In communities around the world, participants in short-term mission trips pour cement, teach children English, provide medical care, and serve meals, seeking to “serve the poor.” Like many tourists, short-term missionaries seek new experiences, personal transformation, and a broader understanding of the world. A number of scholars examining the short-term mission phenomenon have drawn on the substantial theoretical work on tourism to understand and explain the experiences of these travelers. Yet short-term missionaries, like pilgrims, adamantly differentiate themselves from tourists, claiming a greater authenticity of experience, both in their relationships with those they seek to help and in the spiritual benefits they feel are gained by the effort. Based on several years of ethnographic research among an American congregation working in the Dominican Republic, this paper explores the ways in which short-term mission participants envision themselves as distinct from other tourists through the volunteer work they do.

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