Safety – 2016

If you are a regular follower of my blog, you already know that one of our Discern staff was involved in a shooting last week. One of my first responses was to send out a prayer request and write a blog to tell the story and update everyone. None of this is unusual in the life of DOOR. When we need prayer, we ask. The support has been incredible. There is nothing like knowing people from around North America are praying. There is another side to being so public about dramatic events in the life of DOOR. People who are getting ready to participate in our Chicago program are also reading these updates. This results in phone calls. Although the question comes in different forms, they all boil down to this – is your program safe for our youth?

I spent 15 years as a youth worker. So I am familiar with the questions parents and concerned leaders ask. My regular response is, “DOOR has been around for 30 years and we have yet to send someone to the hospital because of an interaction with the local community.” It is not uncommon for participants to visit the hospital because of altitude sickness (a Denver issue) or because someone slipped and fell. At DOOR we take the safety of our participants very seriously and do everything in our power to avoid a crisis.

The more theological side of me always wonders about the safety questions. I am not sure that Jesus ever said that Christianity offered a life of safety. Jesus did, however, talk about cross bearing.

This time the safety question has taken on a new emotion. You see, my oldest son, Kyle, is serving as a Dweller in Chicago. So when I was asked about safety it wasn’t a theoretical question. My wife and I literally have our flesh and blood on the ground and in the middle of the question. So, is it safe? I can say without hesitation that I unequivocally trust our staff with the well-being of my children (the other son is serving in Miami) and all the DOOR participants across all of our programing.

At its best a DOOR experience will change your life. Mikey and the rest of our Discerners are real people who are faced with challenges from racism to violence at a much higher rate than most of us. Participating in DOOR provides a space to give witness to these realities and then a challenge to go home and work for real change.

An update on Mikey: Anthony is healing and possibly going home this week. Mikey and the rest of the Discerners are doing well but it was evident from some art therapy that they are feeling heavy around this issue of gun violence and how it impacts them every day. One of DOOR’s unplanned costs is in the area of mental health. We would like to provide Discerners like Mikey with the opportunity to see a therapist. As we all know mental and emotional healing is part of the journey towards wholeness. If you would like to contribute and support the mental health needs of our staff would have faced violence please donate:

Make checks payable to DOOR and write “Health and Healing Fund” in the memo line. Mail to 430 W 9th Ave, Denver CO 80204.

Donate online at www.doornetwork.org/donate. Indicate the donation is for the “Health and Healing Fund” in the donation designation field.

A more complete God

More often than not when it comes to testimony time at church, the stories are about what God has done for “me.” It usually goes something like this, “I needed a job and God provided me with one,” or “there was no money for rent and a check showed up with just enough to cover the payment.” These are important stories and powerful reminders of how God is at work in our lives. What I have been longing for lately are the stories about how God is working outside of individuals. I know that God cares about my issues and problems. Limiting God to my world seems a bit petty and myopic. We need to hear stories about how God is working in Ferguson, the public school system, and the fight for equality of all peoples. Some people worry that these issues are too political and not really religious. After all, isn’t Christianity about inviting people into a personal relationship with Jesus? The logic continues by assuming that once people have Jesus all this “other” stuff will work itself out. In theory this sounds nice, but I have rarely seen this work out in practice.

In my experience Christians have the ability to be as judgmental, racist, and sexist as anyone else. Limiting our experience of God to an “individual” testimony is dangerous because it leads to reinforcing a particular set of stereotypes of who God is. We need experiences that demonstrate God’s concern for the world and displeasure with structural sin. Some examples of structural sin are institutional racism, economic disparity, unregulated consumerism, and the dehumanization of those without legal rights. For many in the church it is much simpler to have a God who is only concerned with my needs and personal salvation. A God who cares about the whole person and the whole world is intimidatingly large.

This may be the strongest argument for sending people on short-term learning (mission) trips. Getting to know a God who cares for the whole world can be a faith stretching experience. If the essence of conversion is change or seeing the world through new eyes, then even conversion is possible.

One of the more dangerous things pastors can do is to point their congregation to examples of how God is working beyond the walls of the church. Developing a larger understanding of God changes everything. Tight simple answers will begin to disappear. People will begin to question long held assumptions. It may even seem that God wants us to figure things out, as opposed to providing us with easy answers, especially to the big questions.

