Sensitive Serving

This article in the Times caught my eye the other day: "Missionaries Go to Haiti, Followed by Scrutiny." Not surprisingly, the flood of interest in helping out in Haiti has caused some tension: people and groups more interested in a photo op than in making a real difference, short-term pressures precluding a long-term perspective, established outside groups annoyed by the blow to their rep at the hands of fly-by-night outsiders.

A good friend of mine once wrote a seminary paper on whether short-term trips had any value. He was startled by one remark by an interviewee, a grizzled veteran of inner city ministry, who barked at him, “If folks can’t stay 18 years, they shouldn’t come at all.” This “go big or go home” mentality seemed a bit extreme to my friend, but he took the sentiment to heart; years later, when he ran an inner city ministry that brought outsiders in for nine months of service, he was extra mindful to involve the outsiders in supportive roles in existing programs, and to caution the outsiders concerning the limitations of their temporary status.

I appreciate the wisdom and sensitivity of my friend in his position. He acknowledged the limits of his participants, as outsiders and temporary helpers, and did a good job of simultaneously making the experience a rewarding one for them as well as one in which they felt they were also making an impact. I think our church does a pretty good job of this, too, as we tend to send short-term teams only to countries and organizations we know well and have taken the time to cultivate a long-term relationship with, so that each new wave of helpers is adding to something bigger than one trip.

Still, it’s easy to see how those who are being served, and those who have been serving for a long time, can get bent out of shape by those who fly in and fly out. When we serve from the outside on a short-term basis, we must be mindful that we are entering into someone else’s world. Let us not assuage our guilty consciences at the expense of patronizing someone else’s life and work, only to return to our comfort zones patting ourselves on the back, leaving those we intended to help worse off as a result of our stay. Rather, let it be that we come alongside what is happening, to grieve with other’s grief and to celebrate what good has taken place already; and let us be able to say that we contributed meaningfully and sensitively to the cause, and emerged with a greater appreciation for those who continue the work and for what is needed to finish the work.

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