By Eva Englert-Jessen
Mission is one of the most foundational aspects of the history of the church and of church life in general. If I’m being honest, it can also be a loaded word. At its very best, Christian mission can transform perceptions, stereotypes, and invite people into a relationship based on mutual love in Christ, respect, and accountability. At its worst, it can be coercive—stripping away cultures and ways of being in the world that are rendered foreign or in need of a Christ who shames and demands conformity, rather than embracing difference.
When I first came on board at KPUMC in early July, I was excited to hear about Mission Week and how it intentionally invites the youth (and by extension, the larger church) to participate in the work of repairing relationships and meeting human needs that are already happening in the city of Dallas through various other groups of people, churches and other faith communities, and organizations. A colleague of mine and pastor of Union United Methodist, Rev. Michael Baughman, describes this kind of participatory mission beautifully: “[Through the work we do at Union], we’re not bringing God to anybody. We are looking for the ways in which God is already at work in a neighborhood and discerning how we can partner with that.”
For Mission Week 2017, KPUMC youth explored this theme of partnership. We helped, yes. We served, yes. But it’s also my hope that we learned, even in a small and humble way, that God also calls us to give something of ourselves. We are called to challenge our privilege where we have it and explore prayerfully together how to partner with folks who lack resources because of injustice (not because of any single thing they have done). I think we are also called to ask folks in vulnerable situations or communities how we can be of help---not simply assuming that we are the ones who are the givers and they the passive, benevolent receivers who had better be grateful for what we give. This work is not easy, and we will continue to stumble as we figure out how to love more fully, and to love in a way that truly sets others free. But we don't do it alone, or without a lot of deep breaths and faith companions and self-love, too.
The youth and I, along with Ashley Schulz who so generously gave her time to support us, piled in the church van around 8:15 each morning, and headed out for a few hours of work followed by lunch out or at the church each day. Here is a snapshot of our days:
Monday: Distributed 200+ pairs (among 1500) to children going back to school, and assisted food pantry clients at the Wilkinson Center. Some of our Spanish-speaking youth got to practice their Spanish with clients, translating the names of produce and canned veggies. Serving at the Wilkson Center stirred up a couple of thoughts for me and the youth: 1) Providing resources to help people achieve self-sufficiency is a powerful thing. The Wilkinson Center does this well. 2) What would it look like for more agencies, organizations and churches to work not only to provide food through giving it away, but to also work to respond to the systems, policies, and positions that cause hunger, at their roots? I am especially excited about opportunities to do this work with our youth through gardening and food theologies/ministry.
Tuesday: Mulched and chased turkeys (I’m not kidding!) at Bonton Farms in South Dallas. I shared this on the KPUMC Facebook page already, but I was especially moved by our time at Bonton. We learned the story of this particular history of the Bonton neighborhood, which has been all too often neglected and severely underserved by the city of Dallas (South Dallas contains 45% of Dallas’ population and only 2% of the jobs. Let that sink in). Farm manager Patrick told us about the powerful transformation that the creation of this farm has been to his community—providing jobs, healthy food to combat chronic diseases like diabetes, and an opportunity for this very neighborhood to be its own catalyst for change. Being at Bonton felt like a kind of church for me; I would love to form a partnership with them, if other KPUMC folks had interest.
Wednesday: Owenwood United Methodist Church in East Dallas recently closed, and the North Texas Conference of the UMC agreed to allow White Rock United Methodist Church to absorb its property and convert it into a kind of missional campus community. It will be home to several community agencies and nonprofits that work directly with the East Dallas community to provide a variety of support, from after school programs to diaper services and a theater company. They are also partnering with Grow North Texas, a food systems and urban farming organization, to turn the 4 acres of land there into an urban farm. KPUMC youth enjoyed rummaging through old closets and choir rooms, helping organize and sort through what will remain and what will be taken out to breathe new life into the space.
Thursday: Thursday was our church service day. With the help of David Spence’s insight, we worked on cleaning out the labyrinth by cleaning up plant beds and freshening the circle. We also cleaned out some children’s cabinets, as our church community prepares for another school year.
It was a wonderful week. I am sincere when I say that I was delighted by the hard work, laughter, and curiosity of our youth. I can’t wait for more mission opportunities down the road, especially as we explore mission that exemplifies communal partnership, humility, solidarity, and God’s abundant love for all people. I am so thankful for your prayers and support, and for our youth and their amazing work!