Something that was preached to me when I was younger: “Give a man a fish, and they’ll eat for a day; Teach a man to fish, and they’ll eat for life.” If you know me, I would usually buck at this, but there is a concept of dignity in service rooted in this statement that I have come to wrestle with, primarily when my students serve.
I see three reasons for mission work with students:
- To enable them to see the church of Acts 2 available to all.
- To meet the needs of people and ensure they have access to the community that Jesus wanted for all he met.
- To teach students that what overage we have, we give.
Within all of this is the requirement that we remember we are helping grow their community and becoming part of it, AND we must give dignity to who we serve and not do something for our own glory.
The Church for All
First, I recognize that we serve other churches in mission work at times – we partner with them, help them build up their ministries, and help them realize their goals. For example, earlier this summer, I took students to reconstruct a ramp to access a food pantry in a church building and install shelves for organization, because this church stands as a beacon in their community as more than a place for Sunday worship, but a place to get diapers, wipes, shampoo, Ramen, greens, and more. They needed safe accessibility to move products into the building and organize for more inventory. We did the work to make sure what they have is typical for the community, but we did it on their terms.
We didn’t tell them what was needed; we asked them where they wanted from us. They told us. Were there other needs we noticed? Yes. Did we ask before doing them? Also, yes. Our responsibility was to know that they were the ones that this project was for – we were giving them the tools to fish because we wouldn’t be there to help them fish later. We were just the workers allowing the community to be reached.
Second, we specifically look to help groups that are meeting the needs of the community. We have built ramps so that people can safely leave their homes, fixed roofs for them to safely live, and done yard work to protect them from insects and rodents. However, all of this is based on doing work that allows the community to be accessible. We do this because Jesus’s work was ensuring everyone had access to the community. It also means that we cannot do anything that replaces parts of the community. We cannot come in and hand out goodies to kids who usually choose toys at the local toy store. We do not create our bags of food and hand them out; we partner with the current pantries that already exist in the community to leave anything that can be used with them. We do what we do to ensure that we are spending locally, supporting local, and extending ourselves where we may not get the hug because it’s not about us.
Giving it Away
Third, we teach students that what we have in surplus should be shared. I serve a church that most would recognize is affluent, and yet, sometimes, our students do not realize their affluence. The work we do is impossible for our students not to see that we are in a place of privilege. And we have constant conversations about systemic issues that we can help address within voting and calling our representatives and ways we can work to better lives for everyone, to bring heaven a little closer to what we know here on earth. We also do projects that help them understand what they are witnessing and what causes it. In our recent mission trip, we had the opportunity to send a small group to Community First! In Austin, which is a planned residential community for people who have experienced homelessness for a year. They saw a playground, and they realized that people experiencing homelessness are not limited to the narrative they learned. They saw that the community offered healthcare, mental health care, and more. They are beginning to realize, especially in talking to a few, that when you experience homelessness it could be something as simple as you lose your job and even one missed paycheck. The realization that some people never had “overage” or that there is the option to “blow the budget” is eye-opening.
After the Trip
As an added note, part of my youth ministry theology is leaving space to discuss and decompress. For example, we had been driving around Austin, seeing tents. I realize that, come September 1 in Texas, they won’t witness it. But, another adult in our group came up with a project to discuss why tents exist and, more specifically, the purpose of protecting people from the wind and rain when they cannot afford an apartment or home.
Every good mission experience whether at your church, in the community surrounding your church, or when you go and visit another community, we learn about what is happening in our world and how we can continue to support the work that is being done. For my young ones, it usually involves holding playdoh and talking. For older ones, it means sharing what they have experienced and learned from their new friends in front of the church. There is a call to action that must follow them after. So, we spend each night in prayer. We remember the names of the people we met; we tell the stories so we do not forget. We write thank yous for the privilege of serving because they invited us into the community, and we must honor that we are all that much more connected now. We take photos of friends we’ve made, not circumstances we’ve witnessed or where we think we’ve helped improve.
The truth is, a mission experience that offers fish to either side instead of tools and teaching of how to fish will fail. I have been on a trip where the fish were handed back to us, and we did not gain insight into how to better use our tools. We congratulated ourselves on our backs for eating pancakes and offering what we thought were needs. It turned out, we came back with fish that dried up before we could consume, and a longing to be handed fish again. We didn’t build a relationship to thank people, we didn’t work to embrace community or extend it. If we do not come back with new understandings of our tools, or learning of a greater God, we have served our own ego.
All this means, when we mission, we honor the dignity of the people we are serving by saying thank you for their sharing and realizing that while we may have done a “thing” that enabled people to be more fully in the community we visited, they have also helped us to understand and be more in community within the arms of Christ.