Service or Social Justice?

There is nothing quite as inspiring as morning coffee, toast with honey and peanut butter, and conversation with a good friend. This past week, all of this fell into place during a trip to Chicago. The conversation started innocently enough. I asked about a conference my friend had attended. It was clear that he was not impressed. According to him the theme was justice but all they could focus on was service. I must admit that initially I did not understand his point. In my mind service and justice might not be exactly the same thing, but they are closely related. To put it mildly, I got schooled.

For him service, although important and needed, is only a Band-Aid. For example we need people to help out and serve at after school programs, foodbanks, drug rehabilitation programs, day cares, drop-in centers, and homeless shelters. This list is only a start. It is the opportunity to serve at various helping agencies and social service programs that has been at the heart and soul of what DOOR programing offers.

In my mind service was a pretty important priority for Jesus as well. So I wasn’t understanding the frustration.

Then he made the transition. Service is what we do to help folks who have been left behind by a system that doesn’t care. There is a sense in which service makes me, the service provider, feel better about myself, my life, and my privilege. And it provides some temporary relief for those who have been abused and treated unfairly by the system.

The work of justice asks us to challenge, change, deconstruct, and rebuild the system. Justice work asks questions about fair wages, access to health care, and housing costs. It is concerned about affordable childcare and quality education for all. It examines how people in power wield their power and demands that no one be judged or treated differently because of where they live, the color of their skin, or their religion or orientation. Working towards justice requires that we embrace the complexity of the world we live in.

There is a tendency among people of faith to keep things simple. It is relatively easy to feed people or offer after school tutoring. It is quite another thing to make changes to assure quality education for all children.

This summer our Denver program eliminated one of its service days and replaced it with a gentrification tour. During this tour our groups are exposed to the realities of gentrification on the Westside of Denver. Many of our participants appreciate being asked to think about the injustices that come with gentrification. There is also a growing segment of folks who are horrified that we would expose good people who came to do service to issues of justice.

I am grateful for a breakfast and conversation that satisfied my stomach and challenged my soul. Could it be possible that service without justice is just self-serving?

Mikey and Anthony

Last week I wrote about one of our staff who has lived with a very real fear of being shot for over 30 years. This past Sunday one of our Discerners in Chicago lived that reality. Michael (Mikey) Taylor, our Discerner, and his cousin Anthony Jackson were returning home from a night out. While at the bus stop they noticed a car full of young adults slow down and look them. At first they were not too worried because the bus was approaching. The car quickly turned and circled back through the alley. Meanwhile the bus was delayed at the stop light. As the car came by the second time, four shots rang out. Mikey dived behind the bus stop bench and the bullets barely missed him.  Anthony wasn’t so fortunate. Three shots hit Anthony, one in the leg and two in the shoulder.

As I am writing this Anthony is recovering from his second surgery. Initially the doctors and Mikey thought Anthony had been shot twice. There were two obvious entry points. Twenty four hours later they found a third bullet in his shoulder.

Today Mikey and other family members are at the hospital with Anthony. For the first time in 48 hours the prognosis is no longer life threatening. There is just a whole lot of healing that needs to take place, both physical and emotional.

All of this is taking place in the middle of our Discover season. This week our Chicago program is hosting 57 participants from Indiana, Georgia, and Oklahoma. DOOR hosts programs in five cities. We invite people to our cities to “See the Face of God in the City.” One of the reasons Mikey chose to work for DOOR this summer was his desire to show visitors another side of Chicago. He said, “I want to show people how Chicago really is, and that it is not a war zone. There are some people that want to help improve the city. I won’t stop teaching and telling the multiple stories of Chicago until people have a deeper understanding of our city!”

There is a part of me that doesn’t know what to do with these events. Why would God allow this to happen? The truth is, these kinds of tragedies are happening every day. Mikey knew this when he signed up for DOOR. Yet he wanted to and continues to want to show our participants another side, a more hopeful side, of Chicago where God is present.

