Today, my oldest leaves on his first short-term mission trip. For me, it’s a swirl of emotions.
He’s going to Cairo, Illinois, a small town of less than 3,000 people, 70% of whom are African American. In the wake of this week’s racial violence, I cannot help but be hopeful that he will make friendships and develop compassions that just don’t happen in our lily-white suburb.
He’s going with the Colonial Church of Edina, the church in which I was reared, and the church that I served as minister to youth and young adults from 1997-2003.
The trip is run by YouthWorks, an organization that I helped found, as the inaugural executive director, from 1993-1997.
But mostly, I’m reminiscing about the many nights I’ve spent in a sleeping bag, on the floor of a school or a church, smelly and covered with flecks of paint from a day of service in scorching heat. I’ve built guinea pig pens in Peru, poured concrete in Juarez, and lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Probably nothing has shaped me more as a Christian — and here I’m not talking about my theological commitments but my life as a follower of Jesus — than my time in mission trips.
Mission trips, especially the short-term variety favored in American youth ministry, have come under scrutiny in the years since I left Colonial Church for Princeton, and rightly so. The worry is that they continue a colonializing impulse that has been a part of Euro-Christianity for centuries. I attempted to combat this when I lived on Pine Ridge, taking students every week to the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre and having them sit and listen to tribal elders who were forced to attend Christian schools at which their hair was cut and they were punished for speaking Lakota.I still believe that short-term mission trips hold redemptive possibilities. I hope that my teenage son will come face-to-face with the poverty that is a direct legacy of slavery. I hope that he will come home to tell me that Black Lives Matter. I hope that he will be stretched and made to ask what a life of following Jesus — a cruciform life — really looks like.
If you think about it this week, say a prayer for my son, and for the thousands of white, American teenagers who are traversing the country in church vans this summer, stepping into environments that will challenge them. Pray that they might be changed; that they might listen more than they speak; that they might be provoked in compassion; that they might resolve to be part of the solution to the racism and poverty that continue to vex our society.
That’s what I’ll be praying.