A few weeks ago I wrote about safety. It was written from the perspective of people who go on short-term mission trips. This week I want to think about safety from the perspective of our Discern staff. These are the people who give leadership to and host the incoming participants. It is important to note that about 60% of our Discern staff come from the neighborhoods in which we serve. As a result they are local and they are people of color. As a program DOOR is asking our Discern staff to give leadership to visiting groups. It I also important to note that our Discover visitors are majority people of privilege and majority Anglo. For a whole host of reasons placing local young adults in leadership roles over visiting groups is a very good thing. It provides a level of authenticity that imported staff alone could never achieve. To be honest I cannot imagine our summer program operating without local young adults.
This week I was reminded that there is a cost associated with asking locals to serve as staff. After 18 years and literally thousands of participants, I can say that it is very rare for visiting groups to experience the chaos and dysfunction sometimes associated with the city directly. They hear stories from speakers, see things in agencies and sometimes get hassled by the police. For the most part their DOOR experience is educational, faith stretching, eye opening, and safe. This is good.
Our staff of color encounter a whole series of other issues and concerns. For the most part visiting groups remain unaware of and protected from these stresses. At the more benign level there are the “sell-out” anxieties. When their friends and acquaintances see someone from the neighborhood leading groups of white people they risk being thought of a sell-outs or trying to escape by becoming white. It is interesting to think of this as “more benign;” in comparison it is. At the other end of the spectrum are the encounters with authority. In spite of the fact that we live in a country with an African American President, authority (and culture) still assumes that a person of color hanging around white people is up to no good. I know what it is like to find out that one of my staff has been thrown down, beat and hand-cuffed in front of the church where the DOOR group is staying simply because he was black.
The next time you pray the safety prayer for you mission trip, please include the staff who will be hosting you. In many ways they are the ones who are risking everything.