In 2016 I embarked on my first religious mission trip to Iquitos, Peru.
I didn’t know what to expect. I was told that I could pack three simple outfits in my suitcase for the week-long trip and be okay because “most of the people living there wear the same clothes day after day.” Red flag number one.
Weeks leading up to the trip we were given small “tips” like this. Don’t bring this, don’t wear that because you are going into an impoverished community.
The first day we visited a group home of girls as young as 9 years old who had children of their own due to the pedophilia issue that runs heavy in Iquitos. We gave them blankets. We painted boats to be used for the organization. We put together food packages composed of rice, beans, and corn meal for several families. The food was only enough for a day and a half.
Most of the time spent was conducting a Vacation Bible School in the middle of an empty soccer field. Surrounding this field were the homes of many children made entirely out of wooden sticks. Their bathrooms were holes that had been carved out of the sticks or purposefully spaced out. They would then relieve their human waste right below their home and for many of the children, their playground. Their beds were scraps of clothing to lay on top of the sticks.
Yet, at the age of 16, what stood out to me the most was that these were the happiest kids I had ever seen in my life—running around without a care in the world. They didn’t know what was on the other side. Many of them had never even seen Black people before.
We taught them songs, played games with them, shared biblical lessons for hours a day.
I watched as my youth group members connected with these children so easily while I found myself hesitant to form even the slightest action that could be misinterpreted as a connection. I was not trying to get any of these kids attached to me and vice-versa. I was leaving in a week.
We took pictures with the children, got their hopes up, and then one day, we left and never looked back. One day, they came back to the very site we told them to meet us at for three days but didn’t hold our end of the bargain.
I can’t help but think that for one kid, our presence gave a false sense of hope that we were there to “save” them from their living conditions, and we are 100% to blame for that.
We did “good,” right? We gave out food, we taught people how to pray, we spread the gospel rolls eyes. Five years later, as I step into the field of international development, I now understand that our presence may have been more harmful than it was good.
In reality, what did we leave these Peruvians with? We did absolutely nothing that was sustainable.
From that trip, I will say that the founder of the organization we worked with, the People of Peru Project, stood out to me more than anything.
Here was a man who moved his entire life to Iquitos because he understood the true meaning of development and that the work had to be done on the ground, not from afar or through one-week trips.
All experiences are an opportunity to learn from. I’m thankful that I was able to embody the role of a missionary for one week, so I could share why I am heavily skeptical of mission work today.
I believe in sustainability. In creating systems that locals in any community worldwide will be able to continue WITHOUT the presence of foreigners.