Just a few weeks before a fresh crop of short-term missions teams were scheduled to begin arriving at his church for summer work projects, New Orleans pastor Jerry Kramer described his mood: "tired, a bit fussy, but exceedingly blessed and privileged."
If Kramer is tired or a bit fussy, it's largely because he's spent nearly three years "living on the run and then the edge" after Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed his home and his Episcopal church in New Orleans' low-lying Broadmoor neighborhood in 2005.
Since then, Church of the Annunciation has been a constant relief outpost and a driving force in the revitalization of a neighborhood with 2,000 homes still severely damaged (see "Bottom up," Sept. 15, 2007).
If Kramer is exceedingly blessed, it's partly because his church has hosted thousands of volunteers from churches around the country that have donated some 150,000 hours of labor over the last two-and-a-half years. The pastor estimates those volunteers have contributed some $3 million worth of services to the city.
Kramer expects the church will host hundreds more volunteers this summer and recently told supporters "how far we've come by God's grace and your support."
As scores of other churches and missions organizations prepare for summer projects this year, they're facing down obstacles of their own and focusing on how to maximize their usefulness with limited resources.
A sluggish economy and rising fuel costs represent one of the steepest challenges facing missionaries around the world. Some missions groups say that higher airfares and a weaker dollar aren't keeping short-term workers from the field so far, but they are affecting the long-term missionaries who coordinate the projects for volunteers.
As the dollar's value has fallen overseas, so has purchasing power for American missionaries who depend on U.S. dollars even while overseas. Last year, some missionaries found their dollars worth 8 percent to 12 percent less than they expected, according to the U.S. Center for World Mission.
For missionaries like Phil Davis, that means the money he raised for working abroad isn't enough anymore. Davis and his family have served with World Harvest Mission in Prague for three years, and they have watched the dollar lose more than 30 percent of its value against the Czech crown since they arrived on the field.
Rent has gone up $664 a month, and items like a gallon of milk have jumped from $3.25 to $4.75 in a year. Davis recently told his hometown newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, that the family faces a $7,000 deficit and needs an additional $2,500 a month to make up for the exchange rate. "It's kind of like the frog in the kettle thing," Davis said. "It just creeps up on you."
Mission to the World, the foreign missions agency of the Presbyterian Church in America, recently lowered the amount of support their missionaries must raise by lowering administrative fees and health-care costs for long-term workers. But the organization warned those gains will be lost if the dollar's value continues to fall and called the economic downturn for missionaries "unprecedented."
For the International Mission Board (IMB), the missions arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the burden falls on the organization itself. IMB spokeswoman Wendy Norvelle told WORLD that the group's missionaries are fully funded by the IMB, but that "our missionaries are definitely feeling the pinch."
Norvelle said IMB tracks the dollar's value in the countries where missionaries serve, and the organization makes adjustments to missionary salaries to keep up with the cost of living. "But ministry dollars don't get adjusted," said Norvelle. That means if the cost goes up for budgeted ministry expenses like buying Bibles or organizing outreach projects, "the missionaries have to make a decision," she said.
While the dollar's value falls, the cost of vital resources like fuel continues to soar around the world. Missions agencies that depend on piston-engine aircraft that run on aviation fuel (instead of much cheaper jet fuel) have made drastic adjustments to cover the bloated costs.
Missionary pilot Dennis Freeland fills up his plane in Cameroon, West Africa, from a 55-gallon drum of aviation gasoline shipped from JAARS missions agency in Waxhaw, N.C. JAARS spokesman Arthur Lightbody told WORLD that the nearest place Freeland could buy aviation fuel in the region is more than 500 miles away-and costs at least $9 a gallon.
So every six months JAARS-which provides aviation and technical support to missionaries for Wycliffe Bible Translators-ships a 20-foot container full of 55-gallon fuel barrels to Cameroon. "And that's still cheaper than buying it in a neighboring country," said Lightbody.
Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), an organization with 52 aircraft serving missions agencies and nonprofit groups in remote areas, recently announced that the scarcity and expense of aviation fuel had grounded some of its flights. More than 150 airstrips are without service, according to MAF president John Boyd.
JAARS and MAF are both working to switch their fleets to aircraft using jet fuel, which costs about $3.50 a gallon. Both groups are raising funds to purchase new aircraft-like the newly designed Kodiak (see "Pilot project," June 9, 2007)-but say the projects will take considerable time and money.
While a sagging economy and rising prices are draining some long-term missionaries, they aren't deterring large numbers of short-term workers so far. Keith Bubalo, who directs global missions projects for Campus Crusade for Christ International, said: "I haven't heard one story of anyone not going because of increased prices."
Tony Arnold, spokesman for Campus Crusade, told WORLD that 1,321 workers are signed up for international summer projects this year and says that number is on par with participation levels for the last couple of years. Norvelle of IMB says she hasn't heard of drops in short-term participation either, and she says thousands of Baptists will go on short-term trips this year.
But for short-term workers looking to save costs, there are options: Thousands will work on domestic projects this summer. Arnold says 2,175 are signed up for stateside projects for Campus Crusade. Thousands more with dozens of other groups will work in areas like the still-recovering Gulf Coast, languishing Indian reservations, and needy urban areas.
John Bailey directs World Changers, a home missions project for the SBC. He says youth groups will travel to 95 projects in about 85 cities this summer to work on rehabilitating substandard housing. The organization works closely with community development organizations in each city to identify needy homeowners. "We don't try to reinvent the wheel," says Bailey. "We look to partner with cities."
