What do Short-Term Missions have to do with a zoo?

Honestly, going to the zoo is not one of my favorite activities. But the one time I did enjoy it was for my daughter’s 3rd birthday. My daughter’s favorite animal is the elephant and the only place we could see a real live elephant was the Oakland Zoo. So we packed into our car with her best friend and headed to the zoo. We walked around taking pictures of the wild animals, selfies with wild animals, laughing and enjoying our time. We even had a chance to go to a petting zoo and get a close up look of goats, pigs, and other animals. After our enjoyable day there for my daughter’s birthday, we headed home with great memories and pictures of our time. We went home and shared our photos with our friends and family, remembering our fun day. We showed people the different animals that we saw, animals you don’t see back at home.

Too often our short-term mission trips turn into a trip to the zoo. We go wanting to serve, but too often it turns into a sight-seeing trip to the zoo. We pack into 15 passenger vans or uncomfortable airplane seats with our good friends. We walk around the community observing how people are living, the houses they live in on a daily basis. We laugh and have a great time as we do some work. We take pictures of the people and the poverty we see. We take selfies with the children at an orphanage or the family we built a house for. We go home to share with our friends and family about the poverty and people we saw. On the surface this isn’t a bad thing, but if our trip is void of meaningful relationship our short-term mission trip treats people like objects of our adventure and not people created in the image of God deserving of love and relationship.

Early in our ministry, we took a group to serve and pray for people at the old Tijuana dump. There are hundreds of people who live on the old trash dump, some of the poorest of the poor in northern Baja. It is quite the experience to see people living in plywood houses, trapped roofs, dirt floors that cover over the trash beneath people’s feet. As we were walking around, people were taking pictures of the horrible living conditions. Others were taking video as we walked the streets of people and their houses. (Imagine if people did this in your neighborhood?) It was so uncomfortable. At the time I didn’t think of it, but essentially we were treating these people like zoo animals. Taking pictures and videos of people and their living conditions to show our friends and family back at home. Void of relationship, void of dignity, void of love.

No matter where we go, we will see people and places that will surprise and shock us. We will see people’s living conditions that will break our hearts. But we need to remember that everyone we see is real people, real human beings, people created in the image of God. People who deserve to be loved, dignified, and understood. They are not there to make us feel better about our lives or make us feel like we are making a difference or that our project matters on our short-term mission trip. On the contrary, we should be drawn into their story, build relationships, give and receive hope and love from each other.

Today, we no longer allow cameras or photos to be taken when we go to visit and serve in the old Tijuana dump. We want to focus our eyes, our attention, our ears on the people we are serving with on our trips. We want to spend more time building relationships, than being concerned about getting the right picture. 

When you go, go with the right motives, with the right perspective. See people as God sees them and treat them as you would want to be treated. What do short-term missions have to do with a zoo? – nothing!

“A new command I give you, Love one another as I have loved you.” – Jesus


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