This blog is dedicated to Mikey and all of our racialized and marginalized staff across the country. Their willingness to come to work every day and speak truth to power is a living testimony of the power of salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16):

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Please keep Mikey, Anthony, and their friends and family in your prayers. When we hired MikeyMikey one of the first questions his mother asked of us was, would he be safe? She recently lost her other son. Facing another death in the family would be more than she could handle.

 

Rethinking the Mission Trip

Last night I watched the 40th anniversary episode of Saturday Night Live (SNL). During the show they did some looking back. Some of my favorite sketches featured Jake and Elwood, the Blues Brothers. The sketch was so good that eventually a movie was made. It was a tale of redemption for Jake and his brother Elwood, who go on "a mission from God" to the Catholic orphanage in which they grew up. I might be stretching history a bit, but I do find it interesting that the movie came out in 1980, about the same time that short term mission trips started to become popular. DOOR, the ministry I work for, began in 1986 as an effort to organize the growing number of groups that were coming to Denver’s Westside to do service.

The groups that arrived came with the purist of motives. They wanted to help the poor people of West Denver. These motives were where often chock full of stereotypes and assumptions. The poor were brown, uneducated, unable to do for themselves, and didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus. The Mission trip was about giving something to the Westside that the Westside couldn’t get on its own.

Over the years we, and other similar programs, began to see the fallacy with this way of thinking and doing. By the late 1990’s DOOR adopted the tagline to “see the face of God in the City.” This was our effort to recognize that God was already present in the city. It was our way of challenging participants who talked about bringing Jesus to the city.

Recognizing that God is in the city also exposed prejudices. Just because people look different does not imply that their faith is any less vibrant or real. A person’s physical location, in our case the city, says nothing about someone’s ability to achieve educationally or think theologically.

In the last few years there has been another shift in our thinking about the Mission (or Service) trip. Why invite outsiders to the city? If all they want to do is have us reaffirm their stereotypes of urban folks, then all we are is tour operators giving the client what they want.

Where does this leave us? Well, I am a huge believer in the Mission trip. I do wish I had a different word than “mission,” but that is for another discussion. We, particularly young people, need to take these trips because there are very few places left where people are afforded the opportunity to reflect deeply on the meaning of their faith.

For the most part people of faith only gather together with those who share their stereotypes, worship preferences, theology, and understanding of God. A mission trip, when done with thoughtful intentionality, provides a place to reflect and think about your faith with those who are different. Sadly, when it comes to faith beliefs and differences we are still an intolerant people.

If you are a leader looking for a mission/service trip make sure you find a program that isn’t going to reinforce all your preconceived ideas of what mission is and what the needs of the people are. Find a program that is less concerned with service and more concerned with who you will interact with.

Finding ways for your group to sit in a circle of “differences” and be challenged will produce good fruit back at home!

Why DOOR?

This is that time of year when youth pastors and ministry leaders start to plan their spring or summer mission trip and college seniors start to wonder about life after graduation.  The program I oversee offers options for both of these groups.  Our Discover program provides opportunities for groups of folks to serve and learn in the city for anywhere from a day to a week.  Dwell, our year- long program, is geared towards young adults who want to spend a year living in community, serving in a local helping agency, and exploring what the call of God on their life might be. We are not the only people who offer these kinds of programs.  One of the questions I get asked on a regular basis is simply, why DOOR?  This is always an interesting question to try to respond to.  I have friends that run similar programs and in the for-profit world they would be considered competitors.  But in the ministry world we are “co-laborers.”   Trash talking is not appropriate!

