When we got a phone call from a larger, wealthier church from a larger, wealthier town offering a service project a few years ago, we readily accepted. For several years my husband Tony and I co-pastored a small, rural church that had many needs. The other church had a group of middle and high school students coming to our area to attend a camp, and some of them wanted to volunteer to work in their afternoons and pay for the supplies.
It seemed like a great idea. As teens, Tony and I had participated in similar service projects, so we were excited to be a part of this one. But we had always been on the giving side, never on the receiving side.
Our elders got together with pastors from the other church and made a plan: paint the walls and the deck, paint the grid in the drop ceiling, tear out some bushes and put in a patio, plant flowers, clean out the yard, and put in new glass doors for the front entrance. The pastor threw around dollar amounts to donate that seemed outrageous to us.
The kids were eager and excited to help. They gave up their afternoon camp activities—waterskiing, zip-lining, etc.—to serve us. And we were genuinely grateful. But the gift began to feel complicated.
It was small things, like the paint drips on our carpet. No one would expect a middle-schooler to be careful enough not to drip, or even to remember to use a drop cloth. But the adults with them didn’t seem to notice either, even as they watched Tony and I crouch on the floor to scrub out the spots. We ran around with drop cloths, trying tactfully to remind them. When you are on the receiving end of help, it is hard to correct the helper. You don’t want to appear ungrateful.
The same happened with a small table we used to hold our offering. It was not a nice table, but it sat below the cross and held Sunday morning tithe offerings. The volunteers used it to hold a paint bucket without a drop cloth. The paint puddled at the base of the bucket and the mess stayed there for days.
I don’t think they were being malicious. They genuinely wanted to help. But they didn’t seem to be able to see that the carpet or the table were valuable to us. They were not nice. They were worn, stained, and out of style, but they were ours. They were going to stay there for a long time. I struggled to understand why the adults of the group were not taking care of our worship space. I wanted to shout, “I know it’s ugly! But it’s our home!”
When they left, the painting was not finished. A pea gravel patio had been built but with so much gravel it was unusable for anyone, especially those in our congregation with walkers or wheelchairs. Because of their church’s thriving basketball ministry, they had insisted on installing a basketball hoop, but it didn’t fit our context and was never used.
There were screws left sticking out of walls and badly done carpentry projects that we now had to repair. The promised glass doors, patio tables, and chairs never arrived and were never mentioned.
At the time we were confused about the mix of feelings all of this brought on. We were genuinely grateful for much of what they had given and for their desire to help, but it took time to sort out why we also felt violated. I wanted to encourage the good thing they were doing while also wishing they weren’t doing it.
Tony and I knew we would to have to show up to church on Sunday morning with the building half-heartedly transformed. We wondered what it would say to our congregants about their worth. Many of our congregants live with repeated rejection and abuse, and we worked hard to try to restore in them a sense that they were infinitely valuable before God. The impersonal and unfinished changes to our building seemed to contradict our message.
Now I believe we felt injured because their service did not feel like love. Love requires intimacy and knowing, but this felt like we were only a means to their ends.
We could have been any church, any group of “needy people” anywhere, and their behavior would have been the same. We became the faceless object of their service, used to teach their children, to drum up good religious feelings in them, to bring them closer to Jesus. We were only bystanders for their purposes, not real participants in them. They didn’t see the value in our worn-out carpet or our shabby offering table because they didn’t see us.
The church intended to love us, but did not realize that in order to love, you must know the other. Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez challenges us: “So you say you love the poor. Name them.” A name is a good place to start, a meal is better, and life-together is even better than that. Real love requires knowing, listening, understanding. It cannot be foisted on people from a distance.
There are a few bright spots in this memory. I feel grateful for one young girl who took care of our children, who became a Facebook friend after the fact, and has been in touch. There was also an engineer who returned to our church twice after the rest had left. Once he sat with us for dinner on the patio. His continuing presence, his willingness to spend time with us, made his work, at least, feel like love.
As I imagine churches excitedly preparing for their summer mission trips, there are several things I would like to suggest to communities on either side of service projects.
For groups who receive:
Recognize the power dynamic and address it. It is very difficult to correct a giver. Every awkward Christmas present received with a smile is evidence of that. The awkwardness is only amplified as you increase the resources offered, or the disparity between education, expertise, socioeconomic level, etc. It could have helped us to say at the outset, “We are so grateful that you are here. If there should ever be a problem, it might be awkward for us to bring it up. Would you mind checking in with us each day?” If they don’t seem receptive to hearing feedback I would recommend not moving forward.
Speak up. Remember that you and your community are not less valuable because you are on the receiving end of this relationship. Your voice matters. This is your community and your space and they have come to serve you. If things are not going well, you can kindly ask for what you need or even end the project early. In the long run, that may be a better learning experience for the volunteering church.
Share life together. Enjoying meals and serving alongside one another can help the two groups better know each other and even form a long-term relationship. Consider what your community might offer so that your service can be mutual rather than one-sided.
For communities who give:
Listen attentively. When a receiving community speaks up, it is vulnerable and risky. Know that when they do venture out, they are saying something important. If it seems silly to you, work to understand why it is important to them. This is an opportunity to show them a deeper kind of love. We can make that easier by checking in regularly and asking specific questions. Feedback or criticism is a success. It means that you are safe to approach despite the obstacles. It means that you have engaged in a real relationship.
Invite the receiving community to teach you something. Ask about the strengths of the community you’ve come to serve and invite them to share about themselves. Resist the temptation to take charge of every minute. Make space for the receiving community to lead you.
Focus your attention on those being served, not on the feelings of your volunteers. It feels good to do good things, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it is tempting to let the encouragement of your community be the goal. They will all learn much more about love if they learn how to listen and receive feedback so that their service can be valuable to those who receive it.
Cultivate that idea that less privileged people have something that you do not have. From my time working with less privileged communities I have learned that when Jesus says, “blessed are the poor,” there is real content to that blessing. As a member of the middle-class my instinct is to assume that blessing means physical, financial, and emotional comfort, but Jesus didn’t think about it that way.
In the Gospels it is often the rich, powerful, and educated who miss what Jesus had to say, and those people on the margins are the ones who receive it. Those of us who are affluent have things to learn about life, about God, about the good news of the gospel from those who worship from a less privileged space. I would love to see groups entering service projects with this kind of humble spirit knowing that what they receive will always be more than they give.
This experience gave me new eyes to see my own acts of generosity. Tony and I have transitioned to a more affluent church, and I hope that experience changes the way that we do ministry. Even when people want and need what we have to give, they can still leave the experience feeling used.
Author and priest Gregory Boyle says, “The measure of our compassion lies not in our service to others but in our willingness to see ourselves connected to them.” Love is not something that you can do to another. It is something you do with them.
Jesus walked with us before he died for us. God took on our flesh and experienced birth, childhood, love, career, suffering, loss, temptation. He knew us. He did not come simply to sacrifice himself, but also to know. Even if he knew us before he came, he went to great pains to show us that we were known.
Jennifer Holmes Curran is a writer, pastor, and parent in Grand Rapids, Michigan.