Mission and Helping, Not Hurting Those You Serve
In several short weeks thirty of the Pinnacle Presbyterian Church Senior High Youth and their leaders will travel to Chicago for their summer mission trip. They will be staying at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago. Their week will be filled with opportunities to learn about and serve with a variety of organizations in the Chicago area that are fighting hunger and homelessness and poverty.
For most of the youth, particularly those who have gone on the trips before, these are highly anticipated events. It is a chance to visit a new place, to spend time with other youth with whom they are close friends, and experience the bonding that can only come with sleeping, eating, and serving together over a week. For many youth, these trips are a fundamental part of growing their faith.
Along with the excitement and fun there are important building blocks for understanding mission work.
Churches and mission groups need to think carefully and wisely about what they are doing and the communities they are serving. Both in terms of our own theological underpinnings for why and how we engage in mission work, and in terms of understanding our own stereotypes and projections about poverty and the particular communities that we serve with.
Important theological basics for doing mission work include understanding that opportunities like this aren’t just trips or opportunities to get school required service opportunities. Doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly in faith with God are literally what we as people of faith are called to each day of our lives. It is also important to understand that we aren’t bringing God to the places we go- whether they be here in Phoenix, the greater U.S., or abroad. God is already there. It is our job to discover that and to participate in it. Additionally, our service is a chance not to do for others but to serve with them. I love this quote that I discovered that I think names that well: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Important understandings about alleviating poverty in the places you are going include a thorough understanding blind spots and prejudices we bring with us in addition to knowledge of that particular community. Both of those are key to recognizing that not all helping is helpful and that sometimes the unintended consequences of rightly motivated efforts are long lasting for the communities we serve with. There are several good books on exactly this. “When Helping Hurts…How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor, And Yourself” and “Toxic Charity, How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse it) are two good resources.
In his book, “Toxic Charity,” Robert Lupton writes, “Yes, many of our motives are noble. We want to invest in the lives of others. We want to expose adults and youth to the needs of a hurting world. We want to engage people in life changing experiences. Some of us are motivated by the teachings of Jesus…Often though, we miss the big picture because we view aid through the lens of the needs of our organization or church- focusing on what will benefit out team most-and neglecting the best interest of those we serve (pp 15).”
It is important to ask – and keep asking – thoughtful questions before and after you dive into helping others. It can often mean avoiding harm for us and for those we serve alongside. It can also mean that we have a more lasting impact.
Please pray for our youth and their leaders as they prepare for their trip ahead!
Basic Theological Understandings of Mission Work:
- Part of being on a mission trip or serving in the community is letting go of your own comfort
- God leads us into service. We do not “bring God” to the places we go. God is already there. There is no place we can go that God isn’t already present.
- Everyone has been given gifts to use for the common good. Your job is to discover how your gifts can be used in any given situation
- Mission and service are not about a “trip” or a “service opportunity.” Justice, kindness, and walking humbly with God are how God calls us to be in the world
- Jesus’ light resides within you. It is your job to share that light
- Our faith includes being pushed out into the wilderness (to the unknown) by the Holy Spirit
- Each time we give our gifts away the experience changes how we live. Giving ourselves away in the name of Jesus reshapes us.
- There is no place that is beyond God’s reach for hope, love and transformation.