MISTER BIG STUFF, WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
Do you ever get bothered by pictures of young white people surrounded by little black children, whether American or African, as they send out stories and messages of their latest mission trip or urban experience? I’m all in favor of “best practices” when it comes to community development and ministry. I am in favor of a discerning and growing “cultural intelligence” while working in cross cultural contexts and across economic strata. This sounds a bit stupid but I, in a very simple way, am in favor of justice. That leads me to being against paternalism. Consequently, I am opposed to exploiting the poor for the purpose of fund raising, marketing, and publicity whether it be for the aggrandizement of my personal name or the enrichment of my organization. The bottom line in analyzing my behavior is of course love; to be continuously asking the question of myself and my organization, “are we, am I, showing love to the the very people I say I am trying to help.” The pertinent question is not simply how I feel about the people whom I serve but, “am I loving in the way I am trying to love?” This question should become intuitive for those of in cross-cultural and trans-social ministry. Sound confusing? Well, it can get confusing in the world of missions and ministry across ethnic and social lines, in the world of professional or semi-professional “helping” via faith-based non-profits, church mercy and ministry programs, and mission trips, etc. The confusion comes from several different sources. It is confusing because I don’t think there is such a thing as “missions” worthy of the Biblical name that isn’t resisted by the Devil. Part of that resistance is often false accusation, and resistance and anger from people with whom we are sharing the Gospel. Do you realize that no matter how well we do things some people still hate the truth, they hate the Gospel message, and therefore they hate us? Some of the resistance is internal, through inner self-doubt as to whether we are doing the right thing, in the right way, and for the right purpose. What makes this complex is the fact that all of us make mistakes and sometimes with the best motives we screw things up. Another complication is the criticism we are liable to get from others who are doing similar work in community development and urban ministry based on certain principles. Even if an organization or person might theoretically agree with the principles there is discrepancy and variation in their application across the ministry spectrum. Some people are what we might call ‘purists.” Frankly there are some who have developed a new legalism and it comes across in a judgmental attitude when it comes to an evaluation of others, especially novice workers, in the field. One of the principles of community development is learning how to listen to the people who live in the community, listening with understanding, and listening with empathy. That principle doesn’t mean we always agree with the people of the community. How could we if they say, “we don’t need your religion or works of mercy or good deeds (done in the name of Jesus) here?” Missions is an invasive experience, an intrusion into the culture of a community so we have to try, and try very hard, to not insult or demean the dignity of the folks to whom we go. One of the sources of conflict or misunderstanding comes by way of publicity, prayer letters, and photographs. I learned very early when I was beginning urban ministry in Chattanooga that I needed to be circumspect about having my name and picture in the newspaper. I am a white man, and here I was working in an inner city African American neighborhood. White churches, from whom I needed support, wanted me to tell the story of the good work we were doing, they wanted drama, they wanted testimony, they wanted pictures. Black churches were trying to figure out if I was just one more “do-good” white boy who was having a transient savior complex, or worse, trying to build a reputation and earn a living on the plight of inner city folk. I often had to check my own motives, and I had to live with the gossip and mean accusations of people who made assumptions about me and the work we were doing. Longevity is sometimes the only defense one can make in ministry. Really, I sometimes wanted to ask? I live and try to raise my family on inadequate income with few if any benefits, working at three jobs to do it, constantly being libeled and mocked, sometimes in physical danger, suspected by my professional peers as being inadequate to hold a “real church,” while living in a run down apartment in a run down neighborhood to accomplish or gain what? Fame, fortune, power and leverage? Seriously? What is ironic is that living like I did does get you a reputation, it does cause people to think of you as a hero, and sometimes it brings about envy and resentment from people who wish they had that reputation. I am no messiah, only the Lord Jesus is that, and anyone in ministry has to constantly take whatever hardships or trials they have been through and lay it at the cross of Jesus and not hold onto it as glory for themselves. Anyone can have such a reputation if they are willing to earn it and live it. What is silly is for any of us in ministry, white or black, is to covet a reputation we haven’t earned yet. Our lives are supposed to make Jesus famous, not ourselves. What is also mean and harsh is to slam people who are well-meaning but sometimes ignorant about how they go about things. There are lots of mistakes made on any battlefield, but if you are not or have not been on it, I would be cautious about acting like you are an expert. Even if you are on the battlefield, are you so arrogant as to despise those God is sending as reinforcements (maybe even your replacement) to help you, but are beginning at a very elementary stage? They don’t know yet (or why) their sincere and sometimes sickly sweet story telling about how much they are loved by the poor people, with whom they are currently taking a selfie, drives you crazy. Too many people in the field of charity show little charity with folks who don’t get all the principles right. These clumsy novices need correction, yes, but they also need our patience. If all we have to give is criticism about all their wrong motives and their bad of way of doing things we should not be surprised when we call for help and no one comes. Won’t their stupid and clumsy acts of mercy and mission cause harm to the people to whom they are going? I assume that this is true, they will sometimes cause harm. As far as I have seen it isn’t usually the worst harm the kids and people with whom I have worked are going to face, especially if no one comes to tell them about Jesus. We can do better, we must do better, in educating God’s people who sincerely want to serve, but I think we all need to remember how much we needed to learn, and have learned, over the years in doing this type of ministry. Man, I mean, who do we think we are?