Making a difference

This summer was my 22nd working for DOOR. I have had the opportunity to witness many amazing things. DOOR has grown from a Denver-only program to a national network. Over the years we have hosted more than 41,000 participants, representing most states and many Canadian provinces. I remember when purchasing a pager so that people could get ahold of me quickly was the height of technology. I felt so important with a pager hanging from my belt! Today the cell phones our staff have can do almost everything and connect to people in so many different ways, from a traditional phone call to Snap Chatting.

Through all of these years, one thing has remained the same. People come to DOOR to serve because they want to make a difference. This is one of the primary reasons why I have stuck around for over two decades; I want to make a difference.

In recent years a fundamental shift in my perspective has caused me to ask a new set of questions. For decades, and probably longer, a common assumption about mission and service was that communities need people to come to serve and do mission. Without their service, needs would go unmet.

Groups come to DOOR’s cities to make a difference. They serve at soup counters, help with summer day camps, sort food for distribution, and fix-up the homes of the needy. This is all important work. It isn’t unusual to have group leaders want their groups to do more or work harder. In their minds doing more and working harder is what makes a difference.

What I have begun to observe, I am sure this was true 22 years ago, is that people want to serve food to the hungry, but they don’t really want to know why people are food insecure in the first place. When the question does get raised, it is raised in a strangely rhetorical way that says I know the answer. The answer is quite often tied to popular stereotypes. The poor are poor because really they are lazy.

When our city directors suggest that soup counters, poor quality housing, and the need for tutoring programs have their roots in systems and structures designed to keep the poor needy, the responses are interesting.

Talking about why seems too political. People want to come and serve, but they don’t want to confront all the ways they may be participating in a system that keeps the privileged in their position of power and ensures a permanent underclass. Folks choose to serve in programs like DOOR because they want to do some good in the world. They don’t come to find out they may be the problem.

The hard work of making difference isn’t taking a week off and going somewhere to serve. The real work is looking in the mirror, owning how we participate in a system that ensures and reinforces poverty, racism, classism, and sexism and then choosing to work for change so that all people are treated as if they are made in the image and likeness of God.

A glimpse into the program I oversee

Brent Davis is a Dweller in our DOOR Hollywood program. Over the last few weeks he took it upon himself to capture the thoughts of recent Discover participants while they stayed at our community house.  It’s a huge blessing, and a fun way to show how God is nudging people to break down single stories in Hollywood through DOOR. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=np_JZfxfg38

 

If you are interested in participating in in DOOR, please check out our website – www.DOORnetwork.org

Service versus the Servant

In John 13 there is an interesting story about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.   I can only imagine the odd feeling in the room as Jesus, the top dog, pushes back from that table and begins to wash everyone’s feet.  And then after he is finished Jesus makes an interesting statement, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.   I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” For almost 20 years I have given witness to thousands of youth and young adults who have come to the city to “do” service.  They come to metaphorically wash the feet of those who don’t have as much.

Lately I have begun to wonder, does this passage call followers of Jesus to service or is there something more going on?  Doing is certainly important.  Giving a cup of water, visiting the prisoner, or feeding the hungry are things that Christians are called to do.

It seems to me that Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet was more than a “yearly” act of service.   His actions that evening were simply an extension of who he was – a servant.   In Philippians 2 the apostle Paul talks about Jesus emptying himself and taking on the very nature of a servant.

The dirty little secret about “doing” service is that the temptation to retreat back into privilege is intoxicating and overwhelming.  There is an entire Christian industry that has grown up around servicing this cycle.  It goes something like this: go on the annual mission trip, have your heart broken by the need, have your faith stretched, commit to making changes, go back home, begin the process of allowing the service experience to slowly fade into a distant memory, reengage your privilege – from how money is spent to only worrying about me, myself and I- then get ready for the next service trip and repeat.  The danger of this cycle is that it leads to a Christian faith without substance.

When Jesus called his disciples to wash each other’s feet, it was much more than a call to do.  It was also a call be.  Who we are is much more than what we do for a week.  The call of Jesus is to become a servant to all.  In some circles this is referred to as the upside-down kingdom, a kingdom where power comes from being a servant.  While it is possible to do service and retain privilege it is not so easy to be a person of privilege and a servant at the same time.  Even Jesus had to empty himself.

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.

