone with a southern accent say, “This is my first time flying. I’m going to bring the Word of God to the poor people in the mountains.” I winced. I knew of several Christian Reformed Churches that had been planted by World Missions, and according to the World Factbook, 97% of the population is Roman Catholic; 3% Protestant. So yes, there is work to do, but it’s not as though there is no church. (Note: I'm told these figures are out of date, that it's more like 50/50).
YOU are the community’s service project. I was slightly amused when I realized that just as youth groups plan ahead and pray about ministering to the Hondurans, the community prepares diligently to minister to the North Americans! They are trained on how to prepare food so that you do not get sick. They learn how to make pancakes. They decide amongst themselves who is suitable for hosting you in their homes. They begin praying for travel safety months ahead of the visit. They instruct their children not to steal any items they find laying around. They instruct the men to be respectful of the young women, even if they wear inappropriate attire (such as shorts) or go outside at night unaccompanied (which the North Americans don’t seem to realize is a huge no-no).
They recognize your sacrifice. They know about your fundraisers, how hard it is to raise money and travel so far from home. They are grateful, and recognize that you come with a servant heart. In fact, it inspires them to help others in their community who are less fortunate, after you leave.
It’s not about the projects. Yes, they appreciate the piles, floors, and latrines. But when asked the question whether the North Americans should just send money, there was widespread agreement that no, it would not have the same effect. There’s something about working side by side that helps the community come together. They said it’s like having an extended family. With this in mind, they also wanted the groups to know that it’s OK if the project isn’t completely finished when it’s time to leave. Better to spend time on relationships than spend all your time working, missing the point and occasionally alienating the local masons because of demanding “North American” working hours.
Take the long view. Both groups expressed feeling shy at first, about the condition of their homes and wondering how they would be able to understand their guests. but every year “they become more like family.”
My overall impression, then, was overwhelmingly positive. I smiled at the Canadian hockey sticks kept at the house across from the church, about stories of learning how to make pancakes, and the time one of the groups went swimming in the river (despite being warned not to) and got sick. Yes, there were some stories of disrespectful behavior on the part of the North Americans. Yes, there were some issues of dependency that were brought to our attention. But after interviewing the community, and seeing firsthand how relationships can re-invigorate the North American church, I would wholeheartedly encourage short-term missions trips — with the caveat that they keep the above five points in mind.