Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Meet Monica: A Challenge to Traditional Notions of Mission

I went on a mission trip with a group of youth and adults to Wolfe County, KY from June 10-16. Wolfe County has a population of about seven thousand – over 99.2% these are White. I am sure I helped to double the Black population in Wolfe County during the period that I was there! We spent a week with the Appalachia Service Project (ASP). ASP is a Christian volunteer organization that provides housing services to low-income families living in Central Appalachia – specifically in the states of Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Volunteers repair the homes of families in these rural communities.

We stayed at the Bethany Christian Center in Campton, KY, and each crew – of about seven – were dispatched to their job site every morning. My crew was known as the “Babysitter’s Club.” I am sure this name was derived from Monica’s occupation. Monica, the wonderful lady whose house we repaired, babysits for friends and family. On a given day, Monica could have anywhere between five and ten children at her house. She kept a close eye on the kids and also tried to instill moral values in them. These adorable kids played with us and offered a helping hand. I bonded with a 3-year old boy called Michael. Each time I crawled out on my belly from the bottom of Monica’s house - after hours of digging 2 ft by 2ft square holes and pouring concrete - Michael, who would often be keeping an eye on me, would run to meet me – his face beaming with excitement. While Michael was so comfortable and enlivened around me, some of the other kids gazed at me in awe from a distance. My approach toward them would, however, cause a retreat on their part. Monica, never afraid to express what was on her mind, would often say about those kids: “they ain’t never seen a black man before; they’re from one of them places”! We would all giggle at this statement, knowing, though, that there was an element of truth in Monica’s dissection of the situation.

Monica was a wonderful host. Each person on my crew expressed that the memorable part of the trip was getting to know Monica. While she was bugged down with the distraction of trying to keep her children in their place, Monica would still offer to give us a helping hand in our project. Despite being often turned down, Monica was insistent that we allow her to give us a helping hand. She would ask over and over again, “Is there anything I can do to help.” Being aware that she had her hands full, we would often say “no.” But a determined Monica would find something to contribute to our project. At times she would pull out the bags of dirt that we had accumulated from digging, giving us more room to dig. In the face of impending shoulder surgery, which is to take place within the next couple weeks, Monica would grab a hammer and beat the nails into our girders. Finally, when we had managed to get Monica away from getting her hands dirty with us, she would either go inside the house and grab her electric fan to cool us as we worked, or make a gallon of kool-aid; or sometimes even order pizza.

For the life of me, I could not understand why Monica would not just “leave us be” to do our work. Why could she not just be content with being a hospitable host to volunteers working diligently on her house? Why could she not concentrate on taking care of her many children and not interfere with our project? After days of watching a restive Monica, she made a statement that seemed to me a rejoinder to my poser: “I feel bad watching you all doing all that work and me doing nothing.” Monica wanted to contribute to this project.

Of course, I tell Monica’s story because there may be a profound pastoral or theological reflection that can be drawn from her story. Monica’s story, while not directly related to the church, has shed some light on an aspect of our traditional understanding of “mission” that baffles me. This was a “mission” trip, but one does not have to travel in order to do “mission.” Thus, most churches are involved in what they refer to as “local mission” – an attempt to reach out to people in depraved neighborhoods within the locality of the church. I tell Monica’s story, because often in our “missionary” work, we place people on the receiving end of the spectrum, while we do well to remain on the giving end of the spectrum. Of course, we are the missionaries, and thus, we have to give to these people whatever we planned (or should I say budgeted) to give them. These people on the other hand, as beneficiaries of our benevolent mission (or should I call it missionary zeal), should allow us to do our ministry effectively by receiving whatever we planned (or budgeted) to give them. Notwithstanding, churches – especially affluent churches trying to reach out to impoverished communities within their locality – have to reexamine their traditional conception of “mission.” I say this because the result of placing people on the receiving end of the spectrum, while we remain (or work hard to remain) on the giving end of the spectrum is that we create invisible boundaries around us. These invisible boundaries prevent people that we have placed on (or pushed to) the receiving end of the spectrum from ever feeling that they can fellowship with us. Needless to say, we are often oblivious to these invisible boundaries because of our blind spots and our zealousness to engage in mission. We need to remember that it is extremely – very, very, very – difficult to be on the receiving end all the time.

Some people, even though they need the help we offer, do not always want to receive; they want to participate; they want to bring something to the table. Like Monica, they want to contribute. Most people – especially those in impoverished communities – increase their feelings of self-worth by being useful. The problem with our traditional model of doing “mission” is that we try to develop a relationship with people, but we tell them – indirectly or unconsciously – that they should not worry about contributing something to the relationship. We tell them to be leeches and feed off the divinely inspired vision placed in our hearts by God. Those of us who have been in any kind of relationship, whether with friends or lovers, know that a relationship cannot exist if both parties do not contribute to the relationship. If only one person contributes, the other becomes a parasite. If only one person is allowed to contribute, what we have is a hierarchy and not a relationship. Could it be that despite our stellar local missions ministries, we fail to draw people into our “open doors” because of the invisible boundaries that we have created around us – a boundary that says to people: “we have open doors, so long as you come in here with open arms to receive.” After much discussion with folk who are beneficiaries of churches’ local missions, I have discovered that people would very much like to enter our “open doors”; but they also want to be assured that they can bring something to the table. The challenge for us is whether we will be prepared and willing to receive whatever they have, even if we have millions and theirs is a widow’s mite.

We have to reshape our conception of “mission” that views mission as a one-way street. Mission is a two-way street, and we must begin to find ways to give people the opportunity to offer something.

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