The generosity of Americans who wish to help others around the world sometimes comes in the form of short-term mission trips undertaken by groups of volunteers.

And a Birmingham, Mich., couple will visit First Presbyterian Church in Davenport later this month to discuss just how to make such trips more effective from two points of view: those who make the trip and from the perspective of the people being served.

Jack and Joy Houston will speak Sunday, Sept. 15 at the historic church at Kirkwood Boulevard and Iowa Street in Davenport. They have been invited by the church's ministry team for mission trips, which includes Cindy Kuhn of Bettendorf.

Kuhn co-founded Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Davenport after making her first mission trip in 2001, she said. (ReStore is a nonprofit business that sells used home furnishings, keeping them out of landfills and raising money for Habitat for Humanity-Quad-Cities' home-building efforts.) 

It was on church mission trips to Guatemala where Kuhn and other volunteers first met the Houstons. Jack and Joy are natives of Chicago, but they lived in the Central American nation of Guatemala for several years, hosting and orienting mission groups, translating for medical teams and writing for an English-language magazine.

The Houstons came to learn the importance of Americans responding to needs in ways that do not harm those being served.

"The teams need to be well-prepared, oriented in matters of the community and take an attitude of learning, rather than teaching," Joy Houston said. "Our hope is to reinforce the need for respect for the local culture and support for local initiatives that produce culturally appropriate, sustainable solutions," she added.

The Houstons worked for many years in Guatemala, basing their efforts on the principles that they endorse. After they were done with one project, a resident referred to the couple as "friends," not as "North American visitors."

Joy Houston has taken note of the current trend around the United States toward short-term mission trips. An Internet search of the topic yields many dozens of possible trips.

Volunteers come not only from churches, but also from the health and medical community as doctors, dentists and nurses try to help others in Central America, Africa and other locations.

Because they were long-term residents of Guatemala, the Houstons witnessed the unfortunate effects of efforts by well-meaning Americans, including these examples:

  • One popular project is to construct latrines in a village. But after the Americans have left, the villagers may use the latrines as sheds and go back to their former behaviors, including contaminating the soil on which food is also grown.
  • A surgical team visited a village and offered good medical care for a short time. After the Americans left, there was conflict as native doctors and others felt their work went unrecognized. The local hospital dealt with surgical patient complications, which was made more difficult because they didn't work with the U.S. doctors in the first place.
  • A mission team built a community center, not knowing about local conflicts and tensions concerning the project. The center remained closed and unused afterward. 

"It is so important for team organizers to do their homework before landing in a place they know nothing about," Joy Houston said.

Kuhn said mission trip volunteers often gain a sense of accomplishment, but, she added, the key is whether the work positively impacts the people meant to be served.

When they are in the Quad-Cities, the Houstons will help others plan a purposeful mission trip, she added.

While people may help others in many places and in many ways, "we don't always prepare ourselves as well as we could," she said.