Acts 10 & Evangelism

Last week I had the opportunity to share about the mission and ministry of DOOR with a group of pastors. They were exploring the possibility of hosting a DOOR program in their city. After I finished there was a time for questions. As usual the questions ranged from the practical to the theological. The first 20 minutes or so were spent answering questions about facility, hosting and staffing needs. Then the discussion shifted. It started when a pastor offered an observation of what he had heard so far and ended with a question. It went something like this:

“It is clear that DOOR does a good job of introducing people to the city and its needs. Feeding the hungry, helping out with local VBS programs, addressing the “isms” (race, sex class), allowing local leaders to share their stories with participants and working side-by-side with community members are all good things to do. I want to applaud DOOR for engaging this. It seems to me that DOOR is not asking participants to do the most important work of evangelism. Do you train DOOR participants to lead people to the Lord?”

To be honest I was not surprised by this person’s assessment and question. I have had to respond to similar comments and questions many times over the past two decades. My response has evolved and changed over the years. There was a time I would have arrogantly suggested that this pastor take Scripture a little more seriously. When Jesus does talk most directly about separating people into two camps – the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46, the four spiritual laws never come into play. Getting into heaven has everything to do with feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner and giving a cup of water to those in need.

These days I look to Acts 10 when thinking about evangelism or conversion. It is the story of Peter and Cornelius. Many scholars understand this chapter to be the passage that officially makes space for the Gentiles, everyone who isn’t Jewish, within Christianity. So it is an important section of Scripture when it comes to evangelism.

As a child I remember being told that this was a story about the conversion of Cornelius. I agree with that assessment, but it is an incomplete understanding. The story starts with Cornelius, a Roman Gentile, receiving a word from God that his prayer had been heard. Then the story skips to Peter having a dream. He is told that “unclean” animals are OK to eat and he is to go to Joppa. Peter goes and ends up giving witness to the work God is doing among the Gentiles. The interesting question of Acts 10 is who is converted or evangelized? I have come to the conclusion that both Peter and Cornelius are evangelized.

What are some lessons we can draw from this? Could it be that evangelism is a mutual experience? I don’t know how we arrived at a one way perspective of evangelism. In my mind conversion and evangelism happen when two or more people meet and are all led by the Spirit to a place none of them expected to be. This is what happens is Acts 10; read it for yourself.

In a small way this is how DOOR approaches evangelism. It is our goal to bring people who might not normally connect with each other together and create a space for mutual evangelism. When this happens the Kingdom of God begins to appear in powerful ways.

10 years

Have you ever experienced a moment when your perspective changes forever? The birth of my children and death of my mother fit into this category. Another similar moment happened on my first day at this job. We were at one of the helping agencies DOOR partners with, almost 20 years ago, and I was being introduced as the new DOOR city director. It was a time when I was full of all kinds of "creative" ideas for making DOOR a more effective urban program. Then one of the ladies, we will call her Christine, to whom I was being introduced stood up, walked around her desk, came right up to me, looked me up and down and said, "so you are the new DOOR director (long pause), don't tell us anything until you have been here 10 years." After which she turned around, walked back to her desk and went back to the work. Later on we became good friends, but that first day and the advice she gave have haunted me ever since. In one sentence Christine put me in my place and began a process that reshaped my understanding of mission, service and the role of people who come to participate in these acts. I can best explain it this way. On my first days of work I believed that I had been called to urban Denver to make a difference. Children were going to be tutored, the hungry were going to be fed, houses would be repaired, the homeless would be loved and everyone would be grateful for the changes I was engineering. Until I met Christine those dreams and visions seemed God ordained. What I had forgotten is that Christianity is about relationship. Relationship, in its purest form, is always mutual. My “day one” vision wasn’t mutual; it was paternalistic. At best paternalism stinks; at its worst it destroys communities.

What Christine was trying to tell me on that first day in her own special way was that mission, service and ministry don’t make much sense apart from relationship. In her mind it would take at least 10 years for me to understand the community and at least 10 years for the community to learn to trust me.

I realize that we live in a world where everything happens quickly from overnight shipping of goods across the world to fast food. Telling people that patience and time are needed to accomplish anything almost sounds antiquated. So I will risk it and sound antiquated – if you want to serve then hang out a bit, get to know us, earn the right to speak into our lives and together we will make a difference.

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.

