Adam Taylor recently reflected on his “Pilgrimage to the Lower Ninth Ward,” and I’ve been wanting to tell my own story since October, but the timing has never seemed quite right. Now, with Black History Month coming to a close, and much attention focused on the recovery progress of New Orleans because of Mardi Gras, it seems like a good moment to reflect on attitudes toward racial tensions and disparities at home and abroad, most recently revealed by Hurricane Katrina.
Readers of SojoMail may remember that in July 2006 Sojourners/Call to Renewal sent a team of volunteers on a rebuilding mission to Biloxi, Mississippi. You can see images and stories from that trip in my Voices of Katrina presentation. I was able to take another trip the Gulf Coast in October, this time with a team from my church in support of an amazing ministry in New Orleans called Urban Impact. I’ve incorporated photos from that trip into a new presentation titled Songs of Hope.
I’m one of those people who’s been on half a dozen short-term missions trips but worries that they’re often little more than high-priced field trips for wealthy church folk. Often the image of the white missionary attempting to bring “hope” to “dark” corners of the earth prevails. Any reputable relief and development organization could take that money and effort a lot farther though local churches and partners. Many people who sponsor such trips are honest enough to admit that much of the benefit is for the gringos (or muzungus, depending on the continent): to have their horizons broadened, their comfort zones stretched, and their dependence on God deepened.
These are good goals, but I still want to vomit when the most profound insight gained from the whole experience is, “It really makes you appreciate what we have.” It should make you question, just how did we get all that we have? Could it have anything to do with a history of exploiting, oppressing, and actively impoverishing the very countries where we’re now doing missions? One also hopes that we could find just as many opportunities for service within 100 miles of home.
Yet in spite of my critiques, I’ve participated in several such trips – to Honduras after Hurricane Mitch, to the Ugandan border with Sudan – always for what I believe is the best reason to enter such places of suffering: to listen, learn, and be informed by these places, and then to bring back stories that will inspire others to support sustainable development and ultimately justice – not mere hit-and-run charity. Mennonite Central Committee has even promoted the more honest concept of “Learning Tours” – which is how I traveled to Colombia in 2003.
All of that to say, that the Gulf Coast region after Katrina is a very different scenario. With such vast devastation – and more than year later, it’s still plenty devastated – what is really needed are thousands of people to make a national pilgrimage of repentance to help rebuild. Whomever you prefer to blame, our nation failed these communities, both historically and in this moment of crisis. And as was so starkly seen on rooftops and in arenas, communities of color were disproportionately affected. Sending money to organizations already working there is good, but materials and local contractors are so expensive that infusions of eager volunteers are far more appropriate on the Gulf Coast than in a more typical overseas mission context. In this case, your money generally can’t do more than your actual presence.
Without many of the typical barriers of language and culture found in overseas projects, real exchange and real relationships are that much more possible – as opposed to a clique of church teens jetting to Peru and back in a bubble of privilege. Certainly, there are still issues of cultural sensitivity. Privilege is problematic in any context. People who’ve lost everything do not need lectures from well-meaning, middle-class suburbanites about how to responsibly spend their FEMA emergency funds. They need solidarity, and a listening ear. And God forbid you should try to pull a James 2:15-17 – we need you to get your hands dirty. On this trip in particular, Urban Impact provided several moments of teaching, educating our group about the government response to Katrina (or lack thereof), the history of inequality in their community, and their desire to seek God’s justice based on Isaiah 58 and Jeremiah 22:16 – all the while modeling a multi-ethnic congregation based on loving your neighbor. (I’m sure it’s not perfect – no church is – but it provides a real challenge to many of our more complacent congregations.)
I anticipate comments about the life-transforming experiences that are only possible internationally, and about how many missions organizations are providing the kind of teaching I’ve just described at Urban Impact. Wonderful. Both my finacée and I would cite such experiences abroad as being pivotal points in our pursuit of God’s call to do justice. I just really, really, really want everybody to go to New Orleans, Biloxi, or anywhere on the Gulf Coast where people are still in need, and see that folks much closer to home are just as worthy of your time and money, and in this case, your work and presence may actually be their best – or only – option.
Ryan Beiler is the Web Editor for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.