On being all there

I can smell the woodpile outside our house burning. The accumulation of dried brush, old leaves, and a tree felled a few months ago. The bonfire crackles in the smoky, damp evening, and suddenly, my stomach lurches, and I’m flung back across the ocean, across time, to Indiana cornfields. To pumpkins and to leaves so flaming bright it turns everyone giddy, as they decorate themselves in scarves and their front porches in scarecrows and ghosts and jack-o-lanterns. There are no real autumn colors here in South Africa, where I live. There is a difference in the air, though, come fall. It turns crisp; there’s twinkling frost some mornings, and the beginning of bright, blinding blue sky days. And just like that, I’m lurched back to the present, to the bonfire and my two children running back and forth to toss new twigs onto the blaze.

This happens to me often, having grown up between two countries in two different hemispheres. Christmas memories of snow and jingle bells. Christmas memories of sprinklers and watermelon. Christmas memories of laying in swimming pools while dreaming of ice skating and snowmen. It all reminds me of Christmas. 

And because it was my childhood, it’s mine. I’ve always had the blessing of experiencing both realities, and always had the accompanying ache for whichever world I’d left. Laughing at a Thanksgiving full of friends and roast chicken in South Africa one minute, then pausing at the hitch in my throat, thinking about real turkeys and all my scattered extended family gathered in the U.S. without me. Feeling nostalgic at Easter for the three-day long isiZulu services full of music that were my childhood, while also feeling relieved that our American church services only last an hour before the egg hunts for Reese’s peanut butter cups. 

I remember a saying, growing up: “Wherever you are, be all there,” attributed to Jim Eliot, Patron Saint of Intense Missionaries. It was said to the new arrivals, as a way to help them accept their reality. Build new relationships. Practice gratitude. Cut the never-ending, whiny comparisons. And there was a bit of self-righteous holiness to it, as well. The good missionaries sacrificially adapt, giving up the familiar world for the new one. Pack your clothes in your coffin. Burn the bridge between your world and this one.

Turns out, I am not a good missionary. I am just a missionary’s kid. Growing up in the 90’s in South Africa, we had pen-pals, expensive international phone calls, and even more expensive screeching dial-up internet. I left for the States right as video calls began, and by the time I returned to South Africa with my Minnesota husband four years later, we all had smartphones. The internet in our pockets, the promise of a permanent bridge between the worlds.

This bridge holds so much potential to connect us. But over time, we’ve found that it also divides. My grandmother knows how to Skype, so my kids know who she is. But my husband’s grandmother, Renee (Nay Nay), wasn’t as capable with technology, so she remained a photo in a photo book. When interacting with screens, my kids still prefer Youtube videos of trucks and pressing the shiny, red “hang-up” button more than they enjoy talking with their overseas family. 

And then: a global pandemic. Suddenly, the bridge between the worlds looked different. My parents who live four minutes down the road were now locked-down and on a screen just like Minnesota Grandma. My son baked cookies each week with his cousin and Gran: one was in Indiana, the other right down the street. In lockdown, technology tethered us together, and suddenly it didn’t matter how many kilometers apart we were. Churches closed, and my scattered family could all stream the same service. At pandemic Thanksgiving, instead of gathered relatives passing our virtual faces on the phone right alongside the turkey, we each ate alone then had a massive group call with everyone’s virtual faces. We enjoyed this new level of connection, and yet we all thought it wasn’t enough. It didn’t replace a real touch, or the actual smell of Grandmom’s pecan pie, or the inside jokes and sarcasm that repeat themselves over a weekend spent together. This ache is familiar for me, but now I find myself with millions of other people all across the world, who have been shoved into dislocated pandemic bubbles, socially distant from the ones they love, all longing to hold, or taste, or gather. We’re all clutching this disembodied rope called the internet, homesick for something real. 

