I know what you are thinking, "But I've been a mission trip and it wasn't all horrible at all. Some missionaries do a lot of good." And you are right. Therein lies the ethical conundrum because I too have traveled to a number of countries and have been a part of those "good works".
Where No Man Has Gone Before - Not only do missionaries go to places people have a hard time getting to, they often go places that no one wants to go to. Churches ran leper colonies, they have orphanages full of children with AIDS, visit tribes that are known to kill outsiders, organize aid and rescue during catastrophes, provide food and shelter, run homeless ministries, and much much more. Many religions join in these good works and they do so because they want to and sometimes there is no ulterior motive.
Opening Up the World - A lot of people complain about how Americans are often rather insulated in their experiences. Many have never traveled to a foreign country and most have never seen abstract poverty. I think it is important for young people and even old people to see the world outside of their own limited experiences. To see how other people live. To understand the ways in which they are "blessed" or ways they were lacking. I don't want to make this all about the US either. If you grew up in India, I do think it is important to visit places that are different than your experience. If you grew up rich, I think it is important for you to not only see, but understand extreme poverty. Which is why these teen mission trips can be good. Although one hopes that more good than bad is being done by these short-term mission trips, I do know that they have a significant impact on the young people who go. They have completely changed the way some people look at the world and the trajectory for their lives is changed forever.
Deeds not Words - I have said before that there are many different types of missionaries. By far, in my mind, the best are the ones who help others with no ulterior motives. They give food without a prayer or even a mention of their faith. Money is raised to help people, not create converts. One gets the feeling that they would help people whether there was a god or not. These people are true heroes because they often go into sad and scary situations with the desire to help. I have never heard any of these people, in any interview, say that they were doing for a reward in heaven or on earth. They do it because a voice in their head, one that many may contribute to a god, tells them it is a moral imperative. No matter their reasons for doing it, it is commendable.
If Not Them Then Who - I have spoken about how the adoption community is chock-full of Christians. I have done some research into it and it seems that this is one of the few religious communities that really actively encourages people to adopt. This is not to be misconstrued that other religions don't, but in the past few decades Christians have certainly made a great effort to change the face of adoption. As much as it annoys me that my adoption support base is full of people who think that praying is as if not more important than therapy, I am also completely aware that if they weren't adopting, there aren't exactly other people who would step up to the plate. I think, as we have more and more people leaving religion, this may not always be the case, but for now, there are things that Christians are doing in droves that other people simply aren't doing. According to the NYTimes, almost 85% of the soup kitchens and food pantries in America are run by churches. Those numbers speak volumes into the good that the church is trying to do.
No Longer Religious - This is more of a plus for the non-religious, but sometimes missions work causes people to actually question their religion. I know I seriously struggled with the idea of healing and after my trip to New Zealand. (see Part I) My mind returned to the issue over and over as the years went by. It wasn't the reason I lost my faith, but it most certainly was another straw. Daniel Everett traveled to South America to preach to the natives, believing all sorts of things about the nature of humans and the power of God, and it was the natives who showed him there was no need for such beliefs. His story is not a one off either. So even though I think there are both good and bad aspects to missionaries, I think one of the positives is how it forces people to confront what they actually believe.
This is a personal, but secret, blog archiving my deconversion from a Christian to a non-believer.