How can short-term mission trips form part of a church’s long-term vision? How do they fit with the hopes and goals of those who receive the teams? These are two questions that All Souls Church, Langham Place have been working out through their partnership with the Mahalir Aran Trust, a home for vulnerable women and children in South India.
John Stott met Mercy Abrahams during a visit to India in 1994. “At that time I was running a home for destitute women. In my 2-roomed house I was supporting street prostitutes who had been rescued from brothels. I had 13 women with me – a 9 year old, some teenagers and others in their early 20s. ‘Uncle John’ was impressed, and promised to help us buy the first plot of land,” Mercy explained. John also suggested training the women in vocational skills, which led to the launch of screen-printing and sewing programmes. He then helped Mercy source other funding in the UK and subsequently to buy more than 15 acres of land. In 2001, John invited Mercy and her family to visit the UK and it was at that point that the relationship with the whole church began.
Mercy has since visited All Souls several times to update the congregation on how the ministry is developing and to thank them for their support. As well as inspiring and challenging the church through her testimony of God’s work through her ministry, Mercy has also taught on Christian responses to poverty.
So far All Souls have sent two short-term teams to India. The first group of 13 people went out in 2002, soon after Mercy’s first visit to the church. They helped build two hostels – one for women and one for children – and taught sewing and practical skills to the women. Following on from this trip, two women returned to the Mahalir Aran Trust as short-term mission partners, working specifically on developing the sewing training and handicraft production. One has since become a long-term mission partner with her own ministry, linking with other organisations in India as well as the Mahalir Aran Trust.
In 2010, a second short-term team visited. This group helped at the ICT centre, taught English, ran children’s activities, worked on the land, and produced the promotional video for the Trust’s website.
The teams have encompassed people of all ages, ranging from university students through to those in their 60s, both men and women, and a variety of nationalities. The opportunity to join a team is advertised widely in the church so anyone can apply. During the selection process, which involves a written application followed by an interview, people are asked to consider what skills they have to offer and sometimes individuals with particular skills are specifically encouraged to apply.
The team trips have inspired others from the church to visit over the years; some whilst on holiday, some to train pastors, and others have made contributions to the community by training the women and helping with language study. Most recently, one of the church counsellors visited India for three weeks to help develop the counselling services and advise on employing an Indian chaplain or counsellor.
As well as teams or individuals going out to India, Mercy’s UK visits have provided opportunities for members of All Souls with particular skills to engage with the work from UK: an HR expert was able to give advice regarding administration and job descriptions, an architect helped with the design of the proposed new church building, and the All Souls church manager helped Mercy think through the organisational structure of the Trust.
Jenny Brown, Senior Associate Minister at All Souls, shared the impact of these short-term trips on those who went: “All those who have visited as part of a short-term team would say that it was a life-changing experience – it changed how they look at life, at the global church family, and at the gifts God has given them. It stretched them in a way they hadn’t expected and they have become more involved on their return. Sometimes people discover new gifts or passions. For some, going to India opened up children’s work to them and they are now involved in regular children’s ministry in London. Going from a city centre soaked in materialism to the simplicity of rural India is a massive contrast – you can’t experience that and it not have an impact on you. It raises lots of questions and challenges to think through as Christians. Mercy has helped us with that, too.”
All Souls are committed to sending individuals going longer-term with mission agencies. However, they feel that the opportunity to use short-term visits to nurture existing relationships more than justifies the time and resources that they put into coordinating their own teams. Jenny shared: “It’s a great way of partnering with the global church, even for a short time, and it’s very eye-opening to live alongside Christians in a very different context to our own. Short-term is only a taster, but one of the benefits of sending short-term teams where there is an ongoing relationship is that it’s not just a one off, in-and-out tourist trip; there is much more potential to engage and build relationships. As a church family, sending teams to a partner we already have builds a growing relationship, rather than just being an event that happens.”