By Chris Ellis
Every year millions of Americans go on short-term mission (STM) trips across the globe. They go with desires to help and serve those, who they perceive, that are in need of their help.
Did you know that in 2007 the top destinations for megachurch STM trips were: Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras?
If you broaden that out to all U.S. churches, Honduras is 5th and Guatemala is 6th. Furthermore, 59% of all STM trips are to Latin America. On these trips, churches were built, people were fed and buildings were painted (for the 4th time every summer, probably). Currently, researchers estimate that there are almost 2 million STM participants per year. Many of those statistics are from 2007 and 2013, but due to a variety of factors, they haven’t changed much (language, ease of access, trip length, etc..). That means since 2007, there have probably been over 22 million Christians who have been on a STM trip with almost 13 million of them going to Latin America.
13 million. That’s a lot of U.S. Christians getting to make friends with people who are currently walking to the U.S. border with babies, grandmas, and what few material possessions they have. People who are literally walking for their lives.
Walking from gangs, drugs, poverty and death at an unnatural early age. I wonder if any of those walking shared communion, or a meal of empanadas on the last night with a U.S. Christian on a STM trip? You know, the one where hugs are passed around and comments of “I’ll never forget you or this trip” are emotionally expressed.
I wonder if any of those walking worked beside STM participants as they built a church, dug a well or held a medical clinic?
I wonder where those 13 million participants are now when their voices and action are most needed. I wonder what they’re thinking when these Christ-bearers from Central America whom they have spent time visiting are walking for months to save their lives. I wonder what they are thinking when they hear inflammatory rhetoric calling them an invading horde. I wonder what they’re thinking when the news finds an immigrant who has committed a crime and holds that criminal up as an archetype of all those walking to save their lives. I wonder what they’re thinking when troops are being sent to the border to harden it against mothers, fathers and children who plan on lawfully presenting themselves at the U.S. border as asylum seekers, as is the only way to apply for asylum in the U.S.
I have to wonder, because I’m not hearing anything and what I do hear makes me question everything.
I would have thought those who have crossed paths with those from Latin America would be pushing back against the dehumanization of people being called ‘animals’ and ‘invaders.’ I would have thought they would be financially supporting groups that are helping to provide for the needs of those in the caravan. I would have thought they would be advocating for more judges and translators to be sent to the border to process asylum claims quicker. Sadly, these things aren’t happening, and that says a lot about the role of STM trips to actually change lives and produce disciples who care about the plight of those whom they served.
If you’ve been on a STM trip to Latin America in the past 10 years, I challenge you to view those in the caravan as people you might have shared a bit of your life with. Doing so will hopefully give you the needed perspective to truly care about these people, these image bearers worthy of the love of Christ and help from the church, and not as animals or an invading horde.
Chris Ellis serves as the minister of mission and outreach for Second Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., and is the chair of the CBF Missions Council.