Tension

This summer almost 3,000 youth and young adults will descend into one of our six DOOR cities and participate in a week of service, mission, guided reflection, and learning. For the most part everything will go well. Participants will go home with a new appreciation of the city and how God is working in the urban world. Lives will be changed, hearts will be softened, and negative stereotypes will begin to crumble. For over 20 years I have had the privilege of giving witness to what happens when people begin to see the world from a new perspective - a perspective which includes people who look different, think different, eat differently, and worship differently.

Sometimes I wonder about the process of getting participants to this space. So much about mission and service projects is about bringing something to a people or place that they couldn’t get on their own. Years ago there was a mission project in Denver that welcomed incoming groups with the slogan, “Welcome to Denver, Denver needs you!” The more I thought about this the more it bothered me. Denver needs you? Really? If these groups didn’t come to Denver would Denver have fallen apart? Weren’t there already local churches, pastors, and laity in Denver serving?

The temptation in recruiting participants into the DOOR program is to talk about the city in a negative light. After all why would anyone go on or support a mission trip where the service location was talked about positively? According to Robert Lupton there is a certain amount of ego satisfaction going to places where we will be viewed as frontline troops placing ourselves in the gap between the grace of God and evil forces that threaten to take over. This perspective does have a certain heroic quality, but it isn’t accurate.

The city is an amazing place. It is true that bad things happen and the needs are great, but this is only a minor part of the story. It is in the city where God is gathering all the peoples of the world. Old divisions like liberal, conservative, Presbyterian, Baptist, White, and Black just don’t matter as much. For urban people it is much simpler to define each other by what is held in common than what is different. People who participate in DOOR do help out and that is greatly appreciated, but this is far outweighed by the lessons that urbanites impart to our DOOR participants.

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 I struggle with service

I make my living by inviting people to the city to serve.  So, is service always a good or helpful thing?  For some service is that annual event you participate in to feel better about yourself.  For years I have visited with people as they search for a place to serve - Thanksgiving is a classic example of this.  I have even witnessed parents using this pilgrimage as a teachable moment, “you should be grateful for what you have and where you live,” as if the homeless are an example of what happens to people who are not grateful enough. There are other more mature versions of the one day pilgrimage - the annual church mission trip or spending a year in voluntary service.  I need to be careful here; I realize that service is a holy calling and privilege.  I do wonder if for all the right reasons service has been corrupted, at least the North American version of service.

It seems to me that for many people service is something we do to other people (read “the less fortunate”).  The problem with this is that service ends up being divorced from relationship.  When service doesn’t include relationship then the people we serve lunch to become “the homeless.”  Labels have a way of dehumanizing the other.   This is a dangerous path to go down.  When we label someone it becomes less problematic to treat them as something less than human.

Service- healthy, God honoring service- is always a two way street.  It is about giving and receiving.  It is about knowing the other and the other knowing you.  It is about friendship.  The Kingdom of God shines brightly when unexpected relationships develop.

Lose Yourself

“The purpose of life is not to find yourself.  It’s to lose yourself.”  With these words David Books concludes his column bemoaning the advice dispensed at so many of this year’s commencement speeches – “find yourself, find your passion and then pursue your dreams.” Books’ lament is based on a certain reality.  After all, in what world is a young adult mature enough to know who they are? Isn’t life a journey of discovery? To assume that the journey towards self-understanding is over at 21 is naïve at best.  I am 46 and still trying to find myself.  I have developed an inkling of what my passions might be.  As for perusing my dreams, I am still dreaming new dreams!

So, what does it mean to lose yourself?  According to Eminem losing one’s self has something to do with the music. I have two teens and they have developed an uncanny ability to lose themselves in the music.  But I do not think that this is what Brooks was referring to.

Jesus talked about losing life in order to find life.

Could it be that Jesus understood what many of this year’s commencement speakers failed to fully grasp?  Meaning and purpose come when we turn our focus outward.

Servant-hood, discipleship and following Jesus are inextricably linked.  The Kingdom of God has often been described as an upside down kingdom.  Everything gets reversed - purpose, passion and meaning come when service towards others becomes a first priority.

A more helpful commencement speech might better be framed with these words:

Graduates, before you today there is a fork in the road.  One fork will ask you to find yourself, ignite your passions and follow your dreams.  The temptation will be to choose this path, but know that this road ultimately leads to a type of self-centered hell.  The other fork will ask you to ignore yourself focus on the needs and concerns around you.  The cost will seem high but the payoff will be meaning, purpose and life.