One night in early January, I was putting the kids to bed when my sister-in-law, Ann, called my husband in tears. With sobs catching in her throat, Ann told my husband that she had just watched their grandmother Nay Nay pass away over a video call. Nay Nay hadn’t seen the family except through the window of her nursing home since March. She was weeks away from receiving her second dose of the vaccine, and getting a real hug. The nurses had called my mother-in-law down to the hospital, but she didn’t get there in time. 

Ann had started a video call when the nurse told her things were looking bad. She had been sent to the ER for a complicated infection, not related to COVID. Reassuringly, the nurse thought she saw Nay Nay respond when Ann and her son started singing hymns and playing instruments, but minutes later she passed away peacefully. 

My husband, 8900 miles away, was the first one Ann called once she was certain her mother and aunts had heard the news. We continued singing hymns while waiting for my husband’s mom to arrive at the hospital, and then kept singing as we waited for different family members to join the call, the normally off-putting asynchronous zoom singing comforting everyone. My husband played guitar while we waited for the funeral home staff to arrive. Whether minutes away from each other in Minnesota, or time zones away on the other side of the world, the whole family was equally isolated and equally together due to the pandemic. It was an odd, precious gift, getting to be as present as everyone else, even though we were so far away. 

But it was not enough. 

I used to think that this feeling of homesickness I constantly carried could be conquered, silenced by being perfectly present in one place and shutting out the other. It doesn’t work that way. I used to think this feeling was unique. But now I know it’s not. Whether or not we live in a pandemic, in our own culture or as a guest in someone else’s, we all feel it, even when things are most perfect. 

The taste of Grandma’s sugar cookies welcoming me after stepping off a 23-hour plane ride, the joy of splashing in their backyard fire-hydrant as a child, the complicated secret language we created with our cousins, the baptisms, the weddings, the hugs, the road-trips with my siblings, catching glorious sunsets and armfuls of memories at the same time –shimmering just on the other side of these moments of deep connection is the spectre of grief. Time runs out, death still comes, reminding us  these things are “only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited,” as CS Lewis said. 

We’re all lurching back and forth between worlds. We are all homesick and unsatisfied, clinging to technology to cable us together, while longing for something permanent, something real: true communion, unending joy and connection. 

It’s never enough. It never will be. Not until every last one is gathered around a table as long as the outstretched arms of Christ, our bridge between the worlds.

The first American missionary was black

I only learned about this a few weeks ago. For most people, you’re probably like, “I don’t even know what a missionary is, so what if the first one was black?” But when you’re a missionary kid like me who grew up in church hearing stories of missionaries all the time, the fact that this was unknown to you throughout your childhood is kind of a big deal.

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credit: ebay

I grew up hearing stories about Hudson Taylor and the Judsons (I distinctly remember two-tone flashcard pictures to go along with these Sunday school lessons) who were missionaries to Asia. My parents were always good about colouring the flannel-graph Jesus in a little bit darker to be more realistic for the Bible stories, but we didn’t do that with the missionary stories because, duh, they were all from England or America (or Sweden) and all very white.  Continue reading “The first American missionary was black”

“Not in my name”: How injustice inhibits evangelism

In Christian communities (churches, missionary groups etc) there often springs up this debate about whether we should be putting funds and resources towards social justice issues or towards evangelism. Here’s how the debate goes, for those of you who aren’t privy to Christian internal disputes.  Continue reading ““Not in my name”: How injustice inhibits evangelism”

The Underbelly of being Radical: Guest Posting over at A Life Overseas!

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 2.40.00 PMA Life Overseas is a fantastic blog if you’re interested in honest conversations about missions. They talk about everything from emotional health, to finances, to the pressures of ministry, to language learning, to parenting, to Third Culture kids, to figuring out how to cook.  If I do say so myself, missionary kids have a pretty high BS detector when it comes to things shared about missions.

And this MK can tell you, the stuff they share is pretty solid.

I’m super honored to get to share a bit about “sacrifice stories” and accountability in missions today, and I’d love it if you’d click over to their site and leave a comment/join the discussion!

