[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.]
Oppressive missional models of service that only want to do to or for others have been labeled the White Savior complex, reductive seduction or poverty tourism. These outdated service models tend to exploit and seek to control and retain power over others, in the process devaluing the leadership gifts within local communities. Many within MCC are aware of the challenges that need to be navigated when conducting short-term missions. Awareness of theory, however, does not automatically provide immunity from inadvertently participating in cycles that further oppression: deliberate action and ongoing reflection are needed. When it comes to the topic of short-term missions, with is a key word. MCC’s Summer Service program in the United States has been designed out of a conviction that true transformation occurs when individuals and communities are able to exercise their own agency, with MCC simply playing a supporting, or accompanying, role.
The primary focus of MCC U.S.’s Summer
Service program is on empowering local leadership, on equipping young adults from within communities of color to identify and work for the changes that are needed within their own communities.”
What I find powerful about the MCC Summer Service program in the U.S. is that it is specifically for people of color to serve in their own communities. Its primary focus is on empowering local leadership and building up young adults of color. The program is not about sending young adults to disadvantaged communities for the summer to make a change, but rather about raising up local leadership from within communities of color to identify and work for the changes that are needed within their own communities. MCC’s role in this program is to partner with churches of color. MCC does not impose a uniform model of ministry or seek to control the service projects of young adults of color in their communities. MCC works with leaders from the contexts in which Summer Service
participants work, trusting that these communities have the solutions and resources to accomplish their goals.
People of color can sometimes replicate patterns of colonialism as we work at leadership development and missions. As a person of color leading the Summer Service program, I need to be aware of when I’m operating out of the dominant culture and not working with churches and young adults. I want to avoid dominant culture patterns that emphasize perfectionism, quantity over quality, paternalism and power hoarding.
I learned the value of working with others during my first year as an urban youth pastor. On sunny, warm days, local pastors would go the community park and carry out activities with the neighborhood kids. One young boy would always be there. He loved playing outside and working in our community garden. After a few weeks, I noticed a pattern. Even though he was eight years old and could physically swing by himself, he would always ask to be pushed on the swing by an adult. Or when tying shoes, he would often ask an adult to do it. I began to wonder: Is he doing it for attention? Does he lack the skills? Is it easier for him not to learn, knowing others will do it for him? Peter Block, an author about community building, claims that “Every time you help someone, you’ve colonized them.” This is strong language, but I think it is true. When we do things for or to people, we take away their agency. If you do that for long enough, people begin to believe they can only receive and never give, that they lack the ability or skills to make change and in turn they lose their sense of dignity and worth. The boy in the park had things done to or for him for far too long. As pastors, we didn’t want to fall into the trap so many other churches have of perpetuating oppression. We had to think critically
about what it meant to form lasting relationships and work with others inour community. We wanted to learn the role of the church in addressing trauma and to avoid perpetuating a cycle of oppression.
MCC needs to be aware of when it is acting out the dominant culture and not living out the kingdom of God. I believe if MCC creates space for more people of color in leadership, we can break away from the old models of short-term missions and dominant culture patterns. By including people of color in leadership and at the planning stages within MCC, we avoid perpetuating oppression, we share power and we recognize that there is not one right way to lead. As MCC provides mission and service opportunities, may we remember the incarnational model of Jesus Christ who walked with us, proclaimed good news to the marginalized and restored right relationships between us and God and with one another.
Danilo Sanchez is MCC U.S. Summer Service national coordinator.
Banister, Doug. Seek the Peace of the City: Ten Ways to Bless the Place Where You Live. Knoxville, TN: All Souls, 2013. Available at https://allsoulsknoxville.com/seekthe-peace-ebook/.
Block, Peter. Community: The Structure of Belonging. Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009.
Corbett, Steve and Brian Fikkert. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor or Yourself. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014.
Martin, Courtney. “The ReductiveSeduction of Other People’s Problems.” Bright. January 11, 2016. Available at https://brightthemag.com/the-reductive-seductionof-other-people-s-problems-3c07b307732d.