Steadfast in the City–Short-Term Mission Trips

In a recent post here on BJS, a link to a video was displayed where a young guy with Fisk-like energy critiqued the phenomenon of “short-term mission trips.”  The video largely criticized the self-serving goal of some of those who take the trips.  He railed against the kind who seek some super-spiritual experience while treating their parents horribly, neglecting those in their own backyard, etc.  A further point was made that the thousands of dollars raised for the trip could go directly to the missionary, instead of laying it all on the counter when you check in with Delta Airlines.

A commenter on the thread named “Rob” wrote: “I have an idea: how about asking a career missionary to comment on the video?  How about asking your ‘Steadfast in the City’ blogger to give his comments and critique?”

Well, Rob, ask and ye shall receive.  As the urban missionary to Philadelphia, and one who opens the city as a destination for mission trips, I will respond to the video with my observations.

My first impression of the video was that it was unnecessarily condescending.  Sure, young people expect some strange things regarding mission trips, but many times these kids are emulating others.  Kids expect unrealistic things all the time; it’s part of childhood.  A 15-year-old often mimics the behavior of those around him/her as they are trying to find their own way in life.  When American Evangelicalism is out to entertain the participant, it’s no wonder the mission trip is treated like an opportunity for another mountaintop experience.  So I tend to cut the kids a little slack, and save the critique for those who teach and encourage their expectations.  The antidote to this issue is to impress upon people (young and old) that charitable actions are simply what Christians do.  Your brother is in need, so you provide for him.  Traveling to Philly to help me doesn’t mean the volunteer’s own neighbors are neglected; in fact, a trip could encourage them to see the need in their own backyard.

The video makes it seem like missionaries like me would benefit most from your money.  Yes, you can donate money; we often struggle to raise funds, and I can mark a date on the calendar when my family of four could be short a paycheck.  The financial side of mission is a reality my wife and I knew full well when we were sent to this city.  If you would like to donate to domestic Confessional Lutheran mission, you can do so HERE.  Donating money to our organization provides for the ministry in Philadelphia, and it also feeds and clothes hundreds, even as we seek to provide shelter for the homeless, plant churches, and care for all.

But money isn’t the only need.  I need your hands.  I actually need these short-term mission trips.  In the Philadelphia area, there aren’t many LCMS churches from which we can draw in my mission’s infancy.  I need a church painted, two buildings remodeled, a garden planted and poor to be comforted.  The realities dictate that I need more people, and some will travel some distance to get here.

In fact, your BJS “Steadfast on Campus” blogger Rev. John Wegener brought over twenty college students from his campus ministry at the University of Northern Iowa to lend the hands I need.  They stayed a little less than a week, crammed into Pastor Fisk’s old parsonage.  While here, they painted a church, feed and clothed the homeless in a downtown park at night, and sold a street paper to raise funds for the homeless who are on their way to independence.  The paper, published by a non-profit organization but written by the homeless, was so impressed with Pastor Wegener’s group that a homeless man is writing an article on them to appear in a future issue.

I’m not sure what expectations the students had, but I promised no mountaintop experience.  Many took photos, but I caution visitors from taking photos of the poor, since I don’t want to be seen as the kind of pastor who will profit from displaying a homeless man’s misery.  I think the students had fun, all while offering a service to my ministry that I desperately needed.  They worked alongside over a dozen homeless men, got to know several by name, took the opportunity to ask questions, and learned about the real people behind a hardened stereotype.

An added bonus for me was the opportunity to connect with some people from the Midwest.  Originally from Central Illinois, I never could have expected the benefit I would receive from spending a week with Iowans.  Their presence alone was a comfort to me.  And when Pastor Wegener’s group was in, I had enough people to fan them out across the city (lead by a homeless person) to interact and care for small homeless groups.

So, we need prayers, money, in-kind donations and willing hands.  All of these things together provide for the ministry.  For example, to house the homeless in a transitional housing program, I need my buildings brought up to code—something I cannot do myself.  No, a mission trip will not make you a “Super Christian.”  But the trip could provide a much needed service to a struggling missionary, and provide a needed service so the missionary can forward the work.

Of our needs (money, time, volunteers, etc.), many provide within their vocation.  I treasure our supporters who pray for us earnestly while never sending a dime.  Some send money, but never come out in person.  Some travel here to push a paintbrush and hand out sandwiches.  All of these are important components of the work here.  They aren’t better Christians for it; they simply see a need and offer to help.  And even if they don’t give to us, they have a privilege to provide for Word and Sacrament ministry elsewhere.

We’re all one Body.  If all gave only money, where would the volunteers be?  If all only visited, where would the financial support be?  A financial donor cannot say to the short-term mission trip, “I do not need you.”  If everyone was a painter, I wouldn’t survive much longer.  Besides, I’d run out of walls eventually.  It takes the whole Body to provide for ministry in this and every place.

In short, we need all the help the church can muster.  This may mean a trip to Philadelphia, made up of people who need a lesson in Christian vocation.  My setting is unbelievably difficult for me on every angle: mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually and financially.  It’s a tiring business, it’s expensive, and I need help.  Some may come out here with a false impression of what a mission trip is, but I hope they are encouraged to come anyway.  They may leave with a renewed sense of Christian vocation that isn’t self-serving.  It’s tough for the church to deal with immature theological views, but to simply discourage those who don’t yet eat solid food isn’t the answer.  How do you get a toddler to behave in church?  Take them to church.  How do you get a 12-year-old to understand the church’s mission?  One way is to drop them off somewhere to work with a missionary who could use their hands.  Hands-on work encourages the child to leave childish ways behind.

Do you want to know ways you and/or your church can provide for my work with Philadelphia Lutheran Ministries?

Prayer: I encourage you to pray for us personally, and include us in the prayers on Sunday.  We have a lot of new and difficult things starting in the near future, all while we continue to struggle with the city.

Financially: You can find information on how to donate HERE.  Your donations pay for a missionary to be in Philadelphia; it’s that simple.  Without financial donors, my work would grind to a halt.

In-kind donations: I need all the socks, blankets and travel-sized toiletries I can get.  You can send them to my home address found on the LCMS website’s people locator (search: “Joshua Gale”).

Short-term mission trip: Now’s a good time to start thinking about 2013.  I have been here less than a year, so much of the trip planning is done on the fly, close to the date of arrival.  Everything is new, and this means plans will change.  I can’t tell you for sure what you would be doing, but think about sending a group willing to pitch in wherever needed.  I’m sure I can find something.

Keep updated: I update the Facebook page for Philadelphia Lutheran Ministries a few times each week.  Share important information and help me get the word out.

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