Like many Christ-followers in the United States, I have participated in my fair share of mission trips to the Caribbean and Central and South America over the past few decades. I have greatly benefited from these international opportunities. These voyages typically include U.S. Christians serving in schools and churches while also contributing to construction projects. Ideally, all involved grow in their relationships with God while the local community experiences some degree of community development.
There is another side to mission trips, however. According to Wycliffe Associates, approximately 1,600,000 Americans participate in mission trips each year. Assuming a cost of approximately $1,500 per person for the average trip, American Christians are raising and spending more than $2 billion each year on mission trips around the world.
And in some cases, the mission trips reinforce Western paternalism while adding to dependency by indigenous peoples. They often fail to develop sustainable economic engines that will foster a stronger local economy and better job opportunities after the mission team has departed. While mission trips done right can be of benefit for all involved -- and there are often very real spiritual blessings -- far too many fail to provide any lasting economic development for the destination nation.
Ironically, many of those who are so committed to investing thousands of dollars to bring the good news of Jesus to another part of the world are vigorously supporting a harsh crackdown on undocumented immigrants in the United States. Eight to 14 days with people from another nation is worth thousands of dollars for these Christians.
But 365 days of an undocumented immigrant in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave? Forget the gospel! Time for a harsh dose of Law and Order! After all, we can share Jesus with them better when they are farther away and we have to make a costly financial investment in their souls!
So I have a proposal for my fellow Christians who are passionate about finding and deporting undocumented immigrants from the United States: declare a Mission Trip Moratorium. Still raise the $2 billion, but invest that money in economic development and community development projects led by the indigenous peoples themselves. Invest in micro-loan programs like KIVA that spur small businesses and economic development in other parts of the world.
Instead of investing in mission trips for privileged Americans, channel that money to spur on economic development so those who are being sent back to their countries of origin have some real opportunities for a better life when they return.
Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem with resources from the King, but used a local hiring plan to rebuild the wall. Nehemiah created new jobs, and a new economy emerged. Until an immigration reform plan happens that fixes broken laws and a broken system, those who preach deporting immigrants should stop traveling with Nehemiah to Jerusalem, and start resourcing the Nehemiahs we are sending home. For many of my fellow Christians, it is time to declare a Mission Trip Moratorium.
Troy Jackson is senior pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, and earned his Ph.D. in United States history from the University of Kentucky. He is author of Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader (Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century) and a participant in Sojourners' Windchangers grassroots organizing project in Ohio.