Mission trips to foreign countries, whether to aid the local populace with infrastructure, supplies or anything else, usually share a commonality: religion. According to a story by the “Huffington Post,” around 1.5 million Christians annually go around the world to build schools, churches, and homes for individuals who lack what most Americans would think of as everyday conventions. Compare this statistic to 1965, when only 540 religious missionaries would annually travel abroad. This billion dollar industry has many questioning whether short-term mission trips are an effective measure, or only confirm religious beliefs previously held by traveling missionaries.
Ali Klima, a senior political science major at the University of Oklahoma, conducted several trips to Kenya, Africa, during high school in order to build an orphanage for local village children. Her experience through Juja, Nairobi and other parts of Africa helped her garner impactful relationships, but also exposed her to brutal poverty and violence. Klima sat down with me and discussed how, ironically, these trips made her contest her sense of faith and humanity in the world.
Garrett: How many times did you go to Africa for mission trips?
Ali: I went three times.
G: You went three times?
A: So, three separate summers, two weeks each time. The first time I went was right after my freshman year.
G: So after your first trip, you were like, “That was awesome, I’m going to do this two more times?”
A: Yeah. The first time we went, we got the land to build this orphanage, and the second time we went, the orphanage was built. So that second time we were there, we were just setting up the orphanage. And the third time we went, we had twice as many kids as we would ever thought we would have.
G: Oh, so it kept building on itself year after year?
A: It kept getting bigger and bigger. We have kids right now that go to six different schools across Juja. Juja is this little village about 40 miles north of Nairobi in Kenya.
G: Was the mission trip was in Kenya each time?
A: Same place, same organization every time. And the organization was “Upendo Kids International.” Upendo means “love” in Swahili.
G: Some mission trips are faith-based. Were you religious going into these mission trips?
A: I was. I wasn’t “in-your-face, read-the-bible” religious, but I did used to believe in God. And ironic as it sounds, going to Africa made me not believe in God anymore. You see all of these people who are just subject to poverty and they pray to God and nothing happens. These are the most strictly religious people in the world, and they think God is going to intervene and save them. But, you see people getting shot right in front of you. There can’t be any divine intervention. But that’s just my personal opinion. But when I went there the last two times, it wasn’t because of some religious drive. I just got to know the people really well.
G: What even made you question your faith?
A: Two really specific situations. The first time we went there, we went to the shopping mall in Nairobi, which is a huge metropolis area. Anyway, two weeks after we got back to America, that same shopping mall got shot up and like 300 people were killed.
G: By who?
A: Just by Kenyan militant groups. Kenya has only had it’s independence for like 50 years, and their government is super unstable, so you have all of these outlying groups who are competing for political control. They do these mass shootings to garner attention like any terrorist group would. There’s no divine power intervening on that one. There’s no reason those people died. There’s no reason to explain that. And the second situation was driving past the largest slum in Kenya, which is the largest slum in Africa, and we literally saw children kneeling on the ground, and they were shot in the head with machine guns. The bus driver was just like “Not look, we keep go.” They were completely innocent civilians and were just killed.
G: So what was the main takeaway from these mission trips besides losing a sense of faith?
A: I wouldn’t say that’s even the main takeaway. I would say it just opened my eyes to a different way of life because that’s the farthest I’ve ever traveled. The biggest thing I took from going to Africa was definitely helping the children, getting to know them and learning a little bit of Swahili, walking them to class everyday. It’s the little, simple things that really make their life. You’re only there for like two weeks doing your white intervention, social justice thing. I’m not pretending I made a huge, lasting impact on their lives, but walking them to school, going to classes, giving them supplies. It’s rewarding.
G: What measure do you think would be most effective at combating poverty and violent situations in foreign countries?
A: They would have to have a serious, sweeping, democratic reform, starting at the very highest level. You see a lot of infrastructure issues, and that’s coming from a very corrupt government. So, until that gets fixed, I don’t think there’s a lot of hope for a lot of Kenyans, and that sounds really pessimistic, but that’s just the truth of the matter.
G: Would you ever do another mission trip somewhere else?
A: I would, but I don’t think I would like to do it under a religious environment. Let’s not try to go over there and spread some sort of Western Christianity, but let’s give the people what they actually need, which are resources. Not religion. That’s what’s going to save them at the end of the day.