With this in mind, why DOOR?  Here is my list:

  1. When you come to DOOR you support local jobs and benefits.  We prioritize hiring local staff; we tend to shy away from “importing” leaders into our cities, believing that each of our locations already has the leadership necessary to run a successful program.
  2. When you choose DOOR you are intentionally favoring uniqueness in an increasingly generic “mission and service” market place.  Each DOOR city is watched over by a local board comprised of folks who love their cities and want participants to have an honest, healthy, and safe experience.
  3. DOOR works to create safe spaces where everyone can share their faith journey and together we can come to a new and more enriched understanding of the kingdom of God.  This is not always comfortable or easy, but the Christian faith is so much more than the boxes we try to fit it into.
  4. DOOR is a place where local pastors, ministry leaders, and artists are asked to speak into your experience while participating.  Local voices add authenticity and realism to your time with us.
  5. The programmatic fees you pay are reinvested into the local community.  We actively prioritize local suppliers, restaurants, and staff.  All of this helps to keep your fees and fundraising dollars circulating in the local community longer thus helping to strengthen the financial stability of everyone.
  6. DOOR starts with the assumption that God is already in the city.  This is an asset-based approach.  When one approaches ministry and mission from an asset-based perspective the inherent dignity of everyone is preserved.

If you are considering or know someone who is leading a service/mission trip or wanting to spend a year living in an intentional Christian community please consider DOOR.

Manny’s Story

There are very few things more powerful than someone’s testimony.  This week I want to share with you an article that was written by one of our Discerner’s.  His name is Manny Alvarez and he just completed his third summer with DOOR. There is something about living in an intentional community in an urban setting that changes the way you look at a city. At times people tend to fear the city and be intimidated by its fast pace. Those that are local have the city in their back yard yet know nothing about the needs of the place they call home. DOOR has changed a lot of my philosophy of how I’ve viewed the city, my city.

Before DOOR I was clueless about the issues affecting the city and when I realized this, I felt embarrassed. I’ve worked at DOOR Denver for the last three summers as a Discern staff leading the Discover groups that came for an urban service experience. The Discern summer staff program has built me up as leader, taught me how to live in a community with others, encouraged me to live in solidarity with others, and helped me get closer to my calling and purpose through discernment.

I’ve learned that someone with everything can have nothing to offer a dying city yet someone with nothing has so much to offer. This summer I worked with people that live homelessly and I did not know I could see a mentor in one of them. Five years ago I was scared of people living homelessly because they were always drunk, at least that was my stereotype. This year I saw something different. I saw the face of God in them. Being a Discerner takes a lot out of you because you are always giving your time and energy to the groups and it can cause you to burn out. It’s the same routine every week and it can get a bit repetitive but every week that I went back to visit my friends from the streets, I was filled up again. My sponge never ran dry and I owe it to the men and women that unfortunately are homeless. They are a part of the city, that city I was so clueless about.

DOOR also helped me learn about gentrification and a single story. Gentra what? Single Story? I could not believe I did not know about these issues before. Neighborhoods are being gentrified and low class families are being driven further away from the city. A lot of it happens to clean up the neighborhoods and to make it less violent but that only moves the problem to another neighborhood and it does not fix it. The single story concept deals with stereotypes and labeling someone as one thing only. For example, all illegal immigrants are Mexicans, which is not always true. I had a lot of single stories about other issues but DOOR has taught me to find two or more stories for every issue or person I come across.

DOOR not only creates leaders but it enhances them. It challenges us to face those issues that we don’t really want to talk about. It gets us out of our comfort zone and allows us to see the face of God in the city. DOOR has helped build my faith to what it is now and has changed my philosophy about the city for the better. It provides a great opportunity for discernment and vocational search to those that are still struggling to find their purpose. It provides an urban experience so those like me can see the other side of the city and the other side of those people who are marginalized, poor, oppressed, and homeless. It is the first step to a solution and if we all took the time to see and hear the misery and cries, the cities around our nation will begin to change. Together we can do anything through Christ. We are all a part of the body of Christ and all serve a purpose. DOOR is the eyes of God who sees humanity has one tribe.