The Underbelly of Being Radical:

My husband and I both have college degrees and 4.0 GPA’s (okay, not exactly, David once got an A-, and I once got a B). We like to think we’re pretty talented and could do anything in the world we wanted to do. But instead of staying in the States and raking in tons of money, we decided to move to South Africa so I could work for a community development organization…for free. And we did this because we think that’s what Jesus calls us to– not the American Dream, but the excitement of laying down our stuff and living for him.

It sounds very noble and sacrificial when we tell our story this way. It’s a story people attribute to us, even when we don’t explicitly tell it that way. This sacrifice story is one I’m hearing this story a lot from missionaries, or people involved in community development work.

Head on over to A Life Overseas to read the rest by clicking here!

See you at the wedding

The old missionaries say that in their day, the 3 week boat trip was part of the grieving and transition process– the first half of the trip was spent saying goodbye to one country, and the second half was looking forward to the new. We’ve had lots of goodbyes this past week, and we’re looking forward for some time to process it all on Camino. In light of that, here’s something I wrote in the throws of all the goodbyes last week- not very edited or anything, since I’m sitting in Brussels right now about to get on a train to the start of Camino, but I thought it would be better if I shared it now rather than in a month.

We had our last day at Christ Church today.

We led worship with James. We practiced the night before, practiced the songs we’ve sung and played together for the last year. Songs that feel familiar, like putting on an old comfy jersey, but always new, because when I enter inside of them and really sing them, I’m always surprised at how I see the face of God staring back at me, like I’m a baby playing peek-a-boo. Of course I would see God, that’s the whole purpose, but it always takes me by surprise–like rounding the corner on the hill heading down into Sweetwaters, and the sun is shining bright green on the mountain and your breath catches in your throat and you’re hit with it like the first time you saw it.

Last night we finished practicing and none of us really wanted it to be over. Everything this past week has been the last: the last trip to the DVD shop (what a novelty, in the US, we’ll just stream everything online- much more convenient, but this guy actually knows our name), last time buying fresh bread from the Spar and slicing it while hot, the last time getting petrol put into our car at the full-service petrol stations.

And now the last worship practice. How many times had we dragged ourselves into practice after a long day of David chasing belligerent basketball boys and me getting headaches from computer screens, and walked into the strange dim light of the church, where James would be hunched over the piano, with just one light perched over the music, and sheets of discarded song selections scattered around the floor, hammering out songs till the air and the piano strings vibrated with glory.

And we’d start standing around the piano, tired and bleary, wondering why practice had to drag on so, and really the timing was just fine—but by the end we’d go home singing in the car, knowing it had been good.

And so after we’d picked out and practiced the songs, we sat around and none of us really wanted it to all be over, so we talked about the ethics of data mining, and all of our non-existent plans for the future, and in every awkward pause when someone needed to say, “Well, time for us to head out,” none of us did, because instead we managed to think of some new mundane thing to say that hadn’t been said yet.

And so this morning we sang in church, and heaven didn’t come down, but it was good. And then Pastor John called us up to be prayed for, and as we stood there and I saw the faces of the people who have supported and prayed for us over these past two years—people who have sometimes frustrated me, but people who have loved me and trusted me to sing, and to teach their kids, and have prayed for me and for kids in Sweetwaters. And it was humbling.

I think leaving is like getting cancer or some terminal illness. It’s a good thing to go through every once in a while. It reminds you why life is worth living and all those mundane people and irritating habits melt away when you step back a few miles and see what an impact they’ve made on you. It’s like the montage at the end of the new ‘The Giver” or “It’s About Time,” those mash-ups of ordinary, everyday moments that when paired with soaring music suddenly seem very wonderful and beautiful.

Like our going-away braai. It was raining (of course it was raining, this is Hilton, you can’t have a braai without rain), and so we all crowded into our almost empty cottage in folding chairs and ate off of paper plates and drank out of borrowed cups and there were kids running in-between people’s knees, and Zulu and English and Irish and American accents and utter chaos and lots of laughing.