The choice is yours.

Service

Is service something you do or is it something you receive? At its simplest the answer is yes.  It is possible to do acts of service and it is imaginable to be the receiving end of an act of service.  When push comes to shove most of us believe that it is more honorable to be on the side of doing.  Acts 20:35 has become a rallying cry of sorts, “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”

The result of this is we are not always comfortable the idea of service being something we receive.

In my line of work I deal with this regularly.  People come to DOOR expecting to “do work.”  Don’t misunderstand me everyone gets to do lots of work, but not all the time.  Service also includes listening to another person’s story or just sitting quietly on a park bench with someone watching the clouds float by.

I realize that sitting and listening stories do not make for great service trip reports.  That is too bad.  Folks back home want to know what you accomplished.  How many people did you feed?  What did you build?  Who all heard about Jesus for the first time?  These are all important questions, but they should not be the only questions.

Did you take time to hang out and shoot the breeze?  Did you hear faith stories that challenged your understanding of God?  What stereotypes were broken because of the encounters you had with other people?

Someone once told me that Jesus spent 30 years just hanging out before he started doing acts of service.

Our good intentions, our need to fix problems, our willingness to act first and learn second are not always well received by those who are on the other end.

I am in no way suggesting that acts of service are inappropriate.  But taking time to know and understand the recipients of our good intentions must be the first step.  I suspect that doing this will have a dramatic impact on how we go about serving others.  When this takes place Acts 20:35 will ring true at a deeper level, “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”

If I could influence your fall schedule

** This post is and excerpt from an article that I am writing for http://ymtoday.com It is that time of year when youth workers of all types start laying out the fall schedule.  Everything from parent meetings to bible studies, from retreats to fundraisers needs to be creatively pieced together.

I would like to petition that one more item be added to your list.  In November take some time to reflect, relive and reminisce about the summer mission trip.  Then send those reflections to the leaders of the place you visited.  It helps programs like DOOR reinforce what we are doing right and make needed corrections.

At DOOR, we have the privilege of connecting with groups as they plan their trips.  We walk with participants as they experience the week.  Occasionally we get completed evaluations from groups.

What we very rarely see or hear about is the longer-term learning.  For most people it takes at least a couple of months, sometimes years to fully appreciate and understand what took place on the trip.  Taking some time in November to remember and recall what happened and what is still happening will give some insights into how youth in your program learn.

What you hear may surprise you.

Don’t make any decisions on next year’s spring or summer trip until you have gone through this exercise. 

Back in my days as a youth pastor some of the programs I gave the worst evaluations for ended up providing the experiences that most influenced the youth.  It just took the youth and me a while to process what happened.  Working through the cultural bombardment of a service project is not always easy.  Getting past agency staff who rubbed you wrong takes time.  First impressions can be right 50% of the time but that still leaves a significant margin of error.  Time can help you and your group to verify or correct those impressions.

I hope you take the time to go through this exercise.  When you do, feel free to let me know how it went!

Just Listen

“Service as listening.” With these words, Eduardo Vargas, the assistant city director for DOOR San Antonio, began his report to the local board of directors.

To be honest, I sometimes check out when staff members report to the board. It’s not because I don’t care. Many times, I have already read a version of the report or I can sense where the conversation will go.

Eduardo’s description triggered an avalanche of ideas and concerns.

Most of us think of service as something concrete. People participate in DOOR because they want to serve. When I think of service I go straight to the list of tasks that need to be accomplished.
· Painting a house.
· Helping with summer day camp.
· Sorting food at the local food bank.
· Serving a meal at the rescue mission.
· Running a Vacation Bible School program.

When people come to DOOR, they want to feel good about the tasks they accomplish. They want to make a difference. This is noble and good.

This is my fear: would people want to participate in a program that defined service as listening?

What does listening accomplish?

It doesn’t paint a house, or run a program. Food for the needy doesn’t get sorted, meals go unprepared, and children miss out of Vacation Bible School.

But listening has the potential to move me past my stereotypes and assumptions.

It is tempting, when going on a “mission trip” to have all the answers and solutions for where you are going before you get there.

Listening has a way of exposing the hypocrisy of my prepackaged answers.

Listening first opens the door to authentic service.

When we take the time to listen and be listened to, mutuality is often the result. This in turn creates an opportunity to both give and receive.

I have a sneaking suspicion that this is what service is all about.