The Sanitized Mission trip

DOOR began hosting short-term mission/service groups in 1986. We were one of the first programs in the country to do so. Since that time the annual mission trip has become part of the life cycle of many if not most churches. Programs have sprung up all over the USA and around the world dedicated to filling this growing desire to participate in the annual short-term trip. When I think back to the early days of this movement I am sometimes embarrassed by all the things we did wrong. More often than not we came into communities of need “knowing” how to fix all the problems. The good that was accomplished was often overshadowed by the paternalistic, racist and arrogant attitudes people came with.

I am glad to report that DOOR has learned from its past. We understand that God is already in the city. Before we can talk about bringing God into a community we first must understand where God already is. When it comes to differences we have learned that different is just different. People worship differently, eat differently, look different, come to faith differently, and express themselves differently. All of this is OK and a demonstration of the breadth and depth of the kingdom of God. When it comes to service, mission, and ministry, if it isn’t mutual then it probably isn’t something God is calling us to. This journey has been mind-blowing and faith-expanding.

There is a new trend that has me worried. I call it the sanitized mission trip. The desire to serve is alive and well. There is a recognition that ministry must be mutual. This is good. The problem is that we want mission and service to happen in a Disneyland type of atmosphere. We want an experience as long as it is safe and sanitized. Here is the rub. Experiencing different neighborhoods, cultures and people can be intimidating and even unpredictable. This does not always feel safe.

In 1992 I took a youth group to South Central Los Angeles 45 days after the riots. Just before we left on that trip I met with the parents. All of them were nervous. Many thought we should cancel the trip; some even pulled their children out of the trip. In spite of this a smaller group of us still went on the trip. Was it safe? Certainly not by “Disneyland” standards, but it was transformational. During this trip we discovered that the news media got some things right, for example a riot occurred. At the same time it got many things wrong. We discovered a South Central LA that was full of parents who wanted a good life for their children, street venders who could produce meals that five star restaurants would have trouble competing with, homeless people who wanted to talk, and merchants who wanted customers.

Was our trip safe? In one sense the answer is yes. No one had to go to the hospital. In another sense it was a very dangerous trip. We all walked away from South Central with a new pessimism for how the media reports the news, especially in urban communities. In addition our understanding of the kingdom of God was forever changed. At a personal level I came back to Denver and joined the board of a program called “DOOR.” A few years later I became the City Director for Denver and a few years after that our family moved from the suburbs to the city. Because of that trip, everything changed for me and my family.

If we ask safety questions to avoid silly and irresponsible behavior then I am all for asking the questions. Otherwise I am not sure that “safety” and “mission/service trip” belong in the same sentence. The call to deny ourselves and pick up the cross simply doesn’t create space for a sanitized mission trip.

The Safety Speech – from the backside

Every year about this time our staff starts fielding safety calls. Is the neighborhood safe? What are your procedures in the case of an emergency? How will you protect our youth from the dangers they will face? We take these concerns seriously, but I struggle with the one-sidedness of questions. I occasionally wonder about the underlying assumptions. Why are “urban” and “safety” so easily tied together? I have a pastor friend who likes to flip questions. For the past number of years I have begun to wonder about safety from the backside. Bringing participants along with their wealth, privilege, prejudices, economic power, and misplaced stereotypes into urban neighborhoods is dangerous. Every group we host is a calculated risk.

A few years ago a friend, Anton Flores, suggested that groups and individuals who were willing to take seriously the danger they posed would do well take a page from environmental ethics known as “leave no trace.”

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare- proper missions planning and preparation helps members accomplish trip goals safely and enjoyably while minimizing damage to natural and cultural resources

2. Travel in a Way that Empowers the Neighborhood- support local culture and businesses when you decide on where to eat and shop. Resist eating at chain restaurants and instead broaden your palate and support locally owned restaurants that offer local cuisine.

3. Look in a full-length mirror and remove any items that serve as status symbols

4. Take Home What You Find- when you return home, share with others what you discovered to be the strengths of the people you met. Perhaps more importantly than what you did in the name of Christ you should share how the poor reflected Christ to you

5. Maximize your Flight from Consumerism's Impact- true discipleship is about making temporal things small and making eternal things large. Return home and review all the things you lived without and get rid of them! Grow in your generosity and find ways to support efforts to holistically empower the poor around the world.

