Breakin' Down The Walls
BY NOEL BECCHETTI, President, Center for Student Missions
How the world's fastest-growing (and easiest to reach) mission field will turn you and your group's lives upside down.
"Okay, get in your groups. We're ready to go."
Our team of missionaries headed for the entrance of the church, coalescing into their pre-assigned groups. Some nervously fingered Bibles and evangelistic literature that was tailored to the dialect of the people they were about to contact. They were oriented, trained, and "prayed up" under the leadership of indigenous Christian leaders, natives of this mission field.
One by one, the groups, each with their local leader, opened the church door, squinted into the bright afternoon sunlight, and headed down the block to their mission field--a cluster of gritty high-rise apartments that comprise the Stateway Gardens public housing project in Chicago.
Our missionaries? Junior-high boys and girls from a nearby suburb, all white. Their mission? Approach the local residents (all African-American) and, depending on the willingness of the individuals they meet, share the love of Christ through conversation, literature, and prayer.
Welcome to the fastest-growing multi-cultural, multi-lingual mission field in the world today--the inner city. Here in North America and around the world, millions of people are streaming into already-bursting urban metropolises every month, searching for a better life. With this migration comes tremendous problems--poverty, disease, pollution, crime, social upheaval, and more. With it also comes tremendous opportunities for the Church to be Jesus' hands and feet to inner-city dwellers, in spiritual and tangible ways. And short-term mission and service groups like yours can play a vital role in what God is doing in the inner city. Really!
Just What Is An Urban Short-Term Missions Trip?
An Urban STM is much like any short-term mission trip: A group of willing servants come into an inner-city area for anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks (or longer) to live, learn, and love. The group lives in the inner city, gaining a firsthand feel for the environment, the people, and the lives they lead. The group learns--what a city is like (good as well as bad), what the people who live in the city are really like (as opposed to the stereotypes played out in the media), and most importantly, what God is already doing to raise up His kingdom in the city through dedicated inner-city Christians. Finally, the group demonstrates love in tangible ways--primarily by serving as volunteers at churches, missions, agencies, and other institutions that strive to minister to the spiritual and material needs of urban residents.
What's the Most Important Thing I Need to Know About the City?
Unlike most suburban and rural environments, the city is intensely multicultural. Literally hundreds of different ethnic groups have poured into cities like Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, and Toronto--bringing their languages, cultural traditions, foods, and styles with them. When entering into an Urban STM, it's helpful to conduct yourself as if you've entered a foreign country, even if you're only in Cleveland. Better yet, presume you're heading into a number of foreign countries, all jammed together in close proximity.
Take our old neighborhood in Chicago, for instance. We lived down the block from a public high school. Each year, the school identified between 55-65 languages that were spoken by these students. This pattern was repeated in schools all over town.
Multiculturalism isn't limited to language. I can take you on a commercial stretch of 6th street, just west of downtown Los Angeles, that in look, color, language on storefront and restaurant signs, and products offered in the stores, could be a street in Guadalajara or Guatemala City. Then we could head downhill less than a mile to Olympic Street, and you'd think you were in Seoul, Korea. A mile-and-a-half northwest? Tokyo. And so on and so on.
What's So Bad About Multicultural?
Nothing. In fact, it's GREAT! It's one of the things I most love about the inner city. When my wife Kyle and I were living in Chicago, we'd feel embarrassed when people, upon discovering what we did, heaped praise on us for our "sacrifice" of living in the inner city. While it's true that our neighborhood was somewhat risky in terms of crime, gangs and (worst of all) street potholes, we actually felt spoiled at being able to live within such a rich variety of cultures, meet so many fascinating people--and enjoy such a dazzling (and fattening) array of fabulous ethnic foods!
Unfortunately, not everyone shares our attraction to inner-city life, at least not at first. And the most common mistake we Anglo-Americans make when traveling outside of our familiar environments is to assume, either consciously or unconsciously, that our way of doing things is the best (if not the only) way, and if people from other cultures haven't figured that out yet, they will soon. Don't misunderstand me--there's nothing inherently wrong with our culture. It has lots of strengths to it, along with some weaknesses, as does every culture. The point is, every culture has strengths and distinctives that people from that culture are proud of (and often sensitive about, especially when they're undergoing the stress of the transition from their home cultures to North American life). And trust me--to these others, we are the rich, privileged Westerners. It doesn't matter whether or not we feel that way; by the standards of the rest of the world, we are--and everyone knows it.
