Missionary says churches need to think W.I.S.E. regarding trips

Photo by Jeff Baughan Lori Frees was in Cambodia from November 2009 to March 2017 working with Resources Development International, which is based in Louisville, Ky. She also was a missionary.

PARKERSBURG — Lori Frees said she had an acronym for her mission work in Cambodia.

“It’s what churches sending groups to Cambodia need to think about during the planning period. They need to be thinking W.I.S.E.,” Frees said.

“W”“Is it wholistic?” she said. “Yes, I know holistic begins with an ‘H’ but then you have HISE and I haven’t seen that word where it applies to this,” she laughed, “so it begins with a ‘W.”

She added, “people who are about to make this trip, they have to ask themselves ‘is what we are about to do wholistic?”

Holisticism, according to merriam-webster.com, means “a study or method of treatment that is concerned with wholes or with complete systems.”

According to oxforddictionaries.com, the definition is “Characterized by the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.”

“I”“Is it inspiring?” she says. “Does it inspire people to set a goal to learn more, to serve? Or are you doing it to make yourself feel better?”

“S”“Is it sustainable?” Frees asks. “If you do something for a group of 20, is it sustainable if the group grows to 500? Or have you created more problems than you’ve solved after you leave?”

“E”“Is it empowering?” she again asks. “Are you empowering the people of wherever you go to continue on with what is done after you leave? Or have you created a dependency afterward which can only be solved by continual visits by outsiders?”

“You have to learn the culture of where you are going,” Frees said. “American culture means nothing to most other cultures. The appeal, mentality, methods and purpose are usually quite the opposite to what American culture is. You can’t swoop in and do things the American way and then leave. Sometimes, all you have done is create more problems for a village than help them. You need to do things according to their culture.

“The Australian church groups have a ‘service learners day of observing,'” she said. “They meet with the leaders of the village or area and listen and observe. It’s not weird, but it is different.

“They don’t come with an agenda as ‘we’re going to do this and we’re going to do that. We’re going to build this and we’re going to build that,'” she said. “There have been American groups who have come over and built churches which look nothing like Cambodian churches. And built them in ways where the Cambodians can’t repair them.

“And, and it’s a big ‘and’,” she continued, “if the Cambodians aren’t allowed to help they don’t feel like they have any ownership in the building. One group came into town and built a church and left without allowing the villagers to help. They built it like an American church and it didn’t have the functionality to be used constantly. The building eventually became a brothel.”

Another example; “an American group came in setting up wells throughout the area without knowing anything about the area,” Frees said. What was happening was the group put the wells into the Mekong River area, which Frees said was heavily contaminated with arsenic. “So they were creating problems which didn’t exist before.”

Arsenic poisoning has long-term symptoms including skin lesions and cancer. “If you’re going on a mission, know your land and culture.”

The land where Frees resided was not what one would consider “modern.”

“Peri-Urban, where I lived in Cambodia, was 45 minutes from Phnom-Penh. It had just had city water installed when I arrived there and didn’t have a paved street until I left, which was in the fall of 2016.”

The weather in Peri-Urban was “hot and humid just about year-round with slight relief in January,” she said. “There were about 300 homes centered around a lake and the Theravada Buddha Temple.

“This Buddha is not the typical fat Buddha everyone thinks of when you say ‘Buddha,” she said. “This Buddha is a tall, skinny Buddha with big ear lobes and eight arms.”

Frees said seeing the messes made and left by well-intentioned church groups, she wanted to be “a voice to share as someone who has been on the (missionary) field. That it is critical, even mandatory, to a have a paradigm shift in how churches do mission trips and how they support missions.

“I saw a lot of good intentions that did not apply to Cambodia and in fact, did more damage than good,” she said. “There was a church group which sent thousands of pairs of shoes to an area of Cambodia, at great expense, to distribute; thinking they were doing good. In fact, shoes in that area were only about 50 cents. Shoes were really cheap. So what they ended up doing, by flooding the area with free shoes, was hurt the local economy and put the people who made and repaired shoes out of business.

“They got their pictures of them distributing shoes in Cambodia and their ‘feel good’ pictures; like a lot of other groups which swooped in did their projects they decided they were going to do and left, not knowing what they had caused. You have to know the area you’re going into; does that area need what we feel like we are to do?

“Think about this,” she says, “think about it because it is the way a lot of things work now with social media. ‘If you can’t post about it, would you still do it? If no one knew you were helping, would you still do it?”