The First Time

31 Oct

I suspect most readers of this blog are veterans at leading service learning trips, but not me. As of last weekend I have exactly one trip under my belt. My ministry is designed to work collaboratively with other campus groups and so I seldom have the opportunity to take students on these trips. In fact, last weekend’s trip was a collaborative event involving three different collegiate ministries and included students from two colleges. That makes it sound like we were a big group, but we weren’t. We were 2 advisors and 6 students. This was, I think, a good size group to begin with. As I said, this was my first trip as a leader and because I didn’t grow up in the church this was only my second service learning trip ever. The learning curve is fairly steep for me.

The eight of us traveled from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Benton Harbor, Michigan. Benton Harbor is a town of 10,038 people. Just across the river from Benton Harbor is Saint Joseph Mi a town of 8365 people. Benton Harbor is 89.2% African American and 7% white with a median income of $17,301. Saint Joseph is 88.1% white and 5.3 % African American with a median income of $49,982. If you want to read a bit about Benton Harbor, see this New York Times article.  Times have been hard in Benton Harbor for a long time.

First Presbyterian Church of Benton Harbor has committed itself to working collaboratively with groups in Benton Harbor to improve the quality of life for its residents. The church hosts work groups and service learning groups and sends these groups to work with local organizations. We worked part of the day at Mosaic Resale store, a coffee shop/used books store/resale store. The rest of the day we helped prepare a city lot to be a community garden for inner city children. This involved removing some shrubs and small trees from a fence line and clearing this vacant lot of trash and debris- and removing a little poison ivy. The students were encouraged not just to focus on the work at hand but also to get to know the people from Benton Harbor they met over the weekend. They were encouraged to learn their names and listen to their stories. Sunday morning we worshiped with First Presbyterian Church, which was for most of the students their first time at a Presbyterian church. They only needed a short tutorial on how to use a hymnal.

I’ve been home a bit over 24 hours now and as I think back over the weekend a few things stand out.

It is good to have a culinary arts student along to supervise the cooking. It is good to have a sign language major along when one of the advisors’ can’t use their hearing aids.

But more seriously; several of these students have some ongoing significant personal challenges. Getting out of town with a group of people their own age was much needed and greatly appreciated. The chance to help others and leave behind their own problems for a weekend was very good for them.
The work we did wasn’t dramatic or earth shaking. What we did could have been done by anyone, any other group. But we were the ones there that weekend, so we did the work they needed to get done.

The educational component of the weekend could have been stronger. The mission coordinator from the church talked with students Friday night and during the day on Saturday, about the effects of generational poverty and food deserts, and people at the resale store and community garden explained their work. Still, I feel I could have done a better job helping them process the event. Honestly by Saturday evening, we all were very tired. I decided none of us was really up for a serious conversation. It seemed better to let the students unwind and relax. Some went to bed early, some talked with each other, and some watched Dr. Who on an I pad, some listened to music.

All in all it was a pretty good trip, I think, Not fabulous but not a disaster either.

Why am I telling all you experienced trip leaders about my first little weekend trip? Well, I’m probably not the only one new at this and I would love to take advantage of the collective wisdom of this group. So here are a few questions. How do you structure your work days? How do you structure your free time? What works for you? What doesn’t? What sorts of experiences are valuable for your students? Do you think you made a useful contribution to the community you traveled to?

Please make a comment!  And thank you!


Nancy JanischNancy Janisch is the ministry coordinator for True North Campus Ministry, a campus ministry of the Presbytery of Lake Michigan, PC (USA) for students in downtown Grand Rapids Michigan. After 20 years as a practicing veterinarian, in small animal and emergency medical practice, Nancy returned to seminary and received a Master of Divinity Degree. She is a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids. Nancy has a particular interested in the areas of vocation, spiritual formation, and science and religion.


One Response to “The First Time”

  1. Rob Kirby November 19, 2013 at 5:00 pm #

    As I started campus ministry, I thought that leading a mission trip every year (often to exotic locations) was like a paid vacation (other than all of the fundraising). Even for a laid back mild mannered person like myself (or perhaps because of it) they are incredibly anxiety producing roller coasters of emotion… And the highlight of my year. I have seen lives transformed in a week away (my own life included).

    Our typical schedule: Get up, optional morning devotion or meditation, breakfast, work, cleanup time, dinner, mandatory daily debrief, optional group activity. The daily brief is a wonderful time to reconnect especial if your group isn’t all working together. I’ve found that all kinds of emotional and spiritual fruit comes from the daily debrief. It also is not as “loaded” as “devotion” which makes it much easier for some of my non-Christian students to engage in. We then typically have 2 – 3 “worship” times in the course of the week. Usually on Sunday we worship with our hosts in local churches. Later in the week (Thurs) we have a team worship including communion. Near the end of the week we usually have a celebration dinner that includes faith components.

    I always try and have one fun/tour day at the end of the trip.

    Did we make useful contributions to the communities we visit? That is a fair question and I’m glad you name it. Let me start by saying my purpose for leading mission trips go far beyond just helping make a contribution in a far away community. I follow John Wesley’s Three simple Rules: Do No Harm, Do Good, and Stay in Love with God.

    Do No Harm
    I worked for a year at an orphanage in Thailand for children with disabilities that received mission teams. To be honest, I saw a number of teams that came in and did harm. They would come in and completely disrupt the orphanage. They meant well but routine can be everything when you are working with special needs children. The hosts would extend genuine heartfelt Thai hospitality that was amazing but also expensive and occasionally disruptive. Some teams would come in and just want to love on the kids … and then leave. For children already struggling with attachment issues hardly the healthiest experience. Fortunately, the orphanage was very proactive with this and constantly trying to set up situations where the teams came alongside the long term care givers to supplement and enrich the care that was there.

    Do Good
    Spend thousands of dollars. Go to Africa. Make an inconsistent attempt to build something with completely untrained labor. Have the truly skilled local labor watch as you do the work they so desperately need. Leave but don’t leave supplies or resources to maintain what you have built. Have you done good?
    First, I try to correct the harm. Train your team on both skills and cultural awareness. Hire local labor to work alongside your team. Make sure your projects are sustainable. Often the contribution to the community is less your “labor” and more cultural exchange. Sometimes the only “tangible” good you bring to the community is an infusion of cash. I know, that’s a harsh reality. A good team will also bring a wealth of intangibles to the local community. Almost without exception the “most good” that occurs are the things that happen to the team itself and the sending community. Ideally it is “win win” or “good good.”

    Stay in Love with God
    Make the spiritual connections along the way. If you are following the movement of God these connections are usually easy to find but sometimes hard to digest.

    I’ve said more than intended. I pray my words might be of use to someone if not perhaps they were of use for me.

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