By request I’m republishing the original Staying for Tea article as a 6-part series of blog posts. The article was first published in The Global Citizen in 2005. There will be some minor changes, for example in the new introduction. As I post each section, the following links will become active: [1: Stay for Tea] [2: Process Matters] [3: Focus on Values] [4: Check Your Filter] [5: Cultivate a Servant’s Heart] [6: Conclusion]
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Each year hundreds of young men and women enter into community-service volunteer work. Many thousands more have made community development work their profession. If you are one of these, this article is for you. Many of my friends have spent time as service volunteers in communities that were not their own. As we’ve compared our experiences, a few recognizable gems of value turned up with remarkable consistency. Many of us made the same unnecessary blunders and learned the same lessons. I’ve tried to distill these lessons into a set of principles and I share them with you to help you avoid our mistakes. Many of us have concluded that having a set of principles to guide your community development work is critical. Although these are not universally applicable or complete, if you have not yet developed your own, let these be a starting point.
Principle #1: Stay for Tea.
In 1998, I was living with my late wife in Bañado de la Cruz as a volunteer with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). Our mission in this isolated Bolivian village was something MCC called “accompaniment.” Although I had an intuitive sense of what this word meant, I wasn’t really sure how to do it, how to translate the mission into items on my to-do list. MCC didn’t let us generate plans and launch projects; we were supposed to simply accompany the community in their endogenous process of development. But I had been invited into Bañado by the community, so clearly they expected something from me. I was supposed to know something and do something that would contribute to the welfare of this community. But many days I awoke not knowing what this something was.
On those days, when no clear task was before me, I would often just walk out the front door and proceed down the one dusty road that passed through town. As I walked I would meet folks and we’d call out greetings to one another. Some would invite me over to sit for while with them. Often we’d share a hot cup of tea. Sometimes we would talk about one of the projects we were working on – honey bees, dry latrines, or accounting at the farmers’ co-op – but usually we would just ask talk about life, about the places we were from and had been, about our families, and about how Krista and I were adjusting to life in Bañado. I had to confess that we were struggling; we weren’t used to living in a one-room home of mud and stucco with no electricity or running water. I didn’t understand the language or customs very well. I kept getting sick and suffering minor injuries. I didn’t even know how to irrigate my own experimental corn plot.
After some time, I realized that something else was happening over tea. My title and position were being eroded; I was becoming real to them. At the same time, my simplistic stereotypes of them were melting away; they were becoming real to me. I ceased to be a community development volunteer; I was just a new neighbor, an outsider in over my head trying to fit in and make friends. I was socially awkward and often not very useful. They ceased to be the poor, helpless people in need of outside assistance. Instead, I saw them as strong, resourceful people whose resilience in a tough place demanded my deepest respect. My eyes were opened up to just how much Krista and I depended on their generosity and friendship. They gave us food from their lands, taught us how to wash in the river and use local plants to heal our bodies, invited us into their homes and shared both their wisdom and folly. I even learned how to irrigate properly.
Over tea we built trust and became vulnerable together. Slowly, I was given access to insider knowledge of the community and the complex social rules and history that governed it. For instance, I learned who threw the rock that widowed my neighbor, who had 12 children. I was told about the abusive behavior of another neighbor, whose wife’s father had to move in to his house to protect her, and how the community was split along two clan lines that jostled for power. Mysterious behavior began to make sense, hidden problems were brought to light, bigger dreams and deeper fears were disclosed. I was shown the social topography that I needed to navigate to become relevant and useful to the community. My work gained traction and moved forward in ways that gave the community reason to be grateful for my presence there. Staying for tea helped us to become mutually indebted. I call this operating at eye-level with the community, and this made all the difference in the quality and impact of our time together.
It is not healthy or productive to allow yourself to be falsely perceived as a hero, or to perceive yourself as such. You can actually disempower the members of the community by cultivating an image of having it all together and having all the answers. It is actually easy and tempting to abuse the power differential with which you may have come into the community. People with false expectation of who you are will submit their own good ideas to your bad ones and rely on your weakness rather than their own strength. They may even count your failures as their own. So it is critical to be honest about your own needs and vulnerabilities, to generate opportunities to receive in the places where you serve, to become mutually indebted and to develop real relationships that help you operate at eye-level with the community.