How (not) To Post About Your Short-Term Mission

Have you ever seen a post on the Gram, Facebook, or on a blog or vlog that straight punched you in the gut?  

I have.  

You know…. You look at the picture and know what the copy is going to say. You start reading it and then have to re-read it to make sure you read what you think what you just read. Then you start down the comment rabbit hole. It just keeps going. And you start to look at who liked the picture and the comments to figure out who has already seen it, hoping certain people haven’t. And the knot in your stomach just keeps getting bigger. 

For me, most of the time when I have this experience, the posts have to do with people’s short-term mission experience. 

I get it.

You raised a lot of money over the course of a lot of days. You endured more vaccinations than you ever planned on getting in your life. You sat on a plane for a total of more hours than you have sat on a toilet in your lifetime.  You have talked about this to a lot of people over a long period of time. You saw things you have no words and no category for.

Now you want to tell your friends and family all about the experience.  And it is your responsibility to do that. But I want to challenge all of us with HOW we do that. 

The posts that punch me in the gut go something like this: 

“This is how they live. Can you believe it?”

Why is this hurtful? It communicates we think we are so much better than they are, and don’t you feel bad and sad for them? It communicates they are less than, that they should be ashamed for where and how they live. 

“This is _______. He has AIDS.”  

Why is this hurtful? In a lot of cultures, living with HIV is extremely shameful. It’s not something they openly share because of the outcast status it brings. Also… the most important thing about the person pictured isn’t their positive or negative diagnosis. 

“I will never eat rice and potatoes again. How do they eat this every day?”

Why is this hurtful? That what they have to offer is not enough for you. That they don’t have a choice. That is what is available to them, or that is what they can afford. 

“This ministry saves hopeless women from their hopeless situation.”

Why is this hurtful? You are inferring they are hopeless. In some cases, they aren’t hopeless.   

I remember seeing a picture of my friend with the words I AM A LEPER written across her. And although the other copy was super positive about how her life was changing because of an opportunity she was given, I couldn’t get passed the fact that my friend was labeled a leper for the world to see. But I know her, and she is so much more than a leper. And I am not sure she would feel really dignified if she ever saw that. 

Play that out for a second. Can you imagine the story she would tell herself, or the lie she would begin (or continue) to believe about herself? Nobody flies across the country to hurt someone. We cannot use other people’s poverty to further our engagement on social media. 

Can you imagine if someone published a photo of you and your most shameful disease, illness, or mistake was written over the picture? The thing that has made you feel unloved, unworthy, or that you just can’t seem to shake. I don’t know about you, but I want to crawl into a hole in the ground thinking about that. 

When we do this, we portray something called poverty tourism. We treat another person’s poverty like it’s a rare animal we saw at the zoo. An animal doesn’t care if you are talking about the color of their fur, or the way it survives. We can’t forget these are people. Actual blood flowing through their veins people. And we live in an inter-connected world thanks to the wonderful world wide web.  

So what do we do? 

We certainly don’t stop making posts and sharing stories. What I have found to be helpful is to filter the pictures and the posts by asking yourself one simple question.  When you go to make a post on social media to share about your experience in another culture or context, ask yourself this:

“If they (the person pictured, or someone from that culture) saw this picture and read this caption, would they be offended or embarrassed at all?”

If we filter every picture and post we make through this, our posts change from pity to empowerment. 

If we are serious about empowerment and restoring dignity, then let’s talk about the people and cultures we visit like they are worth our best words, and our best observation

Ashley Bohinc