Has the international mission trip become irrelevant, unnecessary, perhaps even unseemly and immoral?
I know that some people wonder, either privately or not so privately, why it is that some Christians feel the urge to do good in faraway places when, as we all know very well, there are plenty of people in need in our own cities and neighborhoods.
I’m sure that some people feel this way about my current trip to Lebanon; I get it. After all, there is always a bit of tourism that goes on when I’m visiting another country, meaning that I am spending some time seeing beautiful historical sites, eating wonderful foods, and taking a break from the work I normally do. In that sense, it is a kind of vacation, or at least a respite from the usual list of things to do.
I confess that I love visiting different countries and encountering cultures which are foreign to me. It’s something which I thoroughly enjoy; I like trying to discover how to fit in, or at least how to tread lightly in a place that is not my natural home.
And I understand that some people, particularly those who are my church members, might even feel that my overseas travel is distinctly not a part of my ministry at home. They might say that I am shirking my duties by spending time outside of my appointed office.
I would respond to this complaint by arguing that this is part of my ministry; this is part of the whole call of God on the life of Wes Magruder. I haven’t come to Lebanon to engage in work that competes with or detracts from my church job. It’s one and the same work; the same gospel that compels me to proclaim the word on Sunday mornings and lead a congregation in north Oak Cliff also compels me to serve the displaced Syrian children of God.
Even so, there is still a practical question left when it comes to international mission work: does it make good sense for Americans to travel to a foreign country to do work which could just as well be done by others in that country?
This is certainly a legitimate question that must be answered honestly in every circumstance and context. It is true that a survey of American mission efforts over the last century might reveal a mixed bag in this regard; Americans have built and donated things that were irrelevant and unnecessary; Americans have gone into countries like imperialist invaders and bullied the residents around with arrogance and impatience; Americans have often been bad actors in other countries; Americans have also been guilty of doing work that benefitted their own egos and psyches rather than the people they ostensibly came to help. All of that is true.
But that doesn’t mean that Americans — or anyone else, for that matter — should stop their interest in international mission work. It means merely that we should do it better!
We no longer have the luxury of sitting back and saying to ourselves that we should take care of our own poor and suffering first; we cannot afford to adopt an “America first” policy regarding the kingdom of God. This attitude may have been acceptable in the past, but our globe is infinitely smaller now, and a crisis in one small corner of the world will have repercussions elsewhere, whether we like it or not.
When I’m in Lebanon, or Greece, or Cameroon, I feel like I’m doing work for the only “place” that really matters — the entire planet. Because when we talk about “the kingdom of God,” that’s what we mean; God’s kingdom is that which God’s rule of shalom, love, and community encompasses. The kingdom of God is not limited to this planet (it includes the whole cosmos), but there is no part of this globe which falls outside of God’s reign.
If we really believe this, then we must act like it. As Christians, we can never subscribe to an “America first” mentality; nor must we succumb to an ideology which proclaims that our country is more divinely blessed than any other.
The world is full of diverse peoples, each of whom we are commanded to love as our neighbor, whether they love us back or not. And the only way to love our neighbors is to get to know them.
In the end, that is the reason why I think international mission trips are urgent and necessary for the Christian. We have to get to know the real people who live in our world. It no longer suffices to send a little money here or there to address a need. We can’t fall back on our State Department or a large, impersonal non-profit organization to do our work for us. And we certainly cannot afford to let large media conglomerates tell us what the rest of the world is like, even if they have impressive video footage.
No, I am convinced that the only true change in this world will take place when we all actively seek friendships with people around the world, when we nurture relationships with people who are not like us at all. You don’t have to leave America to do that, of course, but it certainly helps!
The world would actually be a safer place if we got out of our comfortable enclaves and opened our hearts to the world around us.
Thats why I’m here in Lebanon this week. Not simply to found a non-profit, which will do some great work. But to see my friends Ghaleb and Reyna Charif, and Tarek and Mouhar. Yesterday, I saw a woman who I met back in February; I didn’t remember her name, but she remembered mine and warmly greeted me back to her country.
Today I met a young 23 year old woman named Shaza, who works as a facilitator for Save the Children. I watched as she led Syrian refugee children in playing Musical Chairs, Red Light/Green Light, and another game with a ball that looked like a cross between dodgeball and tag. She is the same age as my oldest daughter, and I thought of Rachel as I watched her.
All I could think was that I wished Rachel could meet Shaza. I think they would enjoy each other’s company. I think they could be friends.
But that’s what I always think. And that’s what I think about all the people of the world. We really could be friends if we just took the time to be with each other, even if only for a simple dinner.
Truly, when you boil it all down, the international mission trip is worth it for that one simple event — the meal. That is where relationships begin; that is where God’s kingdom begins to peek through; that is where mission work hits its stride.