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Choosing Humility: Working together for respectful short-term missions

Updated: Jan 18, 2023

by Danilo Cyruis, Clelie Cyrius, Stephanie Robinson, and David Sanon, with Andrea Sielaff

In the story of missions, who are the central characters? Are the central characters the people local to the mission area or the short-term missionaries? When reading a book or watching a television series, it is usually easy to tell who the central characters are. They are there at the beginning of the narrative, and they are there through the end. Their strengths and challenges are the meat of the plot; their culture creates the tone; their land is usually the setting. Other characters may influence the direction of the story, but they come and go, only present when their personal story arc intersects with those of the central characters and setting.

As the leaders of Konbit Haiti,[1] a faith-based NGO that was co- founded by Americans and Haitians together, we assert that the people local to the mission context should always be the central characters of the story of the mission. For missions to be sustainable and fruitful, the perceived heroes must be the people who are native to the culture and committed for the long-term. Unfortunately, many people who travel to participate in short-term missions are told, both subtly and directly, that they are heroes of the story.

While we would not want to make light of the generosity of short- termers who give time and energy, we do want to call out the false narrative that makes them the central figure in the story of a local mission. Yes, a short-term missionary is likely to have a very dramatic arc as they encounter a broadening perspective of their faith and worldview. But seeing themselves as the center of the story of the mission encourages a narcissism more akin to a reality television show than to God’s grand narrative. The deeper harm in putting short-term missionaries front and center of the story is that it displaces and disempowers the true central characters, the locals.

Standing in the back

To counter this false narrative, Konbit Haiti has developed the practical value of “standing in the back,” which is a physical representation of a metaphorical stance in humility. “Standing in the back” is an approach to short-term missions that can be used in many contexts, though it was born in a specific one. Konbit Water Program Director David Sanon coined this phrase during a staff debrief about a short-term group that was, both literally and metaphorically, taking center stage in Konbit Haiti’s open-air community center. Though it is common for visiting groups to take the stage at the community center to perform a skit, this group had also inadvertently revealed their sense of their centrality to the story—and lack of humility— by sitting at the very front even when not on stage. David noted, “They need to learn to stand in the back.” We decided as a mission organization to develop multiple ways to help short-term teams learn to stand in the back. We will detail our methods at the conclusion of the chapter, but first we must share more about the context in which the concept arose.

While the phrase “stand in the back” can apply in a metaphorical way, we came to use this phrase specifically because of the physical way that our own outdoor community center is shaped. Teams of all kinds come to help the local, competent staff of Konbit Haiti achieve their goals of clean drinking water, a summer camp for two hundred kids, Christmas camp, health care education and clinics, pastors’ conferences, and business conferences. Local staff, Haitian community members and short-term teams meet together in the community center. At the front is a large stage with a microphone, often required to talk to the large number of people this community center can attract. Each summer, the teams stand up on the stage to share what they have brought to the community. It is understandable that they must stay up there for a time. What we’ve noticed, though, is the long-term dynamic between Konbit Haiti’s year-round Haitian staff and the short-term foreign team. Over the course of time that the foreign team serves, its members drift toward the seats in the front of the community center, closest to the stage. Even when they are not speaking, the short- term missionaries often assume that they ought to remain in charge and in control, the heroes of the story.

True hospitality

For a host mission to ask their short-term guests to stand in the back instead of seating them in the front seems inhospitable—until you consider Jesus’s teaching to the guests at the Pharisee’s house in Luke 14. Jesus, noticing the presumptuous way that the guests were choosing the most desirable seats, warned them against claiming for themselves the places of honor. Instead, he advises, guests should learn to choose a lower seat and wait to be invited closer to the action by the host. “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled,” Jesus concludes, “and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Our goal in this approach is not to marginalize short-term teams but to help them find the spiritual posture that they need to partner with long-term locals. The principle of standing in the back has the power to move many short-term missions around the world from a paternalistic stance of empowerment to a truly fruitful partnership with local leaders.

The idea of standing in the back is about much more than a physical location. Short-term team members often feel as if they should have more power than national leaders, that their privilege should give them more authority and their expertise should be taken more seriously than that of nationals. In response to this type of assertive power, Haitians end up standing in the back of the room—literally and figuratively. When this happens, our greatest assets in the mission wind up sitting on the bench, reinforcing the long historical narrative of foreign dominance and the powerlessness of the Haitian people to help themselves.

The "stand in the back" approach benefits both short-term teams and local communities. It gives short-term missionaries an unexpected gift of humility that will serve them in all their future contexts. The short-term team members walk away knowing they have contributed to a system that creates autonomy, resilience, and sustainable transformation. The host country benefits as well, with their story becoming central to their own community’s transformation, as it should be. This model has long-term impacts on younger generations, who become prepared to lead as they see models of local leadership. As one of our staff members, Misderline Saint-Armand de Sou-boy said, there is a copowering exchange of information in the Konbit Haiti approach that helps younger generations “feel like [they] can do anything.” The future of missions in Haiti belongs to the Haitian people, and we at Konbit Haiti welcome you, as our guest, to play your rightful part in our story.

[1] Konbit is a word drawn from Haitian Creole meaning “working together”

This post was adapted from “The Principal of Standing in the Back” by Danilo Cyruis, Clelie Cyrius, Stephanie Robinson, and David Sanon, with Andrea Sielaff. In Re-Imagining Short-Term Missions, ed. Forrest Inslee and Angel Burns. Wipf & Stock, 2022

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