Monday, May 14, 2018

From the Director's Desk: Empowering Local Communities

I received an email last week that raised some great questions:

Rev. Matt Lacey
UMVIM, SEJ Executive Director
Dear Rev. Lacey,
I live in North Carolina and attend Wesleyan Chapel UMC.  Our church is starting to think about a foreign volunteer opportunity.  The organization we were working with in Honduras is changing their focus.  They are realizing that by saving projects for volunteer groups to do, many capable people from the local area went without work.  They are moving more toward hiring local people to do the work – while donations continue to come from donors in the USA and Canada.

My question is this: How does UMVIM work with the local people?  When volunteer groups go into countries to start or to complete projects, how are the local people included?  If we go to do a project, are we taking work away from those who desperately need work? If local residents are involved, are they considered the experts in building practices in their country, or are we Americans seen as the experts and things are done our American way?

Many times we go to serve with great love and a desire to serve. We want to do good things. But in our desire to help, we can end up crippling the very people we desire to serve. I would never want to do that.

Sincerely,
Valerie Moon

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These are important questions that any short-term missioner should take into consideration.

First, let’s look at the question of how UMVIM teams are to interact with local people: 

One of my mentors told me about a mission team he led to Chile.  Part of the team’s work was to build a church in a high-altitude hamlet.  As they were pouring the foundation for the church, my friend shrugged off some construction advice from the locals. He assured them he had done this type of work before. By the end of their stay, they completed the work that needed to be done and soon headed home.

A decade later my friend had the privilege of going back to that community and worshipping at the very church he had worked on all those years ago.  It was a beautiful building—aside from one side of the structure which was sagging and uneven.  He realized that was his work, and he recalled the advice he ignored from a local construction coordinator.

When we go out to serve, we do not go to impose our selves, our culture, or Christ.

We go to share our selves: our ideas and experiences of Christ we have discovered in our own lives in hopes of learning something new.

This means that we listen more than we speak, and trust those we are seeking to be in ministry with as the experts. We do not have every answer, nor do we claim our way as the only way.

Next, let’s discuss the importance of UMVIM’s work empowering local communities rather than creating an economic burden: 

Members of the United Methodist Church should be proud that UMVIM, Global Ministries, and UMCOR place a strong emphasis on empowering local communities to take a lead role in developing and promoting volunteer projects.

Often that means hiring local workers, such as construction experts and coordinators for food, transportation, translation, housing, and volunteers to receive and resource mission teams that come to work with them.

I still wrestle and struggle with the efficiency of sending funding to employ local community members rather than for a mission team to spend thousands on airline tickets and other accommodations.  And frankly, some studies have shown that simply giving money can have extremely positive results.

I do know, however, that I would never be in ministry today without being part of a team that went to serve with a community halfway around the world. I would never have been given the opportunity to wrestle with these questions or enrich my understanding of God in the ways I do now.  (See my last post about voluntourism).

Part of our role at UMVIM, SEJ is to wrestle with questions like these with members of United Methodist Churches in the Southeast Jurisdiction.  We may not have the answers to those questions, but I hope together we can explore together what those questions mean for us, God, and all of our sisters and brothers around the world.

Have questions or thoughts about the work of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission? Feel free to email sejinfo@umvim.org to add your voice to the conversation!