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Mutuality in Missions: A relational approach to short-term trips

by Robert Katende with Lisa San Martin

The ways that Western churches do short-term missions are often criticized, and for good reasons. Those of us in Uganda who are on the receiving end of short-term missions efforts have experienced plenty of disrespect and exploitation from short-term visitors. With that being the case, you might expect me to argue that we should stop doing short-term missions entirely. But that is not actually my position. In spite of the dangers and the potential for ineffectiveness, I love STM—as long as certain parameters are observed. At the organization I founded—Som Chess Academy in Kampala, Uganda—we cultivate mutual relationships based on respect and learning, and develop true partnerships with those who are willing to adapt and break from the traditional roles associated with STM. We have come to believe that the most important element of STMs, or any other form of mission work today, is true relationship based on respect and mutual influence.

Friendships Formed through Copowerment

When we have a right perspective of one another, we can begin to practice “copowering”[1] relationships and reframe expectations on both sides of the missionary equation. And that begins with the belief that we are members of one family in God, and that we can collaborate as co-equal partners in the mission of the whole global church. No matter who is traveling or to where, both parties ought to be sending and receiving in some form, and both sides should be experiencing change from the process.

One story that illustrates this copowering dynamic is about a short-term participant who, as a result of her time with us, is now doing wonderful work in Lynchburg, Virginia. She was profoundly shaped by engaging in the work we do here, and formed a deep connection to us. In fact, she became so involved that when she got married, she even brought her new husband to Uganda for their honeymoon—and stayed for three months! We trained and mentored them in the processes and values of the work we do, and in the process became friends. In the end, both she and her husband were confident to say, “I think I can do this at home!” They returned to Lynchburg to start Crane’s Ministry (named after our Ugandan national bird), and are now reaching out to children through sports as we do, yet in their own context. Such stories are not unusual given the way we are trying to reshape our short-term missions practices around an ethos of mutual impact.

The Role of Host Redefined

When it comes to gauging whether or not a short-term mission trip has been effective, too often Westerners will look at indicators like the completion of a building project, or the number of evangelistic contacts made—all framed in the one-way, top-down assumptions that make one party the giver and the other the receiver. I suggest that, alternatively, effectiveness should be determined primarily in relationship terms that allow a more proactive, coequal role of the STM hosts as knowledgeable mentors and educators. For example, while relational poverty affects all cultures in different ways (especially in the West), we in Uganda we find that we have relational wholeness paradigms to model and teach to those from the west. We have come to understand our role as “relational educators” to be part of our specific calling within the body of Christ. We really do consider it a calling and privilege to share our “wealth” of experiential, culture-based understand- ing with our brothers and sisters from abroad—just as we also, undeniably and with joy—receive so much from them. When I hear westerners evaluate STMs only in terms of whether they are an effective way for them to help us, I think they may be misinterpreting the value of our role as educators.

The blessing of giving and receiving

Everyone knows that many trip participants have their lives changed on mission trips. Yet many still wonder if that isn’t, on some level, “using” or taking advantage of the people in developing countries who need to put effort into mentoring them while they are here. It’s an excellent question that is consistent with a more respectful, relational orientation. However, I can say that those in my community in Uganda are more blessed when we give than when we receive. If anyone would partner with us, they must allow us to give too. We view our interactions with guests as valuable contributions to the work of the kingdom of God in fighting poverty (in all its forms), and opportunities to help establish flourishing communities of shalom. To be frank, our work with short-term visitors and the western communities that send them, gives us opportunities to alleviate a poverty of soul that comes from overreliance on all things material, and a poverty of relationship characterized by the objectification of people as projects.

In the new STM paradigm that we are trying to encourage, host communities, especially in the developing world, also have some responsibility to cultivate a more copowering dynamic in the STM equation. It takes intentional work to embrace a different role—and they often need encouragement to see the value of it. The legacy of colonization has conditioned many cultures to think of themselves as receivers only. Relational poverty exists in many forms, and while it may be most obvious in western culture, we in Uganda aren’t immune from our own version of it. We can, for example, get comfortable in the dehumanizing habit of seeing our STM guests only in terms of the material benefits they represent. And when we let outsiders assume responsibility for addressing the needs and issues that belong to us, we risk falling into complacency that prevents us from embracing our callings within (and responsibilities to) the body of Christ. True friends, working together across cultures as members of one global church, can help each other to avoid such pitfalls.

In truth, the key practice for doing STMs well applies to both senders and receivers: cultivate authentic, mutual relationships, and maintain them over time. STM trips are valuable to the extent that they emerge from and contribute to healthy, copowering relationships—which can in turn yield impactful, sustainable ministry. In these mutual relationships where everyone has something to give and receive, we see the strengthening of the church as a whole, and the possibilities of transformation for both visitors and hosts. Copowerment opportunities are all around us—even in short-term missions—if we are committed to keeping relationships central. As we learn to see people well, and to truly value our relationships, STMs can be reframed in ways that help us to build coequal, collaborative community in the wider context of the global church.

Robert Katende

Katende is best known as mentor to Phiona Mutesi, seen in the 2017 Disney movie, Queen of Katwe. Robert worked as a consultant, helping with the chess scenes, and assisting David Oyelowo (who played Robert) to achieve character originality. Coming from a disadvantaged background, he lived in the slums of Nakulabye before he made it to Kyambogo University, where he secured a degree in civil engineering and a Computer Engineering Degree from Kampala University. Later, he switched careers to social work through Sports Outreach Ministry and obtained a master’s degree in International Community Development from Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington. He is the founder of SOM Chess Academy and the Robert Katende Initiative. [1] Copowerment is defined as a “dynamic of mutual exchange through which both sides of a social equation are made stronger and more effective by the other.” (Burns & Inslee, Re-Imagining Short-Term Missions, xix.)

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