6. Be respectful- quick judgments are damaging both to you and the community you are visiting

7. Above all, do no harm

The Mission Trip – why go

I remember the first time I approached the church elders about the possibility of taking the youth on a “Service/Mission Trip” – it was 1992.  Their initial response was somewhat disheartening.  Couldn’t we do the same thing and stay at home?  This option helped to “protect” the budget.  There were those who saw this as a smoke screen whose real purpose was to get the church to pay for a youth group vacation. To be honest, these were and still are good questions.  Why should we spend so much time, effort and money on the annual service trip?

  1. These experiences open us to the wide variety of ways in which God works in our world.  I am constantly amazed and surprised with God’s complete disrespect for the boxes I want to put God in.  Service trips have a way of opening our eyes to a God who is working in and through all kinds of different people, ministries and even non-faith-based groups or individuals.
  2. More often than not service trips provide opportunities to work with other denominations and faith traditions.  Having the opportunity to work with and alongside people who come from a different faith perspective can be energizing.  It develops the courage to do this at home.  Learning to move beyond the walls that so easily divide the church is kingdom building.
  3. Service trips allow us to experiment with John 13 - washing feet.  In this passage Jesus even washes Judas’ feet, his betrayer.  This is not always easy; as a matter of fact it can be hard.  Taking up the cross to follow may mean cleaning toilets in a homeless shelter.  Living for Jesus is a lifestyle, not a week or a slogan but rather it is a value, a way of treating even our enemy.
  4. These experiences provide opportunities to work with people who are “different.”  The difference may be with age, race, gender, orientation, physical ability, education, nationality, language, or politics.  Learning how to see the other as a child of God, even when that person shares very little in common with me answers the question, “what would Jesus do?”  It helps us to better understand Philippians 2 where Paul asks the church to consider others as better than themselves, looking to the interest of others.
  5. Service trips begin to develop a new way of seeing the world.  Cities are not just bad places; they are filled with creativity and hope.  The homeless are not all derelicts, shelters are not all clean, and God does not live only in suburban churches.

These are some of my reasons for taking your group on a service trip.

Why DOOR?

If you are a leader of a group or the person charge of finding a service/learning opportunity for 2013, then this blog is for you! Here are my top 10 reasons for considering DOOR:

  1. We are an “asset based” organization.  We believe that God is alive and well and working our cities.  Yes there are needs, issues and problems in the city, but the hope, resourcefulness and life in the city far outweigh the negatives.  Another way to think about this is that the biblical story starts in a garden, but ends in a city.  If you want to know what heaven is going to be like, come to the city!
  1. There are 6 great locations to come and witness what God is doing - Atlanta, Chicago, Denver,      Hollywood, Miami, and San Antonio.
  1. The $305.00 per person cost covers meals, staffing, lodging and reflection.  This frees leaders to spend time getting to know the members of their group – doing the pastoral stuff without      having to sweat the logistics.
  1. 2013 marks our 26th year, we began in 1986.  We have the experience and knowhow.
  1. We hire local City Directors; these are folks who know the city and who call it their home.  If you break down, it’s their mechanic you’re calling.  When you leave, the relationships with agencies, speakers and neighborhoods remain and grow  year to year.
  1. Our relationship to local      helping agencies, ministries and churches is grounded in authentic      relationships.  On average each of      our cities we work with 30-50 agencies, ministries and churches.  That’s a potential national network of      300.
  1. The fee you pay helps DOOR hire local staff and purchases food and materials at local businesses.  You are not only getting a good value for your money, but it is spent in such a way as to benefit the local community.
  1. Our commitment to “partnership.”  We partner with other organizations and institutions because we believe that we have much to learn from others and the combination of DOOR with our partners creates a better experience for participants.  We believe that service minded learning is best accomplished collaboratively.  Listening and learning from various voices serves to enhance one’s understanding of God and God’s call.  We believe in hearing God's call within community at both the individual level as well as our organizational level. This commitment to partnership extends to all levels of DOOR’s programming.  Nationally, we are a network of cities and denominations partnering with each other to provide learning. Locally we work with various faith based and non-faith based service agencies. We are committed to connecting participants to local urban congregations representing various denominational and cultural traditions.
  1. Our commitments to reconciliation peace, non-violence and justice.  From race to nationality and from denomination to local church our programming, our training and our philosophies challenge us to reconcile the sins and hurts of the past and to move forward together with God.
  1. Finally, take home new energy, focus, and ideas for ministry in your home congregation and neighborhood. Interacting with urban service agencies, local congregations, and DOOR staff can help your group consider how to live out the Gospel in new ways at home.

