It’s Evaluation Time

I am a runner and hider.  When I think something is not going to work out or that I will be criticized, then I run.  I realize that this is not a mature way to deal with problems, nor does it fix anything, but it is comforting to hide when the going gets tough. This is that time of year when summer evaluations start rolling into my office.  The vast majority of folks are very happy with their DOOR experience, but there are always a few people who have something critical to say.   To be honest DOOR has chosen to approach urban ministry in a way that sets us up for criticism.  This is not helpful in reducing the stress in my life!

One of the ways we have set ourselves up has to do with our summer staff hiring preferences and philosophy.  The majority of our summer staff comes from the communities in which we serve.  For the most part our “competition” hires predominantly college students who want to serve in an “urban location” for the summer.

It is important to understand these are two very different groups of people.  College students who come to serve for the summer tend to be people of privilege.  They come to the city with the same wide-eyed wonderment and stereotypes that many of our Discover participants come with.   The result is that both the staff and participants have similar world views, prejudices and solutions to the “urban problems.”  In other words they come to the issues of poverty, faith and appropriate behavior from generally the same perspective.  This keeps everything comfortable.

By choosing to hire local staff, who also happen to be mostly persons of color, Discover participants’ level of discomfort increases.  Bringing different folks together challenges faith, behavior and moral assumptions.  When long held beliefs and world views are challenged, negative evaluations are certain to follow.  When this happens, I choose to run and hide, not very mature, but comforting!

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.

Safety revisited

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.

The DOOR-Cloud

Apple has the I-Cloud, but my place of employment has an even more impressive cloud! This past week the DOOR summer kicked off.  The 10-12 weeks following the Memorial Day holiday, DOOR hosts approximately 2,500 Discover participants in 6 cities.

After almost 18 years it is tempting to fall into a “look what I have accomplished” mentality.  More than 30,000 people have participated; many have made significant faith commitments as a result of a week with us; leaders have been empowered.   Claiming all of this as my own not only leads to arrogance, but is dangerously wrong.

Hebrews 12 talks about a cloud of witnesses.   These are people who have gone before us and walk with us, offering wisdom, correction and encouragement.  Without this cloud of witnesses effective authentic ministry is not possible.  If I am going to brag about anything, it is the “DOOR-Cloud.”  This cloud includes the visionaries who first began thinking about structured service trips in 1985, years before youth mission trips were on anyone’s radar screens.  Then there are the gatherings of 2005 and 2006 when we brought together all our local board members of color and asked them to help DOOR be less racist.  These were not easy meetings.  It is never fun to confront individual and institutional racism, but the courageous work of these men and women helped us to better understand the radical inclusiveness of the gospel.

This cloud also includes former and current staff.  There are the women of DOOR who have fearlessly and compassionately lead even when men have questioned the legitimacy of their call.  We have immigrants who have endured insults and unwelcoming attitudes, yet they have loved and cared for participants in ways that mirror Jesus’ love for us.  We have gay staff members that have been told that they are somehow outside the reach of God’s grace yet in spite of this they have loved and cared for the very people who are condemning them.  We have staff of color who have endured both subtle and blatant racism and still they have not let this ignorance and mean-spiritedness stop them from reaching across racial barriers and seeking places of understanding and friendship.

For 18 years I have been surrounded by the DOOR-Cloud.  If you count yourself as part of this group, thank you!

Disruptions

For years I have been asking God for the perfect year.  In this year there would be enough money to pay all the bills; staff conflict and misunderstanding would be non-existent; DOOR evaluations would be excellent; my boys would get perfect grades while at the same time never skip a class; I would get enough sleep every night; every airplane flight would come with a complementary upgrade; and my car would never breakdown.  So far God hasn’t come through! This past week I participated in a “Consultation on Cultivating a New Generation of Christian Leaders” put on by The Fund for Theological Education.  During the opening session one of the speakers emphasized the importance on “disruptive experiences;” those moments when the best laid plans seem to fall apart.  Then she went on to say that smooth sailing through life does not produce people of depth and grit.  More significantly it is failure and pain that produce people and leaders of substance.

This reality produces an interesting conflict.  I have no desire to go out and intentionally fail.  As a parent I work hard at sheltering my boys from pain.  When I write my end of year reports for DOOR, it is much easier to talk about success.  Currently we are in the process of hiring a new City Director for Atlanta. When we look a resumes we prioritize folks with a successful track-record.

Years ago I had a college professor who claimed that 3.0 students made the best leaders.  They knew something about success but more importantly were all too aware of their own short-comings.

As a 16 year-old I was hired by a local rancher to help during haying season.  He immediately put me on a tractor and had me bailing.  Halfway through the day he sent me to the fuel tank to fill up.  When I arrived I noticed there were two caps on the tractor, not sure which one to open, I guessed.  To my embossment I ended up filling the radiator with diesel fuel – not a smart thing to do.  As I was finishing the owner came by and noticed my error; he was not happy.  It was one of those moments when I should have been fired.  Instead he had me fix the problem which involved about two hours of work.  Once we were done he walked away and muttering, “It’s not worth firing you now, because you will never make that mistake again.”

I don’t think I will ever intentionally put people into situations simply to help them fail.  That said, I cannot help but wonder what it means to create space for failure and disruption, to appreciate these moments as opportunities for growth and development.