The Life of a Teenager Who Never Short-Termed

And actually gets culture as a result.

A couple things to make clear at the outset.

  1. No, I am no longer an adolescent.
  2. I have a background in evangelical Christianity and work in a context where half of the teams who arrive for short-term work come from an evangelical organization or church, so insights reflect hands-on upbringing and interactions with this subculture.
  3. The article’s working definition of short-term trip is as follows:
    A trip designed for a group (usually consisting of 8–20 individuals) to work in a temporary setting different from their home where projects are accomplished swiftly, often done annually in various locations.

Space Invaders

On a cool, late summer morning in 2015, I walked out the front door of the house and was met with a bright hue of yellow clothing men, women and teenagers who were laughing and hauling in lumber from vehicles parked outside the local community center. A man was capturing an image of the center’s sign for some social media love.

For someone who had never been here before, this would seem like a normal sight. But even three weeks after moving into my new zipcode, it struck me as out of place. The singular color had replaced the tapestry of diverse styles with varying threads and tones favored by the cultures of this community. The sign, the sign was commonplace, like the many mailboxes that line the neighborhood’s streets. It certainly didn’t warrant offering Instagram followers the chance to tap the heart icon.

A feeling swelled in my heart that hadn’t been felt since my family returned home to discover we were robbed.

I felt invaded.

Suddenly my new day was seen through the lens of these visitors, and everything communicated “project.” Most likely, that’s not how these people saw it. They could very well come here every month. But from my viewpoint, this block that had been my home for less than a month now felt like a charity event. What were once theoretical discussions on the impact of short-term projects on long-term relationships was now a moment I lived and experienced with a profound aftertaste.

Many of us know this sight in one of three ways: 1) we’ve been the bright-colored group, 2) we’re the one walking out of our house to start off our routine morning, or 3) we know someone who has posted a picture of this sight on their Story. It’s an American institution, right up there with Denny’s (The Santa Clause anyone?).

There is a cycle so common within American middle class philanthropy, that no one has questioned its effect and if the outcomes are possible through alternate means. One response to any negative review from analyzing short-term trips is that the key outcome of short-term trips is its pathway to engage long-term in cross-cultural contexts and social issues.

In other words, to be exposed to cultures other than one’s own.

The echo chamber though is that this is coming from the one who grew up going on a short-term trip hosted by the youth pastor who himself attended a short-term trip when he was a t(w)een. But is this the only way to understand different cultures?

What happened to relationships? Because, let’s be honest, being friends with a child for two weeks makes one no more a friend with them than the 3.6k followers your Instagram boasts.

Before we can see a better way, I want to consider the challenges to the framework of both short-term trips within evangelical Christianity along with the billion-dollar industry of voluntourism.

Challenges

01 Short-term trips reflect more so a dominant American culture of outcomes and efficiency than it does an understanding of cultural intelligence and historical precedence.

Because the structure of short-term is by default very brief, the goals to validate the funds invested must equally be accomplished within a small duration of time. So, we build a well, take lots of photos of children or put up a home, despite no background in geology, childhood psychology or construction. And we communicate to the community that they lack what we can provide.

02 Short-term trips treat matters other than hyper-physical or hyper-spiritual as penultimate, catering to current short-term approaches.

The marketing of short-term trips image intense, personally transformative experiences away from the ordinary, giving the illusion of communal depth of relationships and impact not accomplish-able wherever home is for the participant. When one thinks that the ordinary cannot bring about relationships and impact, this is advertising 101: Make the audience believe that they need this ___ for scratching that {insert human longing} they cannot otherwise have.

03 American imperialism and savior-complexes characterize much of the European-descent and evangelical-leaning branch of the American church.

When presented an idea by a Midwestern US nondenominational megachurch to send a team into global European cities and move into neighborhoods for the sake of starting new churches, Steve Timmis, an elder of The Crowded House, asked: “Would you work with local churches?”

American: “Yes.”
Timmis: “Would you work with or under local churches?”
American: “With. We hadn’t thought about coming under a local church.”
Timmis: “I don’t think this is necessarily your or your church’s intent, but we see this quite often with American churches. There is an American imperialism. You want to come alongside others for work, as long as you are still the one in control.”

04 Cultural values of friendship are shallow and short in American culture in comparison to many non-Western cultures to whom trips are targeted where lasting friendships take years to form but are rarely severed.

Many of us have done it. We meet someone on a domestic flight in the US who happens by Southwest lottery to sit beside us in the loathed middle seat. Within two hours, we know their spouse’s name, the high school they attended and their top three goals in the next 5 years.

