Good service trips need humility, respectfulness

Good service trips need humility, respectfulness (credit: Eunice Oh/) Good service trips need humility, respectfulness (credit: Eunice Oh/)
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I'm never comfortable when I tell people that I'm going on a service trip. There's no casual way to say that I'm spending a week of my time in a third-world country, blindly and boldly trying to help — whatever that means. Some people are bubbling with praise, anxious to reassure me that I'm doing good and saving the world. Others are not so sure. I know why they think this, and, in fact, I can't help but agree with them.

Service learning trips, especially those associated with churches or colleges, are inherently flawed, and it's hard not to feel like I'm feeding into that when I spend a week in Haiti.

From the inside, a trip like that is life-changing, impactful, and truly invaluable. Visiting overcrowded, underfunded schools makes you realize just how lucky you are. Hearing how much people do with so little motivates you to try harder to make the best of your situation. And the connections that you make, both with those that you meet and those with whom you travel, prove to be strong, lasting bonds.

But from the outside, society is sometimes skeptical of the true benefit of these trips. I've been asked if these trips make me feel superior, if I'm giving money to corrupt organizations, and perhaps most insulting of all, if I'm just participating in this trip for the résumé line. Is it really worth it, they wonder, to send fifteen students to Haiti when instead you could send all the money down by itself instead?

In moments of weakness, I find myself wondering the same thing. It is not, after all, easy to meet with people who have millions of dollars worth of need, and explain to them that we're here for a week to hand out money, or at least as much as we have. Here's $500, hope you can make that work, see you next year. It makes me feel guilty.

It's not easy to ride around in vans for a week, feeling like everyone who sees you drive past is wondering why you're here and what you're doing. It makes me feel like I am propagating a stereotypical image: idealistic college student who thinks that she can change the world but only ends up changing her profile picture, as The Onion cheekily wrote.

It's not easy to return to school and be swept up in life here, forgetting faces and stories and small tragedies that you encountered. It makes me feel ungrateful for the experiences and the impacts they made on me.

Service trips are wrought with complications. These things aren't easy to do and many of the things we see are not easy to witness. But no matter how uncomfortable and ungrateful I may feel, I will return.

Because along with all of that discomfort, there's a deep feeling of fulfillment that lays at the root of these trips. Part of the week is finding and recognizing your awkward moments, thinking about what truth lies within them and how to be a different kind of traveler.

To be the kind of person that does not advertise privilege, the kind that seeks to listen more than preach, the kind that gives respect and attention yet demands nothing in return, the kind that spreads a message of hope, not help. The kind that only makes promises that they can keep. The kind that does not trivialize anyone or anything. The kind that people would want to have come back.

Service trips have the ability to change lives, both on the ground and in the group. But without humility, acceptance, and most importantly of all, respect, the lessons of these trips will fall upon deaf ears, and the world will continue to question the merits of service trips.