The Church

One of the great privileges of my job is that I get to work with church leaders and members from many different faith traditions.  Some come from very structured church communities while others come from less formal more Pentecostal contexts.  There are churches that see the Bible as one of many holy books they would turn to for advice, while others come from traditions where the Bible is viewed as the inerrant word of God and the only Holy Scripture that should be consulted.  The labels people of faith give themselves and each other are telling as well - Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Liberal, Progressive, etc. After almost two decades of interacting and leading all these different “Christian” groups I find myself fascinated by the similarities between the extremes.  Take for example Scripture.  Both Liberals and Conservatives require a high degree of “Selective Reading” in order to maintain their understanding and reworking of the Christian faith.

My more liberal (or progressive) brothers and sisters don’t really like the Apostle Paul.  They seem him as a sexist and homophobe.  More often than not their approach is to simply ignore Paul and focus on Jesus and his message of Grace.

My more fundamental (or evangelical) brothers and sisters have so confused American Civil religion and Scripture that they can no longer tell the difference between the two.  Take for example the “life issue.”  The vast majority of conservatives are both pro-life and pro-war; at best this is an oxymoron.

I cannot help but wonder what it would mean for the church to take Scripture seriously.  Conservatives would have to give up their sexism, homophobia and need for violence.  Liberals would have to give up their eliteness, smugness and educational arrogance.

Here is the good news.  Every week DOOR hosts multiple church groups, representing a wide spectrum of the Christian faith community.  It is true that the church leaders sometimes judge and condemn each other, but the youth have very little interest in finding reasons to divide.  They are interested in a Christian faith that moves beyond posturing, politics and rhetoric.  For them faith is about taking Scripture seriously, loving God and loving neighbor.  When this happens walls of division become unimportant.

One Body

One of my favorite biblical images is the picture that Paul paints of one body in 1 Corinthians 12.  I have always been attracted to the Christian idea of unity. As a teen, I spent parts of every summer as either a camper or junior counselor at Lake of the Trees Bible Camp.  I remember looking forward to my very first week at camp.  This was going to be a place where everything was perfect.  After all, this was a Christian camp full of Christian campers.  In my mind, camp was going to be a little taste of heaven.

Then I arrived.

I discovered that camp was not perfect.  There were people I didn’t get along with.  Counselors were occasionally grumpy and unfair.  We didn’t agree on everything.

It was at camp where I started to learn valuable lessons about the body of Christ.  One body includes those who are on different sides of the issues I care about. It includes those who are grumpy and it includes those who see the world differently than me.

The Christian ideas of “one body” and “unity” seem good on paper or in the Bible.  Living out this reality is a pain.  It is much easier to spend time with people who are on the same theological page as me.  It frustrates me to no end that there are so many “true” interpretations of scripture.

I was at a meeting last week where the speaker said that if you give a scripture passage to five pastors and ask them what God is saying, they will come back with six responses.   On planet earth, there are 33,820 different Christian denominations!  I suspect that we are never going to all get on the same page.  This does not change the call to unity.

I am slowly getting to a place where I find that it is the differences that make the Christian faith so appealing.

Is it possible to respect all the differences the 33,820 denominations represent and still be one body?  I hope so.