Not a universal experience.

In my community of new Americans (refugees resettled and brought in the US), teams do this at the rate of over 30 organizations offering at least one trip every year. This constant influx and fallout of new “friends” for children who suffer from the trauma of loss only compound their psychological stress.

05 Relief trips deprive local economies of outside revenue and oversaturate local markets with free goods.

This challenge to short-term I have already written extensively about and would encourage you to check it out in full.

In short (no pun intended), short-term trips 1) structurally catalyze projects that do not have long-term goals and community flourishing in mind, 2) disengage one from thinking about transforming spaces in their everyday, 3) retain control for the “outsider” in an existing community, 4) graft improperly American views of friendships into the psyche of the receiving community and 5) hinder sustainable growth economically in the local community. All in the name of learning about a culture with the hope of future work in comparable fields or for a personal sense of impact, which the system by nature blinds one from thinking could be possible within one’s own.

Cultural Learning through Empathy

My story is very different than this. It wasn’t marked by what I could get out of a trip, but out of how I could better understand and relate to true friends.

I attended a public university for my undergraduate that attracted a large community of international students for its engineering program. Free hours in the student lounge and cafeteria offered space for me to befriend students from Saudi Arabia, China and India, to name a few.

Growing up in the Midwest, my county consisted of this unique layering of urban sprawl, suburbia and cornfields. But most of my life up until college stayed within the layer in which I was born.

Needless to say, most of my first encounters with backgrounds, beliefs and values other than mine came about through my college years. It sparked in me an interest in understanding all people, that, after completing a degree in media studies, would fuel my studies in intercultural communication, anthropology and ethnographic research toward a masters program.

All the while, these relationships would introduce me to their spaces, their favorite childhood meal, and their friends who in turn would introduce me to their friends. It was a journey that started with where I was, rather than where I could be otherwise.

Do you catch the difference? I engaged culture not out of a place of consumerism, but of companionship. The short-term industry doesn’t thrive on this paradigm shift any more than advertisers who let you see behind the curtain only to catch that the wizard is all smoke and mirrors.

Consumerism starts with what I can get. My return of investment.

Companionship starts with seeking the good and joy of fellow human beings.

Suddenly, I am no longer the standard when engaging other cultures. My friends’ well-being is.

And out of that, I would see the shared longing for meaningful work, intimate relationships, playful activities and retelling rituals. How they wanted to live looked different but was rooted in things I myself longed for if I actually stopped and listened.

This forced me to suspend my worldview in order to understand my friend’s. And because they were friends, I started with the basis of seeing their values as different rather than wrong.

It formed a narrative that all cultures are formed out of an innate human desire to be known, to be loved and to make an impact.

To love as one would want to be loved goes so far.

I don’t want to just take up space. I don’t want to invade peoples’ lives for a season and disappear when whatever goal I achieve has been realized. Love doesn’t warrant that. Love doesn’t allow for that.

I’ll trade in the cool shirt for the everyday clothes and routines of this community. That’s where love invades.

Considerations

With all this, I want to offer a few considerations that come out of a place of loving as one would want to be loved:

01 Expose European Americans to dominant American values as subjective in a sea of cultural values, in lieu of current trainings that maintain using dominant American culture as the plumb line.

There is a false assumption that knowledge equates to cultural empathy. But if the driver to learn culture is to serve “the less fortunate,” no amount of knowledge will alter a view of cultural dominance.

02 Develop cultural empathy with friends (neighbors, classmates and co-workers) rather than practice it among strangers in a setting and among a language foreign to participants.

Similar to the previous point, knowledge is only part of what cultivates cultural empathy. Motivation fueled by friendship will further this awareness because it avoids the human tendency to categorize strangers in such a way that they lose elements of their humanness.

03 Cease marketing short-term trips as benefits to participants, opportunities for adventure and places of darkness without one’s participation.

Just don’t. The Golden Rule works really well here.

04 Center trips around friends who invite learning from their community with trip participants reading one or two books that cover history and contemporary culture.

Knowledge has its place. Let it originate out of friendship.

05 Be okay with not forcing this overnight and start with finding friends who are from a similar cultural background and already have a network of friends expressing different cultural experiences.

Please note, dear white friends who are now culturally aware but still empathetically ignorant, this is not your token PoC. I cannot stress how important it is to go with existing networks, otherwise, you have simply transferred the short-term woes of voluntourism onto your friend network.

Husband. Peacemaker x dev. & faith. Pop cultured 👾 || Meet me here. Get to know me IRL. He/him.

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