Reflection on Mission Trips and White Privilege in the Las Fronteras Youth Program

BY: JOCELIN THOMAS, PROGRAM COORDINATOR AT ECM

ECM has partnered with the youth ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of MA to put on Las Fronteras, a high school youth program. This program explores issues of security and hospitality, strangers and neighbors, and privilege and disadvantage, through service learning opportunities in Massachusetts, facilitated conversations, and a trip to the borderlands between Sonora, Mexico and Nogales, Arizona.

The program has involved a cohort of seven youth, meeting for a series of overnight retreats and site visits in preparation for their pilgrimage to the borderlands in August of 2019. The retreats involve learning community organizing skills, exploring spiritual practices, building relationships across the cohort, and learning fundraising methods.

In March, the Las Fronteras cohort gathered in Brockton, MA for their fourth overnight retreat. The first night of the retreat involved rich community building and spiritual exploration. After playing a few trust-building games, the participants engaged in a spectrum discussion activity. This involved a spectrum on the ground from Yes to No. Participants were asked a series of questions about their faith, spirituality, comfort with being identified as a Christian, and more. This activity produced honest and vulnerable discourse about what it means to have faith and what spirituality can look like. We then embarked on a collaging activity around our spiritual autobiographies. We ended the night with an interactive bible study on John 2:13-17, using an activity inspired by the “Theatre of the Oppressed.” In the activity, the youth turn themselves into a statue representing the bible story. We had some interesting impressions of Jesus making a scene in the temple!

Facilitating this group of white, suburban youth as a person of color has been an interesting experience. I feel responsible for making sure each participant takes time to analyze their privilege and what their real reasons for going on this trip are. Is it rooted in a call to justice work? Do they want to learn about who lives in the borderlands between Mexico and the US, who wants to immigrate to the US, and how hard the process to get here is? Do they want to engage with justice work happening here in Massachusetts? Do they want to listen, witness, and learn? Do they just want an experience to add to their resume? Teasing these questions out and guiding people to find their honest reasons for pursuing this trip has raised some tensions. I’ve heard comments that are just a skip and a hop from a white savior complex, and the responsibility I feel to stop that train in its tracks and reroute is overwhelming at times.

In case you’re unfamiliar, here is a helpful explanation I found: “The ‘White Savior Complex’ is a dangerous side effect of many mission trips. We [white people] don’t realize that we love to play “savior” or Santa Claus, which is highly disempowering and even belittling to those being helped... Despite our good intentions, we’re actually promoting dependence rather than empowerment, perpetuating an unhealthy dynamic where the benevolent, rich foreigner is savior and the materially poor person is helpless.” (Michelle C, The Problem(s) With Mission Trips)

This mindset serves no one, even in the ways it may seem to at the very least serve white people. It allows materially privileged people (often white people, but not limited to them) to pat themselves on the back and feel good about the work they did, while not caring about or understanding the cycles they are perpetuating. I highly recommend reading the article in full, as the author outlines several reasons why short-term mission trips are ineffective, and how the only successful ones are the trips focused on listening, witnessing, and inspiring “us to become life-long learners, advocates for justice, better global citizens, and long-term supporters of organizations who are doing empowering, sustainable work.” (Michelle C, The Problem(s) With Mission Trips)

These are the hopes I hold for the youth preparing to journey to Las Fronteras. I hope the trainings we’ve done on storytelling and resonating have prepared them to listen with open ears and an open heart. I hope the exercises we’ve done on unpacking their privilege has prepared them to check their privilege and humble themselves. I hope the exposure we’ve given them of community organizing work happening in Massachusetts has planted seeds that grow into continued engagement with local justice work after their trip. I hope the spiritual practices and discussions we’ve led them through allow them to feel grounded as they prepare to travel, explore, and learn.