If we're going to build effective relationships with people--whether we're handing them plates of food or sharing the Gospel with them--we first have to earn their respect. The easiest way to win respect is to approach people as Paul commanded us: "...in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Philippians 2:3b-4, NIV). As we show genuine interest in and respect for other people, their backgrounds, cultures, history, and traditions, we gain their respect and trust--and a wonderful opportunity to be Jesus to these people in very real ways. Believe me--simply making an effort to engage people in the inner city with courtesy and respect is a powerful ministry in and of itself. They're astounded that you'd take the time, trouble and expense to leave your comfort zone to live among them, learn about them, and express God's love to them in both tangible and intangible ways.
But enough high-blown rhetoric. Let's take a down-to-earth look at what your Urban STM will be like.
Sooo...What Will It Be Like?
While there are many models for effective Urban STMs, there are components that every successful Urban STM will have:
A successful Urban STM is primarily an educational experience. While your group will be involved in tangible activities--serving food in soup kitchens, rehabbing apartments, working with neighborhood kids through a local church Backyard Bible Club--the primary benefit you and your group will gain through an Urban STM is learning what the city is really like, what God is doing in the city, and how what you learn will impact you and your group's lives. In other words, you're not going to solve the problems of the city in a week. So don't sweat it. Go into your Urban STM saying, "God has me here for a reason. My mission: Find out what that reason is, and act on its implications for my life."
A successful Urban STM supports what Christians are already doing in the city. The Center For Student Missions (the mission I'm president of) has no works of its own. Rather, we build relationships with existing churches and other ministries that are rooted in the city, know the needs, are in the process of meeting those needs, and are open to the help of volunteers. After all, they're the ones who live there. They're going to know far better than we what needs to be done.
Take our junior highers' evangelistic foray into Stateway Gardens. Sound crazy? Maybe--until you hear how it came about. I was visiting some friends I'd made through a prison ministry at Chicago's Cook County Jail at their church on the South Side. Actually, they were holding a carnival in their parking lot to raise funds for the church sanctuary they were building across the street out of what had been a burned-out A&P grocery store, so if truth be told, I was champing on some scrumptious barbecued ribs, lounging on the sidewalk, and generally having a great time.
I looked across the street at the partially-finished structure and said to Kirk Bell (one of my new friends and an associate minister at the church), "You know, Kirk, we could bring lots of groups who would love to help build your sanctuary." (Perfect Anglo-Suburban solution, right? Let's go do a task!) In his polite, diplomatic way, Kirk replied, "Well, that would be great. But the ministry a number of us would really like to focus on is reaching out to the people in the Stateway Gardens projects. My wife and I grew up there, and we still have friends and family there. How about if your groups come with us to share the Gospel at Stateway?"
While I never would have thought of such a ministry, and it frankly was a challenge to get our groups to agree to do it, the outreach at Stateway (and subsequently at other housing projects, street corners, and parks) was an amazingly powerful ministry for everyone involved. The residents at Stateway were receptive to our groups--because we were there with the right people, at the right time. We were "with Kirk", which meant instant credibility. Our groups were astounded at how open many Stateway residents were to talk--about God, about their lives, about living in the city, even about racial issues. And the inner-city Christians we worked with were impressed at our willingness to set aside our agenda and support the ministry that they felt to be the higher priority.
This example speaks to the next principle for successful Urban STMs:
A successful Urban STM works in partnership with, and under the authority of, indigenous urban churches and ministries. There are a number of vital benefits to this approach:
*You'll expend your energies on the ministries that really matter.
Because you're hooked up with local Christians, you'll contribute to ministries that are making a difference in the community, rather than being parked in a "make work" project that some poor organization stuck you in because they couldn't figure out what to do with you, or because you showed up to "serve" with your own pre-set agenda of what constitutes urban ministry.
*Your efforts will make a real, tangible difference.
Take, for example, an inner-city Christian daycare center we work with in Chicago. When we were first introduced to them, they were struggling. While they had a terrific staff doing great work with at-risk children (most of whom were court referrals, pulled out of abusive homes), their physical structure was in bad shape, and they simply didn't have the resources to make the needed improvements. And until they met us, they weren't aware that there were organizations like ours who wanted to help.
