I went home for a family reunion this weekend. It's always great to hang out with friends and family who unconditionally love you. I happen to have a really great family. I know not everyone is that blessed.
Most people in my family, whether or not we see each other in between the 5 year reunions, know that I work for an inner-city ministry and know that I work with kids. This is always difficult for me. I am always troubled by the way people approach me and tell me, "I hear you are doing such great work!"
I know that sounds odd and I probably should just take their comments at face value and move on. But let me explain my delimma. When people say that, I always have to wonder what they mean by their comment. I always wonder if they would make the same comment if I were working with a suburban, predominantly White ministry.
I think I have so much trouble responding because I know what we do at our ministry is not "typical" for most ministries I've seen. We are so much more than a charity stop. How do you explain to someone that our ministry is about handshakes, not handouts? It's about justice, not just crises management? It's about fighting for quality schools for children, not just providing them a "safe place" for an hour or two after school? It's about educating suburban, rural, and middle class people in order to help them understand that relationships are reciprocal, racism is real, and poverty affects a person's life more than people with money will ever understand? It's about building relationships and friendships with people. It's more than just handing out food. It's more than just a mission trip.
People have such good intentions. I know they mean well. I know when people ask if they can 'help' and volunteer for a day that they are trying in the only way they know how. I know when people ask about the kids I work with and want to know how much impact I have had on their lives that they really just want to know that good things are being done. I know when they say they are proud of me, they really are.
But what I want people to realize is that what I do is not 'helping underprivileged kids.' The 'underprivileged kids' and people I 'work with' are my friends. We are all in this together.
Do I encourage some of my friends here in the inner-city to make different choices and think differently about things? Of course I do! I do that the same as I do with my close friends outside of inner-city Dallas when I don't agree with a decision or choice they have made. But in addition to me handing out advice and accountability, my friends here in the inner city do the same for me. It's a two-way street. And in order for both of us to grow, we have to be willing to learn from each other. That's what I don't think people understand.
Ministry isn't one-way charity. Jesus built relationships with people...often with the most unlikely people for a man of his stature. Through his relationships, he held people accountable. He was critical of the upper-class religious person just as much as he was of the prostitute...no more, no less. He thought religious piety was just as bad as a woman who had slept with many men.
Jesus hung out with the people others (especially religious folk) condemned. He went to their homes and hung out. He did not go to their house to judge them. He went to eat dinner and enjoy their company. Through those relationships, ministry often came to him. He didn't have to seek it out.
We need a paradigm shift in ministry. Maybe we should approach life the same way Jesus did. Maybe if we lived our lives in a way that built relationships with all people, opportunities for ministry would seek us out instead of us having to contrive ways for us to "minister to" people.