Or the next morning when Kate and I sat drinking Milo while the boys played some stupid game and we all ate scrambled eggs, and then paid our whole bill in one Rand coins. Nothing special happened, there were no moving speeches or profound words, but the whole thing was profound because it was so ordinary.

And after we’d been prayed for, and after the kids had surprised me with cake and balloons and hugs up in Sunday school, and we’d sung the last song as everyone led out of the sanctuary, and David had strummed the last chord, we all looked at each other and that’s when it hit me.

So this is it.

It’s really over now.

 And it hurts like graduation day.

The day I graduated from college it was so hot I felt smothered in my long black robe, and it didn’t help I was running on about four hours of sleep because the day before had been filled on either end with seeing my family that had travelled all the way out to see me, and David’s family who had travelled all the way out to see him and me, and professors, and cleaning out the apartment, and the closing events for work, and honors, and departments… and all I wanted to do was sit around one more time with all my Taylor buddies at the Hayes house eating crappy pasta dishes made from the vegetable bits we could steal from the Grill and drinking budget Cola and talk about life and sports and predestination and what we were going to do with our lives.

But instead we were forced through these hot hours of pomp and ceremony, and when it was done, I hugged some of my friends outside the gym, then waved as they walked away and all of a sudden it hit me that this was it.

It was really over now.

This wasn’t just, “Oh, bye until next semester.” This wasn’t even, “Let’s see if we can meet up at Thanksgiving.”

This was it.

I was getting married and we were moving to South Africa.

This was the end of living three minutes away from all your best friends, the days when you could take naps in the middle of the day and then go hang out until 2am talking about American evangelicalism and whether Nacho Libre counted as a profound work of art.

And so I was walking through the hallway and I saw Felicia, one of my professors and friends, and I guess everything was written on my face because she opened her arms, her gown billowing wide and said, “Are you okay?” And I started to say, “Yeah,” but couldn’t even get that far because I was sobbing so hard. She sat me down and gave me a bottle of water and listened to my garbled mess of, “This is it and we’re leaving and I’m not going to see these people again and it’s all over.”

And she hugged me and said, “You’ll be okay. You’ll see them all at the wedding.”

It was true. And it was a comfort. In a month I’d see most of my friends at our wedding.

And I did see them and it was wonderful.

It was just for a day, but it was sweet. On that day I cried again, not because everyone was going, but because everyone was there—friends and family from South Africa and from America all in one place. It was wonderful, but too short. In a few hours everyone was gone.

Oh, but there’s going to be another wedding.

That’s the wedding where we can argue about philosophy for hours, and our South African friends can play touch rugby and then football with our American friends, and we can have a corner dedicated just to laughing so hard our stomachs feel like they’ve run a marathon, and Jesus himself will be there (like he always is when we do these things, but more real and lots more fun). And then when we’re tired we can all just eat and sit around and quoting Nacho Libre and Jesus and poetry to each other.

So that’s what I cling to now, again, when the world is shifting once more under my feet, and the tide is sucking me away from friends that have cooked in my house and then washed my dishes, sat on the trampoline talking about the ethics of acting in Les Miserable, let me hold their new-born babies, tolerated my rants and my chameleon accents, lent us furniture and helped us move, prayed David into a work visa and prayed me out of mono.

I don’t want to leave. I want it to be a normal Thursday night again where we’re dashing back up the hill to music practice ignoring the fact we’re 45 minutes late and moaning about how disorganized James is.

I hate saying goodbye.

So I guess I’ll say see you at the wedding.

The State of Western Missions, talking donkeys and a video

I am now an avid fan of the Phil Vischer podcast (creator of Veggie Tales and What’s in the Bible). I’m a fan for many reasons, especially because he mentioned Taylor University by name in his most recent podcast. He also talked about his uncle who left (abandoned??!) his wife and kids for three years to minister to cannibals in the middle of nowhere. And then this guy showed up again after three years, and his child didn’t even know who he was. Um, how is that ever okay?

