We should not be paralyzed by the fear of committing errors, but we should be self-conscious and think critically about how we go about serving others.
This is the final post of a 6-part series republishing the original Staying for Tea article from The Global Citizen journal (2005). You can link to the other posts in this series here: [1: Stay for Tea] [2: Process Matters] [3: Focus on Values] [4: Check yourFilter] [5: Cultivate a Servant’s Heart] [6: Conclusion]
Although these principles may seem somewhat obvious, I’d like to demonstrate with a real example how easy it is to forget the principles and serve poorly. There are so many opportunities to serve that we often get over-anxious to say yes. It’s easy to get excited and forget to ask some critical questions about what we’re doing. This is especially true when the service is connected with a church activity or Christian organization. We seem to forget that Christians have a history of making terrible mistakes just like everyone else. Good intentions do not guarantee good outcomes and joy in service cannot replace the thoughtful application of principles to our service.
I have a friend who worked in Central America helping to organize visits from church youth groups. She had one that took to throwing American footballs and coins out the windows of their van while driving through small communities. They took joy in watching the flocks of children clamoring after the van and crying out with delight at the money and strange misshapen balls. My friend, who had quite a bit of experience serving these communities, first asked, then pleaded, then admonished them to stop. The accompanying pastor reproached her for attempting to limit the youths’ expression of love. He chastised her for stifling their well-intentioned generosity and curbing their fun. As far as he was concerned, it was a beautiful thing to see young Americans eager to share their blessings with the poor children of Guatemala and having a good time doing it together. It should be reinforced and encouraged, he said, not tempered.
If you’re not sure whether to cringe or side with the pastor, that’s okay; that’s why I chose this example. It is neither extreme nor rhetorical. It wasn’t a disaster, and the pastor had a point – it is beautiful to see young Americans eager to share – but it demonstrates the dangers of not bounding our service by a few principles.
This is why I think this is a bad example of service. Its not that footballs and money are bad or unnecessary, but the way they were given was a dehumanizing treatment of the children. Rather than bridging the power differential between the wealthy and poor youth, the passing interaction only reinforced it. The need to have fun, take pictures and bring home amazing stories from an exotic place defined the agenda more than the values, resources and contextual reality of those being served, to which little interest was shown. Rather than stopping and taking an interest in these communities, the speeding vanload reinforced their isolation and unimportance. They didn’t even warrant a real visit; instead, they had stuff tossed at them in passing.
The youth group didn’t see the division, jealousy and strife among the children left in their wake, some of whom were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, some who weren’t. They didn’t reflect on the possibility that the attitude conveyed in their actions might have debilitating effects on the children’s views of themselves and of North Americans.
We should not be paralyzed by the fear of committing errors, but we should be self-conscious and think critically about how we go about serving others. Taking the time to submit our community service to a few principles should help us to avoid doing harm and, with God’s good grace, may help us be part of a positive process of transformation.