By Jen Hatmaker
I wrote a little book about our missional church. Then my husband wrote a little book along the same lines. Now everyone thinks our church is awesome. More awesome and spectacular than it is, actually. Real life is always less shiny than the print version.
Because of this, I get frequent e-mails like this one from a college student in Michigan:
Me and my friends want to drive to Austin during Spring Break and serve with ANC. Can you connect us with your nonprofit partners and can we sleep on your floor? We’re not weird.”
Besides unknowingly signing themselves up for “Spring Break 2012: A Lesson on Birth Control” (I’ve got five kids, 14 and under), they would’ve robbed themselves of a fabulous opportunity right in their own backyard.
Here’s how I responded: “Our service in Austin is not special. Our homeless people are no different from the ones in your community. Our refugee population has the same urgent needs as yours. Our foster system is overburdened and under-resourced, just like the one in your city. There’s no special magic when we paint a wall or throw a football with kids or sort food or clean a house. You’d get here and think, Hmm. So I guess we’re just pulling weeds here. We drove 1,200 miles to pull weeds.”
Here’s the bigger issue: When we drive to another city for “a mission trip,” it reinforces this notion that important, valuable work is elsewhere — that community renewal is found in someone else’s city with a little more pizazz, a bit more intrigue. We’ll go there, do the stuff, then come home to our usual lives.
In so many ways, it hands us a free pass to make missional work an event, something separate from the dailyness of our time, energy, and resources. We don’t have to recalibrate our lives around it; just a week or so.
The thing is, there’s urgent work to do in your community. And, by the way, none of it is fancy or romantic, so just shelve that misconception. It’s gritty, tiring, and sometimes disappointing. The deeper you connect with cycles of poverty and systemic issues, the quicker you’ll realize there are no magic bullets, and renewal is messy. It’s like those rad pictures from the ‘80s where you unfocused your eyes and slowly an image would appear out of the chaos; from far away, it seemed obvious, but the closer you got, it lost its clear edges and became a bunch of disconnected dots. The more we press into poverty, the more complicated and imprecise it becomes.
Find the poorest school in your city. Call the counselor and offer one or two hours a week to mentor or tutor or read out loud.
So rather than driving to Austin (unless you’d like to join us for a little live music, Mexican food, and general awesomeness), may I make some suggestions for sticking in your own backyard, fighting for the spiritual and social renewal of your own community? Try some of these options on for size:
- Find the poorest school in your city. Call the counselor and offer one or two hours a week to mentor or tutor or read out loud. Healthy mentorship is absolutely one of the most effective strategies for at-risk kids.
- Call Big Brothers Big Sisters. Every chapter I know has a long waiting list of kids and not enough mentors. A couple of hours a week is all that’s required.
- Get together with your friends and make a few hundred “gift bags” for the homeless. Include a bottle of water, crackers, granola bars, a new pair of socks, a toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant, and shampoo. (Much of this can be donated … get creative. Call local dentists, hotels, and grocery stores.) Keep them in your cars at all times, ready to pass out at every corner.
- Purge your closet and donate your clothes. Think strategically, beyond dumping them at Goodwill. Find a local women’s shelter or safe house or refugee center.
- Start a weekly “read aloud” at a nursing home. My girlfriend is on her eighth book at a local home. She and her 10 residents are currently reading The Secret Life of Bees. They are in love with her. She reads an hour a week in the lounge (and then gossips with them for 20 minutes).
- Find an adoptive family or single mom or dad and offer to babysit for free. I can’t tell you what a service you’re providing to the whole family. We had college students do this for us, and the time together as a couple was invaluable. We came home better parents.
- As a student, your greatest resource is your energy, passion, and time. Fortunately, these are the exact needs of most local organizations. Maybe one day when your fancy degree secures you gainful employment, you can also help fund disparity. But for now, your time, enthusiasm, love, and service are your greatest offerings. Give them away, students. Your communities need you.
JEN HATMAKER lives in Austin with her husband, Brandon, and their five children. She is the author of nine books including A Modern Girl’s Guide to Bible Study, Interrupted, and Seven. Visit her at jenhatmaker.com.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2012-13 issue of Collegiate Magazine. To order, click here or on the magazine cover.
A really innovative nonprofit called Plywood People has an idea for you and your friends. They pioneered an initiative called Gift Card Giver based on the fact that there are 15 billion dollars of unused gift cards in America this year alone.
They’re asking folks to host a house party where everyone “gets carded” at the door, leaving any unused gift cards in a basket. Those cards are then mailed in to Gift Card Giver, and here’s what they do: “We collect the donated gift cards and organize them in secure bins by company name. When we obtain a reasonable mass of dollars in gift cards (typically between $100-$500), we give those cards toward a project, person, or organization that can best use that gift card for a significant need.”
Check out their Web site at giftcardgiver.com for party ideas, downloadable invitations, stories, and more details!