Returning to India, Post 1: Service vs. Evangelism
Posted on March 1, 2013
In May, I will travel to India for the first time since 2001.
I was eighteen when I was last in Kolkata. I was eighteen, and I was there with a group of young missionaries. After that trip, which was cut short by my grandmother’s impending death, I swore I was done with short term missions. There were numerous reasons: I was sick of unethical evangelism practices, I was too old and too experienced a traveler to be involved with organizations that enforced such strict rules, I was skeptical of the evangelical Christian mindset, I had seen too many disturbing things done by eager young missionaries, I had had one too many power-hungry leaders.
Missions trips made me a global thinker before I was 18, but by the time I graduated from high school, I needed to be done with that kind of travel.
There was one thing about the trips I took to Kolkata in 2000 and 2001 that felt valuable, though: volunteering my time to serve people instead of trying to save them. I swore of short-term missions, but not travel, and not service trips.
Service trips are different from evangelical trips for countless reasons. Although they are often made up of people with shared belief systems, a service trip recognizes that the goal of a short term traveler should not be to convert an entire nation, city, or community for Christ. Instead, the theology of service trips is something like this: God is love. Jesus is love. The Old Testament and New command us to care for disenfranchised populations. If we truly love God and Jesus, then we should be active in our service to those who are disenfranchised. Short-term service trips create a practical link between belief and action; they also create a lasting impression on the person who is serving that should spark a desire to work to find long-term solutions to problems of an intense scale.
This May, I get to go back to Kolkata. My university’s service program sends small groups of students all over the world throughout the year in order to focus on what they call a focus on studying, serving, and sharing. As soon as I started working for the university in the fall of 2012, I asked to meet with the director of the program to volunteer my time. I told him about the travels I had done in India and Nepal as a teenager, and as an adult to places like Spain, France, and back to Nepal. I told him how much I appreciated the fact that the university’s international travel program emphasized serving people instead of trying to convert them. I offered to serve in whatever capacity his group might have available.
Imagine my surprise and joy when, just before Christmas, I received an e-mail asking if I would be interested in facilitating a trip to India in May.
Yes! Absolutely yes!
Now, as I work on making it through an intense semester teaching four different courses, I am preparing for India. Logistically, I am meeting with my team of seven students, waiting to be assigned a co-leader for the trip, and preparing documents to help my students understand a bit about the history of Kolkata and how to prepare for their time there. Intellectually, I am reading as much as possible by Indian authors, as my reading about India in the past has been limited almost entirely to Western authors and their interpretation of the country. I am also trying to navigate through the tricky territory of our plans to volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity, considering there are some intense and emotional allegations about the way they do certain aspects of their work. Spiritually, I am trying to remember to take the time to pray about the trip and meditate on scripture that will help prepare me for the spiritual and emotional rigors of being in Kolkata again.