Imposed Blessings on Ferguson

A friend of mine had been leading students for some time to the same village in Guatemala. After years of trust building, listening and serving, the local pastor finally asked my friend, “This summer, would you and your team be willing to help us to tear down a structure? It was built for us by another short term mission team, but we really don’t need it and it’s taking up space we need for other things.”

There are numerous short term mission teams that construct new buildings, but this was the first short term mission team de-constructing a new building that I had heard about.

The problem with those of us who have the social privilege, the finances and the mobility to travel is that we like to impose blessings upon others. This is not an indictment on the good-natured spirit behind our imposed blessings; it is simply an acknowledgement that imposed blessings are rarely blessings to those who receive them, particularly when there is cultural distance between us and the people we visit. We too often rush to give people we don’t really know what we think they need from our insular, ethnocentric perspective. And since we have the power and wealth to give them what we believe they need, we do so, with all the genuineness and sincerity and misguided generosity we can muster.

The problem with those of us who have the social privilege, the finances and the mobility to travel is that we like to impose blessings upon others... We too often rush to give people we don’t really know what we think they need from our insular, ethnocentric perspective. And since we have the power and wealth to give them what we believe they need, we do so, with all the genuineness and sincerity and misguided generosity we can muster.

Generally speaking, people don’t need our money, our construction materials, our know-how, our labor or our words as much as they need our ears and our solidarity. Solidarity is the purest gift someone can give to another. A short term mission that does not employ the gift of listening and standing alongside is a missed opportunity. Of course there are times for action; times to jump into the middle of a mess with others. But my experience suggests that action should come only after a period of listening and solidarity.

Listening comes before speaking. Standing with someone comes before doing stuff for them.

The mistreatment of Black people in the United States predates our establishment as a country. From the rounding up of free Africans by slave traders, to their treacherous transport to the New World; from mob-spawned lynchings, to the killing of unarmed Black men by police with impunity, this is not something new. Black citizens have experienced the tragic reality of racism in our country for centuries.

But a fresh awareness, concern and action is beginning to emerge today. What an amazing opportunity to see more of God’s will done on earth as in heaven. Those seeking first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness currently have a chance to step into what I believe is a movement of the Spirit which will bring kingdom shalom and address centuries old racism in America.

But how can the community of faith from outside Ferguson best serve our Black brothers and sisters in that community?

For those of us coming to the Urbana 15 student missions conference in St. Louis there is a temptation to rush into Ferguson, Missouri in order to impose any number of blessings upon that community. But I would caution us from speaking or doing before we listen and stand with our Black friends. Here is a short checklist:

  1. Do your homework. There are a number of intelligent discussions going on regarding how to respond to bent systems. Campaign Zero, for instance, offers policy solutions from the perspective of Black or bi-racial leaders. While not faith-based, those of us in the faith community need to learn from and work alongside many who desire the sort of change we believe God longs for.
  2. Sit at the feet of Black leaders. Urbana 15 will bring those active in Ferguson to us. We need to capitalize on the opportunity to learn from those who are living and working long-term in the areas in which we want to invest. There are other Black leaders within our faith community whom we need to learn from. Leaders such as Sean Watkins, Jonathan Walton and Michelle Higgins.
  3. Look inside before trying to change others. Self-examination is always a great place to begin when trying to impact societal change. How have I accepted, embraced or acquiesced to racial bias? Are there ways I can begin to effect change by confronting my own attitude and posture? How might I build a diverse array friendships with people who would be willing to engage in helpful confrontation?
  4. Join a local effort. In my town, Madison, Wisconsin, there is a movement of change being championed by faith leaders called Justified Anger. In addition, my predominantly White church fellowship prays once a month with a predominantly Black church for the healing of racial divides in our community. Many communities have local expressions where you could be involved.

Before those of us at Urbana who are not Black but who care about the issue of race in America rush into Ferguson to erect a building that is not asked for and not needed, let’s employ some good missiology. Let’s listen before we speak. Let’s stand alongside before we rush in to do something. Solidarity and listening are the greatest gifts you can offer Ferguson.

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