Over a period of several years, that daycare center has been transformed. The basement has been cleaned, restored, and made into a much-needed paperwork and equipment storage facility; a rickety set of stairs has been torn out and replaced with safe, new concrete steps and a wooden safety railing; the interior of the building has been completely repainted and redesigned; and a new drop-ceiling has been installed (by a group in that week that just so happened to have several skilled carpenters--what a coincidence) just in time to meet some newly-imposed fire codes that, if not met, would have resulted in the center's closure--all this and more done by volunteer groups. Each group also assists the staff with the children, holding a Bible Club one day during their stay--a real treat for the children, the staff, and our groups alike! The morale of the center's staff has soared, they've added a second evening shift of child care to accommodate poor working parents who hold evening jobs, and generally it's been a real cool deal. So while none of us is going to change the city in a week, many of us together can make a real difference that will impact many lives for many years to come.
*You'll be accepted by the Christians and non-Christians you encounter.
We work with an Hispanic pastor who ministers in Humboldt Park, a tough Latino community in Chicago's Near West Side. Our groups help him and his church members to canvass the neighborhood, recruiting youngsters and teenagers (including gang members) for a weekly Bible club held at the church. The first thing all of our groups ask Rev. Martinez is, "what does the neighborhood think of us? Are they offended that white people like us are trooping through their neighborhood, trying to tell them about Jesus?" Rev. Martinez' reply is always the same: "You're here as volunteers for Liberty Center; you've been invited in by me. Because the people know that you're 'with the Rev', everyone--the kids, their parents, even the gangbangers--know you're legit. Whether or not they come to the Bible Club, they're amazed that you take the time and energy to come all the way here just to pay attention to them. Frankly, they're flabbergasted."
I've seen this phenomenon play out again and again. Rather than be offended or angered, Christians and non-Christians alike are pleasantly surprised to discover that "outsiders" are willing to make the effort to reach out in love, respect, and friendship. Even when folks aren't receptive to the spiritual message behind the actions, the response is usually, "It's nice to see someone doing something positive around here!" This phenomena is virtually guaranteed...when groups observe the next principle:
A successful Urban STM is conducted by a well-prepared group. What makes the difference between a group that enjoys a life-changing experience, makes new friends, and furthers the Kingdom--and a group that spins its wheels, stumbles culturally, and finds itself doing "make work"? Preparation. How you prepare your group and yourself before your trip has everything, and I mean everything, to do with the success of your experience.
Groups that serve with the Center for Student Missions are required to make a previsit to the city in which they'll serve. We waive this requirement very rarely, very reluctantly, and with a warning to the group that their trip will absolutely, positively have problems they otherwise wouldn't have had if they'd made the previsit. And invariably, when the groups arrive and get into the trip, they come back to us and say, "Okay--you told us so!" We also have a three-session pre-trip training course that we send to each group and, while not requiring them to use it, we pretty much beg them to. The groups that work through the course (often adding their own customized touches to the curriculum) find it well worth the effort.
There are many other fine inner-city short-term mission organizations besides CSM. And you may have contacts through your denomination or organization that can put you directly in touch with a local inner-city church, mission, or other organization. However you choose to serve in the city, if the church or organization you're working with doesn't have their own preparation materials, make up your own. Or call CSM's office at 714-248-8200 and we'll send you ours. For free. No obligation. It's that important.
A successful Urban STM is well-organized and well-supervised. If you've had any experience with mission trips, you know that Murphy's Law is alive and well. Inner city missions is no different. We warn our groups all the time, when we send out their schedules, "don't cast them in concrete. Your schedule will change!" Nonetheless, the better organized your Urban STM is up front, the better able you'll be to make adjustments along the way. And amazingly, there are times where the schedule does unfold just as it was planned. (There is a God!)
Good supervision is not just important--it's critical. You have to be realistic: You're going into an environment that does contain some risk. It's nothing to be terrified of; we're thankful to the Lord that we've never had a negative or harmful incident occur in our eight-year history. But a little healthy "scaredness" that generates attentiveness and wise decision-making is very helpful.
A good supervisor (we call them City Hosts) knows where to be and when to be there--and when not to. He or she knows the lay of the land, the local customs, and how to handle a variety of urban situations, both planned and unplanned. He or she knows what to do and where to go in case of emergency. He or she can articulate the rules, policies and guidelines for safe and wise behavior in the city to his or her group so that they know how to conduct themselves.
As I said before, there are many fine inner-city mission organizations you can contact for service opportunities besides CSM. You don't have to go with us. But frankly, if you haven't been in the inner city before, you need to go with someone. It's not an environment for the uninformed. You can find a number of great contacts for this kind of a trip, as well as virtually any mission and service trip you'd care to name, in Jim Hancock's fine book Compassionate Kids (1995, Youth Specialties/Zondervan).