Service (Spring 2018)

[Individual articles from the Spring 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

The concept of service—specifically, of Christian service—has been central to MCC’s identity over the course of its nearly century-long history. Yet service is more than a concept: it takes embodied form. Theology, identity and action all come together in the praxis of Christian service. When embodied service crosses international, socio-economic and cultural boundaries, questions and complications emerge. Legacies of colonialism, racism and unequal power and wealth distribution shape the identities of people engaged in service and the communities in which service takes place. The experience of service is as much shaped by the individuals participating in a term of service as it is formed through the structure and ethos of the organization and program through which they serve.

In Black Faces, White Spaces, African-American academic Carolyn Finney contends that one’s experience of a place is intertwined with that location’s socio-economic and cultural histories. One’s embodied experience of service will thus in turn be shaped by the histories of the place where one serves. How can Christian service programs, such as those offered by MCC, best recognize and honor these diverse histories and factor those histories into how service programs are structured?

A recent experience underscored the importance of such questions for me. I serve as the Canadian coordinator of the International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP), a program in which young adults from the global South come to Canada and the U.S. for eleven months of service. Recently, as I drove a group of IVEP participants across Canada on the way to their mid-year conference, I shouted out, “We’re crossing the border from Manitoba to Saskatchewan!” “Ah yes,” replied an IVEPer from Zimbabwe, who was serving at an Indigenous centre in Winnipeg, “we are crossing from Treaty 2 territory into Treaty 4 territory.” This young woman from Zimbabwe had lived in the country of my birth for less than six months, yet spoke far more profoundly about the reality of the land we were driving across than I had. I was humbled. This experience reminded me that again and again I need to relearn the history of the place I inhabit. Sometimes it takes outside eyes to see this. Everything I have ever experienced is through the body of a white, straight, educated Canadian of middle-class background, with ready access to a passport and family support. I need other perspectives to see more fully.

Service is more than a concept: it takes embodied form. Theology, identity and action all come together in the praxis of Christian service. When embodied service crosses international, socioeconomic and cultural boundaries, questions and complications emerge

Preparing people for cross-cultural service and exchange means addressing different cultural assumptions about our embodied selves. For IVEP, that means preparing young adults from 28 different countries for a year of negotiating cultural assumptions in Canada and the United States while in service. A recent review by MCC in Zimbabwe of Zimbabwean host families’ experiences in receiving and hosting young adults from
around the world for one-year service assignments helped me initiate conversations with IVEP orientees about the challenges to negotiate in life in cross-cultural service. The review found that Zimbabwean hosts reported that the young adults from Canada and the U.S. living with them sometimes did not bathe or dress properly, while engaging in a variety of other behaviors that seemed out of place or even inappropriate to the
Zimbabwean hosts. These host families wondered how best to address these situations. This report changed the way I was able to discuss crosscultural living with IVEP participants who were about to meet their own U.S and Canadian host families. After asking IVEP participants to read the report, we asked them what challenges Canadian and U.S. hosts might face in hosting them. Suddenly, orientees recognized service as multi-directional, not just from the global North to the global South, as an opportunity for cross-cultural learning from one another across multiple lines of difference.

This issue of Intersections explores shifting understandings of service across MCC’s history and various dimensions of how Christian service involves our embodied selves and of how factors such as gender and nationality shape experiences of service. It also includes a summary of key findings of a study that examined the impact of MCC’s eleven-month service programs for young adults. Together, these articles reveal some of
the complexities, challenges and opportunities involved in serving in the name of Christ.

Kathryn Deckert is the Canada coordinator for MCC’s International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP).

Learn more

Finney, Carolyn. Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. Raleigh, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

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