As a child the God I knew cared about me and protected me from the bad people. I still pray to the same God, but as I have grown this God helped me see a more complete picture of who God is. God still cares about me, but this God has also always cared about the rest of the world. Where there is hatred between people, God desires reconciliation. Where there is judgement, God desires grace. Where there is structural sin, God asks us to work for change and be the change.

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

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.

Lines of Division

One of the fun things we do at DOOR is take board meetings on the road. The other week in Atlanta we met at Mercy Church. Before the meeting officially started Chad, the pastor, shared his vision for ministry. Near the end of his talk he pointed over to the lunch counter, a counter from which many DOOR participants have helped to serve meals. Chad made a statement that has stuck with me, “too often that counter has acted as a line of segregation.” He was right. Every week people with means and privilege come to serve a meal and everyone’s status is determined by which side of the counter they are standing on. Chad went on to say that his goal is to remove the counter.

Removing the counter may not be an easy thing to do.

Many of us who come from privilege live with interesting tensions. We want to serve and we want to maintain our status. We affirm statements which call us to deny ourselves and pick up our cross but we want to do it in a safe atmosphere. We want to follow Christ’s call to be servants but we don’t want to get too dirty in the process. We want our children to follow Christ and we want them to live safe secure lives. We want to take the gospel seriously and we want to maintain our privilege. In other words we want the counter.

Removing the counter, especially for Christians, has a terrifying quality to it. The counter and other lines of division create distance and distance allows us to do two things: serve and maintain our stereotypes. Removing the counter reduces distance and challenges stereotypes. When we find the courage to move past the counter all kinds of new possibilities emerge. Those who we hold at a distance become people, friends and co-workers.

Be warned, removing the counter changes everything.

The Interview

The other day I was interviewed for a research project. These requests come my way every so often. I enjoy talking about DOOR and my philosophy of ministry. Many times these interviews have a therapeutic quality. Talking about what DOOR does and how we see the world actually helps to clarify why I do what I do. The interview was moving along smoothly. We began by talking about board structure, hiring practices, and programmatic priorities then moved on to questions of diversity. Over the past decade DOOR has gone through a significant transformation. We, are no longer a white, mostly male, Mennonite program. Our boards are made up of people from many different denominational traditions, men and women hold leadership positions, and people of color out number Anglos. This past summer our Discern program was over 70% persons of color from the neighborhoods and communities in which we serve. It was these kinds of changes that the interviewer was most fascinated by. Responding to her questions helped me to recall the journey that DOOR has been on for the past decade.

Just before we finished she asked if I had anything else to say. In a moment of unguarded clarity I choose to respond. When I came to DOOR the power structures were comfortable and known. My board looked like me, thought like me, and made decisions the way I would have made decisions. I hired summer staff that came from the same culture and theological perspective I came from. We hosted groups that came from churches similar to churches that I grew up in. All of this took place in a community that was different in almost every respect – culturally, ethnically, theologically, and economically. The “saving” grace was that my board, staff, and program participants could all agree on the “solution.”

Today our boards are made up of local pastors and leaders representing the colorful and interesting diversity that is the Kingdom of God. We are Anglo, Hispanic, Asian, African American and Mixed. Women make up the majority (just barely) of our board members. Liberal and conservative believers sit at the same table and choose to define themselves by what they have in common rather than by what separates. There are hipsters, hip-hop pastors/artists, Mennonites, Presbyterians, non-denominational, Methodists, Four-Square, emerging leaders, and retired saints all giving input and helping to guide DOOR into the future.

If I am honest, leading this kind of organization is a little like trying to herd cats. That said I cannot imagine going back to what we once were. I thank God every day for the opportunity to be part of something that is counter-cultural, innovative, and a small reflection of what heaven will be like.

Short-term Mission

In a typical year at DOOR we host about 3,200 youth, young adults and adults.  The vast majority, 3,100, of these people come through our week-long Discover program.  The remaining folks participate in our longer term Discern (three months) and Dwell (one year) programs.  One of the more interesting internal debates at DOOR centers on the potential dangers, both real and imagined, of short-term mission experiences. There are those who argue that our Discover program is the most dangerous.  Bringing youth into the city for a week to do mission has all kinds of potential to hurt neighborhoods and ministries.  In my mind this is an interesting theory that can seem to be true.  It has two fatal flaws; first, it completely underestimates the strength of urban communities and second, it vastly over estimates the power of incoming groups.  After almost two decades of living and working in urban communities I can testify to the strength of urban people.  At the same time I have given witness to the false assumptions visiting groups, mostly people of power and privilege, have of themselves.

