Travel to Uganda with one of our editors as she uncovers the long-term benefits of short-term missions.
Taking part in short-term missions is kind of like chasing after the sun. From our limited perspective, it’s hard to know where we’re going and where we’ll end up.
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My own journey chasing the sun began long before my recent mission trip to Uganda. Today, talk about the obvious issues of short-term missions is prevalent: Do we go in with a savior mentality? Do we focus more on what we’ll get from the experience versus what the recipients will get? Are we creating dependence rather than development and sustainability? Are we so focused on “saving” people that we neglect very real physical needs? And finally, given the high cost of short-term missions, are we misusing money that could be better appropriated?
I worried about these things before my trip. I didn’t want the positive effects to belong only to our team while the Ugandan locals continued to endure the lingering negative effects. But in the wondrous countryside of Uganda, what I found was great beauty in the conundrum of short-term missions.
At the root of this story are two of the most inspiring 20-somethings I’ve ever met: Haril and Andrea Kazindra, two co-founders of Musana Community Development Organization (MCDO), a relief and support group. The two live on site at the organization’s headquarters, and during our visit to MCDO in Iganga, Uganda, they gave us a glimpse of how Westerners can impact the world for the better.
As we began to form relationships with the kids and adults involved with Musana, the Kazindras were emphatic about the value of short-term missionaries. “When people come and love—even for a little while—it multiplies itself,” Haril explained. Short-term missions teams are very important, he said, in part because they bring encouragement, cheer, and motivation to the community; and that sets MCDO on a positive trajectory.
The Kazindras are intentional about how and when they involve short-term missions groups with their organization. For instance, Musana Nursery and Primary School’s first priority is to do what’s best for each child. They invite and welcome support that makes a positive difference in the Iganga community—help and resources that locals can’t give. From ensuring children receive what they need to connecting them to Ugandan culture and family, MCDO works to have children grow up to be the change in their community. So they leverage whatever help they can get from locals and short-term missionaries.
Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development
MCDO is focused on responding to poverty appropriately through relief, rehabilitation, and development. (Learn more about this philosophy.) When 3-year-old Betty had a heart condition that required surgery, they gave relief by sending her to Israel to get the care she needed. My team met Betty just months after the surgery, and no one could deny the light shining through this precious little girl. Akamadah, age 3, had lived in a nearby village malnourished, in poor health, and with no clothes. By the time we met him only a few months after he’d arrived at MCDO, his biggest concern was whether to share the swing at playtime.
As the organization’s needs changed over time, its response moved from relief to rehabilitation and now to development. Because of this commitment to development, MCDO asked our team to come and collaborate with its teachers on literacy.
“Teachers working with teachers is better than (people) bringing pencils and books,” Haril explained.
“I love Musana School,” little Jacob told my teammate. He explained that the teachers help him understand the material so he can move ahead. When my teammate told him she thought that happened in other schools, he quickly replied, “No. It does not. I have been to other schools.” Jacob recognized that the local education system couldn’t give him what he needs and that Musana is different.
MCDO also focuses on development by supporting vulnerable women in nearby villages through business training and providing microloans to start businesses. When my team visited these women’s groups, we learned MCDO empowers them to succeed while also holding them accountable to grow their businesses and pay back the loans.
Intentional assistance such as this is a desperate need in Africa. “Donors say Africa is a basket with holes,” Haril explained. After years of relief rather than the rehabilitation or development truly needed, some sources say Africans have developed a culture of scamming, dependency and entitlement. Today, 85 percent of the aid money flowing to African countries never reaches the targeted areas of need, according to the book Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo. Even during my short time in Uganda, I had several requests to simply hand over money or my belongings. One teenager I’d just passed on the street said, “Give me your bag.”
Some orphanages create nonexistent orphans so they can get more money. Families may find multiple sponsors for their children because they know they can take advantage of the system. And some even go as far as maiming children so they can get more money or resources. One of the children I spent time with at MCDO told me he had no family—that they had all been killed in a car crash. But when I asked the Kazindras about this child, I learned his story wasn’t true. Connecting with a trustworthy organization ensures that funds and time are well-spent.
Ministry of Relationship
To combat that culture of dependency and entitlement, the MCDO board of directors is constantly pooling resources to create sustainability projects. The Sol Café—an MCDO-owned restaurant and gathering place in the local community—and Musana Farms (which grows cash crops, dairy cows, chickens, fish, and will soon have a piggery) not only provide income to keep the women’s and children’s projects running, but they also provide jobs for locals. As my team visited all these sites, we were inspired by how each person’s capabilities are leveraged to create an organization with an ongoing, effective impact on the surrounding community.
If MCDO’s goal is simply “to empower, support, and let the locals lead the organization,” then how do short-term missionaries fit into that picture? As Andrea explained, sometimes people think the backlash toward short-term missions has created visitors who feel they need to come and do something—or wonder if it’s better not to come at all. “Nobody would want to admit that they’re just coming to learn, engage, interact, and see how an impact is being made and then support that,” she said.
Andrea and Haril say having people come to paint a wall at their school isn’t necessarily what the organization needs because locals have the talents and abilities to do that. Rather, it’s the relationship building with kids during that time that’s important. “Even when you’re playing with the kids, they’re learning proper interaction and new ideas outside their own worldviews,” says Haril. “Westerners have influence with the kids because they’re different, kind of like the influence of friends over the influence of parents.”
Because MCDO encourages these positive relationships, my team’s job was pretty simple. We got to encourage children as they shared poems. We asked kids to teach us Lusoga, the local language. We pushed them on the swings. Above all, we tried to share about Jesus’ love through everything we did. Our expert teachers collaborated with their expert teachers, bringing hope and momentum to everyone. And we even got to cheer with the Musana volleyball team when they returned as the district champs from their volleyball tournament.
Maybe all these things seem insignificant, but the Kazindras insist they’re important. When I asked whether we were hurting the children by developing friendships with them and then leaving, Andrea made a comparison with her own life. She explained that even though she spent just one week with her middle school camp counselor, that relationship sticks with her to this day.
“You may have changed that person for decades because of the short time you loved him or her,” agreed Haril.
In Lusoga, Musana means light coming directly from a specific source, as in light from the sun. In my Musana journey, I saw the light in that short-term missions are complicated. It’s key for us to approach them with intelligence, wisdom, and intention. But above all, we can’t be paralyzed by the issues and write off short-term missions completely. God asks us to do all kinds of things, and we may not necessarily understand all of them. But when we’re willing to chase the sun, humbly knowing that we aren’t the heroes, we allow cultural exchange that grows every open person and draws all of us closer to God’s greatness.
Jessica Sausto is an editor in Group’s children’s ministry department and a key leader in the preschool program at Flatirons Community Church in Lafayette, Colorado.
Make the Most of Short-Term Missions
If you’re considering short-term missions for yourself or the families you minister to, keep these pointers in mind.
- Your trip is about serving others—and your group’s spiritual growth. Neglecting one or the other will short-change your experience.
- Ensure that what you’re doing is truly meeting a need. Discover needs by asking local people or thoroughly researching community needs.
- Make logistical preparations far in advance. A valuable trip takes a lot of time to research, plan, and prepare. If you’re not an expert, consider using a mission provider.
- Remember: It’s all about them. Maximum spiritual growth happens when you put the needs of those you’re serving ahead of your own.
- Spiritually prepare before your trip, and debrief the experience when you return. When you do this, your short-term trip has a longer-term impact on your group.
Toby Rowe is the program manager for Simply Youth Group and Group Mission Trips.