Day 4: Relationships are Complicated

Complicated is such a loaded word when talking about relationships. It’s kind of like the word interesting in its fake neutrality. In any case, I wanted to write today about how mission relationships are inherently complicated. Communication gaps occur that aren’t anybody’s fault especially when different languages are involved. As some of you from Burke UMC know, we have had a relationship with a school in Cambita for about 13 years. For the first 9 or so years of this relationship, we were helping them build their school-building year after year. Then in 2008, we built a basketball court (that I played on today). Since that time, they have not expressed a need for the kinds of physical unskilled construction projects that Volunteers in Mission teams can do most easily in a week and a half of time. So we’ve gone elsewhere and our relationship with the school that we helped to build has gotten complicated.

For the last three years (from what I understand), we have gone back to Cambita to visit for a few hours each time a team has come down here. We have continued to sponsor scholarships for students at the school, but our communication with the director of the school and her husband, the lay-pastor of the adjoining congregation, has been pretty limited. Our conversation with them today began a little tensely. It turns out they have had financial shortfalls that we haven’t known about. The upshot of the conversation is an agreement from them to provide us with a presupuesto (budget) for the next school-year as well as monthly reports of how the money is being spent. In addition, we’ve asked them to provide us with a wish-list beyond the budget in case there are individuals in our church who want to help support special side-projects that catch their eye. We also talked about getting photos of the teachers at the school with short bios to help our congregation have a greater sense of who we’re supporting. They’ve got photos and videos of what they do at the school but it’s difficult to transmit some of the larger files online.

One thing that’s complicated is that it’s easier to ask people in our church to pay for the scholarship costs of individual students at Cambita when the reality is that the school has many legitimate overhead needs that can’t be described in terms of an individual student’s educational experience. Another complication is the fact that Cambita hasn’t had the physical labor need that we use as an “excuse” to get people from our congregation down to the Dominican Republic to create the longer-term spiritual and economic solidarity which is the deeper goal of short-term mission work.

Since the town of Samangola needed a church building, we’ve come down to work on their church at least the last couple of summers. Now we’re starting to develop a relationship with Carolina, the pastor of Samangola, and all the laity in that church community, which draws us away from being as committed to Cambita as before. It’s challenging to me that our relationships are being determined by the ability of Dominican congregations to give us unskilled labor projects that short-term mission teams can accomplish when what they might say they need from us is straight-up liquid cash (that could go for example to employing local workers to pour concrete and build church walls). Sometimes there is a tension between the twin objectives of mission — creating discipleship opportunities for those serving and addressing the real needs of those being served. It’s complicated.

I think we just have to be honest about the fact that what we do down here is every bit as much about our discipleship as it is about serving our brothers’ and sisters’ concrete physical needs. We need to be intentional about continually evaluating whether our need for something to do jives with what our brothers and sisters in Christ need for us to do with them. Both needs are legitimate, and we need to name the fact that we are no less needy than the people who we serve. We need to serve because that’s a critical part of how we are fed by God.

We have talked in very vague and preliminary terms about how to handle our expanding set of relationships in the Dominican Republic. One possibility is to add a January mission trip that would return to Cambita along with the summer trips that would perhaps continue to come to Samangola or other places. Our Cambita friends shared some unskilled construction needs that they have which are legitimate; we also need to be in community with them and to continue to support the important work they are doing with the 60 preschool students who come to their school.

What makes missions complicated is there’s a whole globe of need out there. I really think as the church, we’re supposed to build relationships with other faith communities and develop how we help people out of those relationships rather than randomly shotgun blasting our support across the globe of need without creating the critical ties of genuine community that make the body of Christ different than secular relief organizations. How do we this in practical terms? It’s complicated.

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