Youth directors choose cities and projects for their groups, and most stay within a few hours of home, says Bailey: "It's a major decision by the churches willing to load up a van and pay $4.50 for diesel gas." (Some youth directors could save even more money and invest in local ministry by choosing projects in their own town or metro area.)
World Changers hasn't increased the participation fee for summer projects, though the cost of executing projects has gone up. "I wouldn't call it a crisis for us, but it is very financially tight," says Bailey. "We're running a tight ship."
As missions organizations and long-term missionaries tighten their belts, it's important for short-term workers to focus on how they can be most useful for the short periods of time they serve on fields. Norvelle of IMB offers this advice: "Go as a learner rather than a knower." That's particularly helpful when working with indigenous Christians in other cultures, she says: "What works here in America often doesn't work in a different culture."
Norvelle offers another piece of simple advice for serving well: "Go willing to do whatever needs to be done."
Campus Crusade's Arnold, a former missionary to Africa, says it's also important for short-term workers to serve in their own spheres before traveling to serve in another context: "Learn how to serve and witness in your own culture first, and then apply those principles to other places."
Arnold also emphasizes the importance of learning about the culture to which one is traveling, and aiming to minimize seemingly harmless behaviors that might be offensive. (This often takes good research and practice for short-term volunteers unaware of social mores in other cultures.)
Another way short-term workers could serve missionaries well is to consider going back or staying longer. This is especially important in areas that take more time and expense to reach.
Anna Baker, 25, worked as a teacher in Georgia for a year before looking into how she could use her gifts on the mission field. During an orientation with Wycliffe, she learned about the pressing need for educators to teach the children of missionaries on fields around the world. Some missionaries were even considering leaving the field because of the lack of good educational options for their children. Baker signed up to teach in Cameroon for a year and finishes her term in June.
Baker told WORLD it was difficult to leave her home and family for a longer period of time than the typical short-term trip but says it's worth the rewards. To those hesitant about committing to a longer period of time, Baker says: "Try giving yourself a chance to grow and experience missions, and try giving God a chance to use you."
'Tis the season
While the summer is often a convenient time for students to embark on short-term mission trips, opportunities are available throughout the year for all ages. The following organizations are among those offering trips stateside and abroad:
Campus Crusade for Christ International
Intervarsity Christian Fellowship
Mission to the World
International Mission Board
Teen Mania's Global Expeditions
World Harvest Mission
Youth With a Mission's Mission Adventures
(619) 420-1900, ext. 15
-compiled by Kristin Chapman
When Bernard Wharton booked a family vacation with Micato Safaris in 2006, his motivation was simply to see Africa-the animals, the landscape, and the people-in that order. But an optional humanitarian side-trip to Mukuru, a sprawling slum outside Nairobi, reversed those priorities forever.
Marketing consultant Lorna MacLeod founded Micato Safari's nonprofit arm, AmericaShare, as a way for travelers to improve life in Mukuru, where 600,000 villagers live jammed into 10-by-10 corrugated metal shacks and scramble to eat one meal a day. Hundreds of orphans live in Mukuru's streets, begging, stealing, or selling themselves to survive. Through Micato's Lend a Helping Hand safari extension, travelers are exposed to a world that might otherwise remain invisible. Many, like the Whartons, become involved in volunteer work there.
Micato and AmericaShare have linked vacations and volunteerism for 20 years, but the "voluntourism" trend is up. On trips organized by both nonprofit groups and for-profit firms, travelers combine sightseeing with humanitarian and disaster-relief efforts. For example, Globe Aware, a nonprofit, offers volunteer vacations in more than a dozen countries including Peru, Thailand, Laos, Ghana, and Jamaica. These one-week trips include in-country excursions, but also opportunities to volunteer in such projects as AIDS education, reforestation, solar/hydro construction, and orphan care.
About 40 percent of Americans say they're willing to spend several weeks on vacations that involve volunteer service, according to a University of California San Diego survey released in April. A 2007 survey by Travelocity, an online discount travel service, found that 11 percent of respondents planned to volunteer during their vacations, up from 6 percent in 2006.
Though "voluntourism" is increasingly popular, some established volunteer sending agencies such as the Peace Corps and Habitat for Humanity don't care much for the term itself. "When you say you're a 'voluntourist,' it can be perceived as minimizing the entire experience," said Kam Santos, director of communications for Cross Cultural Solutions, a sending agency that does not consider itself a vacation vendor.
Volunteer Service Overseas (VSO), an international development charity, has been publicly skeptical of some voluntourism groups, particularly those that cater to "gap year" students who take time off between high school and college to travel. Some "voluntours" turn out to cost thousands while featuring purposeless service projects, such as surveying an endangered reef that has already been surveyed many times.
Still, Santos said, voluntourism as a concept can be "a useful access point" for people who may not have considered volunteering abroad in the purist sense, but who become exposed to the idea in the context of a vacation. "Perhaps that will motivate them to explore international volunteerism further."
That was true of the Whartons, who followed up their visit to Mukuru by underwriting the entire cost of Harambee Home, a $100,000 facility that now serves as a community center and a place for AmericaShare-sponsored orphans to live when boarding school is not in session. Next month the Whartons plan to return to Mukuru to look at the possibility of opening a medical clinic.
The experience has been "like a love story between us and the people of Kenya," said Wharton, 54, an architect. "We love the fact that we can contribute and help. At the same time, the people enrich us so much."