by Erik C. Leafblad
The group from a rural, farming community in Midwestern America descended the steps of their pristine church bus with palpable energy. They were achievers. Their parents were successful, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth people. And they were ready to help.
They had just driven four hours to this storied urban neighborhood, with its diversity amidst Hispanic flare. They had come to my neighborhood. Awaiting their arrival were their hosts, a group of 12 local teenagers. Their hosts were suspicious of their eagerness. What did they really want? Why were they really here? How could they possibly offering anything to our neighborhood?
As the week went on I noticed suspicions allaying. Friendships were forming, conversations, blossoming. Differences were beginning to dissipate, it seemed. This little experiment of using a staple of programmatic youth ministry – the short-term mission trip – to mesh young people’s lives together who otherwise would never meet seemed to be working.
“What do you do during the summer?” one of the neighborhood girls asked one of the girls from the church.
“Oh, you know, normal stuff, just like you. We ride ATVs, go the drive-in, stay out late driving our trucks from town to town, some of us work for our parents. You know normal stuff.”
“That’s not normal.” With a look of piercing incredulity the suspicion and tension was back.
Taking context seriously in short-term mission work has become veritable orthodoxy. In our preparation we talk about local customs, add a little history about the place to which we are going, and try to give young people principles for contextually sensitive engagement. We are not naïve. We know this is insufficient, but what else can we do?
Let me offer an alternative: take seriously the other context by letting it interrogate your own. Let the suspicion of local people discomfort your group. Resist the urge to naively assume that in one week you can really, truly do contextualized ministry. Don’t paint another fence. Don’t put on another VBS production. Sit down with people in their context, on their terms and ask them about their story. Ask what they really think of you, an outsider, coming into their neighborhood. Let them define their context, even if it means you lose control of defining your own. Allow the confrontation of contexts to deconstruct even why you went on this mission trip in the first place. Allow the other to unearth the inadequacy of normal, and dwell in that tension.
Encountering the Other
Karl Barth suggested that the basic shape of humanity consists in human-to-human encounter, when I encounter You. To take context seriously in short term mission trips as I am suggesting is in concert with this idea. To take context seriously is to humanize the mission trip, to allow for a true encounter with the other to be central to our trips. This displaces service and work projects, which is likely to suggest that it displaces our own context that is driven by achievement.
You may not have much to show for the trip. How do you capture this kind of encounter in a 5 minute slideshow? The sense of accomplishment that many young people feel upon returning from a week of service projects may be absent. There may be more questions, more confusion, and, yes, maybe more angst. But, there may also be more deep reflection, and more critical thinking about the lived reality of self and others, from which ministry is often born and through which transformation often occurs.
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Erik Leafblad has been on staff with Youthfront since 2008, where he is currently their Staff Theologian, while he pursues his PhD at Luther Seminary. He is a people-pleaser, which combined with his contrarian spirit, makes him an incredibly conflicted person. He currently lives in Burnsville, MN with his lovely wife, Amy, and his three delightfully Scandinavian children, Soren, Svea, and Sigrid. You can follow him on Twitter @erikleafblad.