In 1992 I lead a group of high schoolers to South Central Los Angeles about a month after the riots.  The theme for our trip was “Impact 92.”  In my naiveté I believed that we were going to have a positive impact on South Central.  Impact 92 did happen, but it was us who traveled to Los Angeles who were impacted.

The real danger in short-term missions is with those who come for a year.  They stay just long enough to build relationships.  Leaving not only severs their relationships but is a reminder that people of power and privilege always have the option to move on.

I believe that there is a place for short-term mission in the faith community.  Introducing people to each other who would not otherwise take the time to know each other is a kingdom building work.  Like any ministry, those of us in leadership positions must know what the dangers are.  It is our responsibility to create contexts where mission, ministry and relationship are mutually empowering and eye opening.

A Case for Short-Term Missions

According to David Livermore  this year 4.5 million Americans will participate in a short-term mission experience at a cost of $2.5 billion.  DOOR, the organization I work for, will host .06% or 2,500 of these folks.  Over the last two decades short-term mission trips have grown from a novel idea to big business.  This growth has not come without criticism. Critics of short-term mission range from those who worry about the wasted resources to those who fret about the cultural insensitivity of short-term participants.  Couldn’t the money be better spent on long term sustainable projects?  What does it mean to be respectful of local cultures?

The critics do have a powerful case against short-term mission/service trips.  It costs a tremendous amount of money to send and host folks for a short period of time.  Hosting short-termers means that someone has to redirect their energy from local ministry to working with visitors.  Short-term participants often show up with all their prejudices and stereo-types intact – this can be destructive to host communities.

Why host short-term trips?  When done with fore-thought and concern for local communities these experiences can become opportunities for conversion.  Not conversion in the “I have the answer for your deepest need so listen to me,” but rather conversion in the Acts 10 sense.

In Acts 10 Peter is asked to visit Cornelius, a Roman centurion.  In an unexpected turn of events it seems that the Christian faith has expanded beyond the Jewish community.  Through a dream, mostly about eating unclean meat, Peter is convinced to visit Cornelius.  In the process of meeting each other, both Cornelius and Peter end up experiencing God in a new way - conversion.

When done well, short-term mission trips provide a space for conversation and mutual conversion.  When both the visitors and hosts end up in a new space, God moments happen.

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!

Rethinking “Short-term”

Lately I have been reading a number of articles on the damage that can be and has been caused by short-term mission trips. One writer talked about churches that spend millions of dollars traveling to other countries, performing work that locals could do best and creating a welfare economy that deprived people of the pride of their own accomplishments.

When I read stories like this, I find myself agreeing with the writer and questioning my career choice. I lead a ministry that arranges short-term experiences for 3,000 young people annually. Am I part of the problem? The honest answer is both “yes” and “no.”

For those committed to long-term ministry, short-term experiences always seem incomplete and lacking in integrity. Although I run a short-term program, I have been a part of Denver’s Westside neighborhood for 15 years. Nothing replaces time when it comes to effectiveness.

But I do wonder about all the critics of short-term missions. From my vantage point, their claims greatly overestimate the power of the groups coming to “serve” and underestimate the strength of local communities.

Many well-meaning leaders seem to understand power only in terms of wealth. If this were truth, then the short-term visitors do have all the power. But power is much more than wealth. In my context, urban America, power comes from all kinds of sources – family, culture, community, language, and faith to name a few. I have yet to see a short-term group destroy this.

Short-term programs are plagued with all kinds of problems. I have witnessed the damage that racism, stereotyping and ignorance can inflict. These concerns cannot be ignored and must be addressed.

If I were to push this conversation a bit farther, I would question the common definition of “short-term,” the one day to two week time period. I would suggest that anything less than 10 years should be viewed as short-term.

In my neighborhood, I am always intrigued by the people who move in so that they can “do” ministry. God has led them to work among the “urban poor.” And I am equally intrigued by how God always leads them to move as soon as their children become school-age. What does this say to the community they were called to? What kind of damage does this inflict?

It is easy to pick on the people who do mission one week at a time, but I am not so sure that these are the people with the power to do the real damage.

Ministry, in all its forms, needs people committed to long-term presence. At DOOR we host short-term groups, but we do this in the context of full-time city directors and in partnership with local pastors and helping agencies who have been on the ground for years and even decades. These people help to inform what groups do and do not do during their time with us.