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Making the most of a short-term mission

| Monday, October 5, 2015

The night before I boarded my flight to China for the International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP), I read an article entitled “The Cost of Short-Term Missions” at 3 a.m. In retrospect, that wasn’t a very smart decision before my 14-hour flight, but I just couldn’t sleep. I was so caught up in the rush of last-minute packing, the prospect of spending two months in Guizhou, China, and all the nerves that came with embarking on a journey that strayed quite a bit from the typical internship or summer job. After so much anticipation, I was finally going to be leaving home, and that was equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. As I read that article, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, if I was really ready for this. I found myself worrying about becoming a part of the “voluntourism” trend and not making enough of an impact. I felt like I should have a plan, a clear goal to accomplish within my eight weeks, and, well, I didn’t. It seemed then that the only way to validate my time in China was to produce a clear result or product, and I didn’t even know where to begin. In short, I was overwhelmed, but I boarded that plane anyway and then went on to spend the next two months discovering exactly what it meant to be on a short-term mission and to serve others.

First and foremost, I learned there is so much more to learn, more than I could have accomplished in eight weeks. I learned about working in a non-profit organization in China, about the large impact of issues such as environmental degradation and urbanization on the poor, about centuries-old Chinese traditional handicrafts and, most importantly, I learned about those around me — the poor, the marginalized, the change-makers and world-shakers. Those I came in contact with in China were not just poor or marginalized entities, but people with hopes and struggles, people with stories. Perhaps the greatest lesson I walked away with is the importance of taking the time to make relationships. More often than not, the best way I could serve was to listen to others and be willing to share in their lives, which isn’t as easy as it sounds but almost always worth it. The problems that had always been so foreign and distant to me before became personal, and people all the way on the other side of the world became friends. The relationships I made were absolutely integral to my understanding of the poor in China and my ability to effectively serve the poor, not as if they are another entity, but as they are — our fellow human beings.

When I first approached the ISSLP, I had this vague desire to go out into the world and help an even more vague “people.” Looking back, I can’t help but smile at how unoriginal and simplistic an idea that was. At the time, I was driven by an admittedly emotional response to the great injustices in the world I had only begun to learn about. In my time in Guizhou, I came to learn a little more about the world and about myself. My greatest worry when I boarded that plane to China was that I wouldn’t make enough of an impact, that eight weeks wasn’t enough time. Now, two months after my ISSLP, my greatest advice for those embarking on a short-term mission would be to put it all in perspective. Your eight weeks will not solve issues that are deep-rooted, persistent and oftentimes cultural, but you are part of a vast network of the people before you, the people to come and those right beside you, including those you are trying to serve. All these people are part of the effort to create positive change. You are not alone, and you cannot do it all alone, so focus instead on how you can learn and be a part of that group effort. I had to let go of the concept of making an individual “impact” in order to be part of an effort much greater and more powerful than any one person alone. Acknowledge you don’t know and it would be naive to walk in with a preconceived notion of the needs of people whom you’ve never even met. Do not try to thrust upon them your beliefs because it won’t work; be open to having conversations instead. And most of all, make good use of the time, no matter how “short-term” your mission is. In my experience, short-term missions are meant first for learning, though learning and doing are not mutually exclusive, and effective service is more about asking the right questions than coming in with the right answers, which rarely ever happens. And last, but certainly not least, do not discount the relationships you will have made and the community you will have formed — a community of people who were moved to action and who, through action, became better individuals now more able to act in mind and heart.

Contact Elle Huang at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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