As a student who went to a private Christian high school, I learned early that mission trips were not only normal but also admirable. Every winter or summer break, the groups would volunteer their time for two or three weeks. Faculty, staff and my friends would raise money to visit places like Nicaragua, Mexico, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and the continent of Africa (the language sounded like, "I'm going to Africa this summer," as though Africa was a country).
However, I had a challenging and thought-provoking teacher who had me and my classmates question the common sense of mission trips. My Global Poverty and Practice studies at Cal have continued to build up and break down my thinking of the subject. After having volunteered for over a month in Bolivia, I think I have a better understanding of volunteer, voluntourism and mission trip programs.
I have found that the work that I do is very similar to the work that mission trip students do. We play sports with children, build and improve infrastructure, paint murals and tour around the country. We live in houses that are far nicer than the neighborhoods where we work. We have the mobility to travel, the money to buy safe food and the infrastructure to drink potable water. (When I use the pronoun "we," I understand that I am representing and talking for people that I don't know. When I use "we," I admit that I am generalizing but I do believe that these stereotypes hold true for myself and the vast majority of students who go on mission trips.)
I know for a fact, however, that my work differs from mission work in one crucial way. Perhaps the only thing that sets me apart from mission trip students is that I do not promote religion nor do I practice evangelism toward the community. Despite the good intentions of such work, I find mission work to be selfish and even backward.
I find it selfish in two ways: Spreading the gospel, in other words, has the intentions of "conversion" or "religious proselytization." I honestly believe that this work returns to the old notion of "I'm right and you're wrong and we are going to change you." This work gives mission trip students a sense of superiority. Secondly, it often gives mission trip students a religious high and a sense of doing good when in reality, it imposes a Western culture on the community (I am not an opponent of religion by any means. I do have a problem, though, when it is willingly imposed on a community that did not ask for it.)
I find it backward in this way: When going on this volunteer trip, one of the most important questions I needed to ask myself was, "What do these people need?" Often times, the answer will change from week to week as you learn more about the people you work with and as you experience things on the ground. However, mission trip students tend to answer this question before getting on the plane: These people need "to trust in our religion in order to escape poverty."
Nonetheless, I will not stand on a high horse and ignore some of my hypocrisy. Much of the criticism can also be aimed toward me. Perhaps I have more to offer back in California. Perhaps this trip is my way to make myself feel good, as if I am changing people's lives for the better. Maybe I am being arrogant. It is arrogant to assume that I have the power to change lives. Who says that these people even need me here in Bolivia? These people are strong people, they may not need my help at all. I think about these criticisms every day.
I will end on a high note. Cautious pessimism must be balanced with cautious optimism. I went to a restaurant called "El Primo Piano," which is owed by an ex-volunteer named Carmelo. Carmelo, originally from Italy, volunteered at Proyecto and ended up moving to Cochabamba permanently. At his restaurant, he not only serves delicious Italian food but also artesian jewelry made by local Ushpa-Ushpa women. I hung out at the bar one Saturday night and we began discussing some morbid thoughts I was having. He said to me in Spanish something along the lines of, "One less child off of the street is a success in my eyes." That resonated with me instantly because it reminded me of something that great high school teacher of mine told me. My teacher had the class read a speech by Atheist writer and philosopher Albert Camus, who addressed it to the Catholic Church. The work by Camus is called "The Unbeliever and Christians." The quote by Camus says, "But it is also true that I, and a few others, know what must be done, if not to reduce evil, as least not to add to it."
However, the work should be read in its entirety because it is awesome.
Thanks for reading.


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Meet The Author

Jarrod Zenjiro Suda | College of Letters and Science, Class of 2016 | University of California, at Berkeley | Major in Development Studies | Minor in Global Poverty and Practice |