Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Short Term Missions: A waste?

Ok, I'm going on the record, most short term missions trips are a waste.  

I am tiring of explaining to short term missions agencies and groups that when they say "we want to serve you" what they mean is "we are coming on our terms, our time schedule, our choice of age (often too young) and spiritual maturity (never a consideration -- evidently ministry in our community is viewed as something anyone can do. . . ).  I have spoken to at least one group each week over the past 2 months that want to come and "serve".  They have money, they have people, they have time. .  .  but they haven't a clue about how they come off or about our community. 

The average group wants to come and save our neighborhood (they say "serve" but I know better). Yet, they have no intention of long term relationship.  They have no cultural understanding of the community.  At the first sign of trouble they run out of patience because ministry here isn't "efficient".  Meanwhile at home their church is vigorously praying for their safety (and NOT for the community they are coming to save, evidenced by the fact that as soon as the students leave, the prayers and concern stop).  They appear to think they are better than the residents of our community.  They give the impression they think Jesus shows up with them and leaves with them. 

They think they are needed to give and have no clue how to receive, nor that they need anything from Christians in our community.   They seem to have no clue how much work it is on our end to host them.  

Think about this reverse portrait:  how about your group stays home and sends us the money you were going to spend coming here?  We'll pack up a van and show up with our kids and serve you!  We'll run a program for the kids in your church and tell them about Jesus and assume that they've never heard about him before.  We'll just ask that you let us go around your neighborhood drawing kids from random homes, we'll use the name of your church to get kids to come out.  We will use cultural expressions of music, language, communications style, social mores and others that are from our neighborhood -- making the assumption that to be effective we'll just do what is natural in our neighborhood.  And if you have time to tell us a little bit about the people who live in your community before we serve them, that would be great, but we don't really need to know. .  we'll just work off of our (mostly negative, patronizing) assumptions.  

The amazing thing to me is this:  virtually every missionary I have ever spoken to who is honest about short termers feels this way, but for fear of alienating home churches they don't say it out loud.  

Another element of the scandal:  many short term missions groups MAKE TONS of MONEY off the groups and don't give that money to the communities they are serving!  It's gross.  

So can short term missions be effective?  Yes.  First, find a permanent fixture ministry in a specific community and get to know them.  Second ask them if they have the time/capacity to teach you about the community.  Third, listen a lot (including reading books, watching movies, eating the food, listening to the music).  Fourth, through #3, learn!  Fifth, fall in love with the community.  Six, enter into along term relationship with the community THROUGH the permanent fixture ministry.  

Ask them HOW you can serve and WHEN they could use you.  And be patient, if they are any good at what they do it will be difficult for them to get you involved!!   Only a process like this will work out a way of being effective in service.  It is way too easy to serve badly, self-righteously, ignorantly.  Those who remain in the community need you, but you need them too -- especially to minister effectively.  

I know this probably sounds a bit tough, but as my pastors says, "It's tight, but its right!"

Retaining "Minority" Students

Each year as I speak at colleges (usually white evangelical institutions) about things related to urban ministry, the topic of racial diversity, or the lack of it, comes up.  

Occasionally -- often in fact -- school administrators tell me how hard they are trying to recruit and retain students.  Usually this means that a couple of people on the staff with a passion for it, sometimes under the direction of a school president who shares this passion, are working with recruitment and student retention.  

The numbers are staggering about how few minority students make it through.  The Urban Educational Institute says that only 2.5% of Hispanic and African American boys in Chicago will complete a 4 year college degree by the age of 25.  When you consider that this includes a VAST majority of such graduates making it through state schools and HBCUs, private evangelical institutions are failing abysmally at successfully providing education to about 25% of our country - most of whom come from higher than national average religiously committed communities.  

These schools are often in close proximity to an urban area that has much higher percentage of Hispanic and Black residents. Yet they are very white institutions graduating even whiter graduating classes. 

Next week I will be speaking with a faculty group about this issue.  Because it has funding implications for these schools it is a high priority.  I'll share some thoughts and invite your comments.

At the heart of the issue are a series of things all of which come back to what the institution understands and values.  

  1. Culture-blindness.  The institutions neither understand, nor value Black or Hispanic culture.  They might even dress up some of the worship or school's art exhibits but beyond this they rarely go out of the way to learn, value, appreciate or celebrate the culture.  Students often feel not just "not valued" but often devalued.  The institutions often think they are culture or color neutral, which demonstrate the collective blindness and lack of understanding. 
  2. Sense of Safety.  In my experience when one crosses cultural boundaries it leads to feeling unsafe until one begins to understand the culture -- truly speak the language so to speak -- or perhaps when a truly trustworthy person acts as an ambassador in a highly personal way.  "Where should we go on vacation?" for a white family is a very different question for that of a black family.  Whites, as the dominant culture assume the whole country is fair game, safe, approachable. .  . except for urban neighborhoods possibly.  But students from minority communities are likely to feel unsafe in a cornfield, where many of these institutions exist.  The cornfield example is just one of many I could highlight. . . but this gets back to the lack of understanding that most white institutions exhibit.  Good intentions don't overcome this.  Inside the institution there are many, many other things that are prone to create a lack of sense of safety, a discomfort, a distrust.  This discomfort or fear makes staying focused on school a huge challenge. How long would you stay in a place where you fear you will be treated unfairly, you feel discomfort, or sense there are lots of unwritten rules no one is sharing with you?
  3. The lack of cultural interpreters.  These institutions usually have precious few people who are around (classrooms, athletic fields, lunch rooms, hallways, dorms, etc..) who can help Black/Hispanic students understand, laugh about, negotiate, and express healthy anger about the context they find themselves in.    This has to do with economics as much as race.  The cultural jump from a low income household to a middle class or upper middle class school environment is as tough as the racial span. 
  4. Lack of retention of minority faculty.  
  5. Lack of minority leadership.
  6. Lack of sacrificing sacred cows. 
  7. The donor base. 
  8. Racial and Cultural isolation of faculty.
  9. Theological and Sociological arrogance. 
I would love to ask those of you who have braved this territory a few questions:

1.   If you as a minority made it through, what was the thing that helped you most? 
2. If you didn't, what was the biggest factor(s)?
3. What is the thing you find most troublesome about your experience?
4.  Want to share a crazy story?