So then that got me kind of depressed, thinking about all the missionary screw-ups there have been in the history of western missionaries. Like, the whole preach Jesus and not western culture we kind of mess up a lot, I think. And we try not to be too obnoxioulsy rich and white, but too often we are without even realizing it. (Read more on Between Worlds and Djabouti Jones. Yes, read them.)

And then there’s that whole actually listening to people, and honoring people thing that is a little hard.

And there’s so many things in the community development world, like TOMS shoes, that seemed like such a good idea at the time but actually turn out to be really un-helpful for so many people.

So then part of me thinks, why did we ever think this was a good idea in the first place?? People have so many good intentions, but good intentions aren’t enough, and we can cause more harm than good, so why do we rush around headlong into these things anyway?

BUT… then I think of those old men telling William Carey (one of the first Western missionaries to India) to “sit back down” because God could convert the heathen in India without his help… and how that’s also not okay.

And I think of the German church who didn’t do ANYTHING about Hilter because they were so paranoid of doing the wrong thing. So they debated and debated instead of taking a stand. Bonhoffer said “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” He chose to be a part of a plot to kill Hiter, and he believed in the radical grace of God that would cover his sin if he was wrong. It was better to act and “sin boldly” than to pussy-foot around and then miss out on doing something that could make a difference.

And then I think of the fact that God used a donkey speak to Balaam. A donkey*.

And he used Peter, who was constantly putting his foot in his mouth, and didn’t always get things right.

And he’s used my parents, who (I can attest!) don’t always do everything right but (I can also attest!) have done lots of things right.

It’s so crazy that God would chose to use people to accomplish his mission of reconciliation and redemption here on earth, when he knows that we’ll screw up and not get it right all the time. But his grace that covers the brokenness we are trying to fix in the world is the same grace that covers our brokenness. The only thing we really know for sure is that whatever “good thing” we’re doing in the world, we’re doing it wrong. Or perhaps imperfectly is a better word. But God can and does still use us. He chooses to.

So I don’t think we should just run out there and go try to save the world…but I also don’t think we can hesitate and nibble our fingers and debate best pratice for years. I think maybe we just need to be a little more humble. And not always assume that our ideas are invincible..they most probably are wrong. This position is called “intellectual honesty” in the academic world. It’s saying “After examining all the data, it  seems to be saying this….but I understand that I don’t see perfectly and I could be wrong.”  And I guess when we’re in that position, we’re quicker to listen to other people and change our pratices when they’re wrong. Which is basically humility.

And so, that is why I am going to share this video with you. I could stick my nose in the air and make comments about Western neo-colonialism and how even in trying to communicate the dignity and humanity of cultures we still have to use Western culture as a medium…but I won’t.

Because this video made me SMILE. And the concept (and the organization’s philosophy of community engagement) are pretty cool. So I’m just going to take it in the spirit it was intended and sing along. 

I hope you do, too!

(Click through and watch this, you people who get this in email)

(*also, talking donkeys were mentioned in the same light on the Phil Vischer podcast. Go listen). 

On Being Needy

 

Some of the cute kiddos I need to start learning from. :)
Some of the cute kiddos I need to start learning from. 🙂

I’ve been reading Kenneth Bailey’s “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes”. One of the things I’ve been struck with again and again is how humble Jesus is. Not just the whole incarnation God humbling himself to become a man thing. That was amazing. 

But even the kind of man that Jesus was is amazing. He was incredibly humble. 

 In the gospels we see again and again how Jesus puts himself in the position where he needs other people. He doesn’t barge in and fix everything (which, as God, he has the right and the power to do). He doesn’t snap his fingers and heal everyone. He asks the blind man, “What can I do for you?” He asks the crippled man, “Do you want to be healed?” He doesn’t impose his will on others (his good, pleasing and perfect will, I might add). 

He asks. 

 He also puts himself in positions where he genuinely needs other people. By doing so, he affirms their dignity. He asks Peter, “Can I borrow your boat to preach from? And can you keep it close to shore for me while I speak?” He asks the woman at the well  “Can you give me something to drink?” He’s tired and thirsty.  And he doesn’t have a bucket. He needs her help. It’s not some artificial ruse to get her to listen to his message. He’s actually tired and thirsty and he actually needs some water. 

Bailey quotes Daniel T. Niles, a great Sri Lankan theologian who says Jesus was “a true servant, because he was at the mercy of those he came to serve…This weakness of Jesus, we his disciples must share. To serve from a position of power is not true service but beneficence.”

This is a bit uncomfortable for someone like me who loves fixing things. I like being smart. I love having the answer. I love sharing my opinions. I hate needing help from people. I like doing things myself. Even when I’m in positions where I would genuinely need other people, I’d rather try it myself than have to ask someone for help–which basically is another way of saying I’m proud. 

It’s scary to think about in terms of missions, and community development. In both cases, we tend to think that the whole reason we are here is because we have something that other people don’t have. We have something they need (skills, education, the gospel, technology). We tell ourselves, “Oh, we’re learning things from the people in the community every day!” 

But… really? Do we really, truly think that way? Or do we just say that? Do we really, truly think that the people we’ve come to serve have something that we really need? And do we put ourselves in positions where we really need that from them?

Niles goes on to talk about how Christian missionaries and development workers have often gone “in strength”– with medicines, or new technology, or education– and in doing have stripped the gospel of it’s greatest power– it’s weakness and foolishness. (Not to “cultural-type”, but I think this is one example of why we need to hear the voices of the global body of Christ, since the point this Sri Lankan theologian makes is one I don’t often hear Western theologians making.)

As community development workers and missionaries, we’re pretty confident the things we’re offering will help people (otherwise I don’t think we’d be offering them). But if Jesus, who certainly had the best thing in the world on offer, could come in a position of weakness and service, could ask for real help from other people– we certainly should do the same.

So this is what I’m thinking about this week: 

  • What does the community of Sweetwaters have to offer me that I need to put myself in a position to receive? 
  • What can my friends offer me, that I have been too proud to place myself in need of? 
  • In what ways am I (or my mission’s agency, or my organization) insulating ourselves from needing the people we’ve come to work with? How are we supplying all our own needs rather than depending on the community?
  • What do my friends who don’t know Jesus have that I need? How am I unconsciously being proud in my emphasis on their “lostness” or “sinfulness” instead of humbly receiving from them? 

100 Paper hearts, answering emails, and other ordinary amazing things

So this is at Saturday Kids club, with my cutest ever friend...who knows she's so cute she can get away with anything.
So this is at Saturday Kids club, with my cutest ever friend…who knows she’s so cute she can get away with anything.

So, I thought I should tell you what I do with my life, when all the awesome people I work with are in Sweetwaters teaching Life Skills and being, well, awesome. (Read about the Life Skills program over at the iThemba blog).

Networking and Program support means I write a lot, I plan a lot, I sit at a desk a lot, and sometimes I get to go into Sweetwaters and have fun with kids. 🙂 Here’s an example of what a Tuesday might look like for me ( I have taken out the number of times a day I check my email, since that would get boring):

  • Get to the office and greet everyone personally before making tea. (It’s rude to just sit down and start working in this culture).
  •  Check emails. Correspond with upcoming teams and volunteers.
  • Write up a blog post for the iThemba blog (yes, the one I just told you to go read).
  • Design creative thank you letters for Running Club sponsors
  • Research articles and blogs on good development for our new up and coming interactive website.
  • Cut out 100 red paper hearts, print out 8 huge mazes, laminate 80 name tags for camp.
  • Laugh my head off at the funny things people in the office say.
  • Go to Mountain Home school in Sweetwaters to meet with the principal about our team coming in July from the UK. Judge the school’s 4th grade art competition to determine what mural will be painted by the team at their school. Visit Sbukisezwe creche to talk about the team’s visit with that teacher.
  •  Help with Thulani’s (huge!) Life Group in Sweetwaters: Play singing games with the kids, arm wrestle the tweens, then help with the review game as they go over all of the previous term’s lessons. Pour juice. Hand out chips.
  • Head home! 🙂

Some people have this idea that doing cross-cultural work overseas is some HUGELY amazing thing they could never do.They think people who end up working cross-culturally in a foreign country are some kind of sparkely angelic super-spiritual person they could never be like.

Well.

I’d love to say that’s true. But I think that pretty much everything on that list you’d probably be okay at. (Maybe cutting out paper hearts is a little tough for some of you). I will tell you it’s the BEST JOB IN THE WORLD, and I also work with the most inspiring, fun, crazy people (and sometimes I feel like I’m cheating or something because what I do is so fun, and my JOB is to be a part of this amazing organization, and aren’t people supposed to get stuck into boring desk jobs or something?) … but don’t put cross-cultural mission work on a pedistal and then claim you could never do it because you don’t have what it takes.

You probably do.

On the flip side, you may have noticed that every moment of my life is not holding hands with little children and playing in the rain and singing. A lot of it is pretty ordinary stuff that can get boring. Sometimes I don’t feel like answering a bajillion emails, or cutting ribbons or going shopping for food for visiting teams (my worst) or a bunch of other stuff that’s not my favorite. And this doesn’t cancel out what I just said about having the best job ever– it just one more reason that explains why I am normal, just like you.

And I am guessing that as much as I love iThemba there are probably other organizations and groups where you are that are caring for the poor, the widow and the orphan, and they are probably just as ordinary and just as amazing. So why are you sitting here reading this? You, too, could have an amazing, crazy, wonderful life serving God and doing life-changing things like cutting out 100 paper hearts…right where you live.

 

A World Where Short Term Trips Aren’t Needed

“But when we are honest, too much of the time our service projects cover up the reality that our way of life is what makes the service project necessary to begin with. In that way service projects don’t function to change the status quo, or even push against it, they actually function to maintain it. They are what makes it possible for us to continue to live in consumptive patterns that are destroying the ecology, social fabric and other people’s lives while at the same time telling ourselves that we are good, generous, compassionate Christians.

The best service projects tell the unvarnished truth. They don’t manipulate folks out of guilt. They don’t sugar-coat the root causes of poverty. They let people experience the impact of their way of life on others. And they provide hope for a way forward. That way forward doesn’t involve more projects, it involves new ways of living! It involves people with power and wealth laying it down on behalf of the poor and marginalized. As followers of Jesus, we should be about making a world where the Mother Theresa’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s have nothing to do. To the degree that our service projects can help do that, I’m all for it. To the degree that they help to obscure reality and maintain the status quo, they aren’t helpful.

This is where we, in the church, could learn a thing or two about community development. Often times church leaders, and youth guys who lead these churches, have absolutely no training in what it takes to transform a community from the ground up. We do service projects without thinking more deeply about how time, energy and money could be best used to help solve grass-roots problems. Too often, youth pastors unwittingly play the role of facilitator in covering up the ways we maintain the status quo. We aren’t asking enough hard questions about the root causes of poverty, both locally and globally. Until we do, we will be part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

(Quote from Michael Danner’s blog post “no saint’s needed” on Provoke+Love.   Thanks Sam for passing it along!)

This quote is really challenging to me, as someone who helps bring teams on “service project trips”. iThemba, as a development organization, is always trying to think about how we can “work ourselves out of a job”. How can we help create a world where our job is not needed? So I wonder… can we apply that to teams? How can we structure our trips and outreaches with local and overseas volunteers in such a way that they are challenged to change their lifestyles so much that their outreach trip will no longer be needed? A major part of that has to come from the sending organization itself (church, school, or organization). But I am sure there are things we can do from our side to help people start a journey of re-thinking how they live.

Maybe you can challenge the groups you work with to start thinking about how they do outreach?