How we can serve without damaging the people we are trying to help
By Matt Ford
What do the neighborhoods known as Blood Corner, MacArthur Park and The Devil’s Triangle have in common? The answer is found in their stories.
I visited Blood Corner a few years ago while in Los Angeles with a group of fellow students from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. In 1989 there were more daytime murders on this corner then anywhere else in the United States, and that’s when it was nicknamed “Blood Corner.” That same year John Perkins moved his family into the neighborhood. Through the years more Christians bought homes in the neighborhood, joining together for neighborhood transformation. The neighborhood we saw did not look like the 1989 version and is no longer called “Blood Corner.”
A few days later our class visited another group of Christians who moved into the LA neighborhood near MacArthur Park, an area that in the early 1990s was literally deemed a war zone by the national government based on the number of murders the neighborhood was experiencing. Again, the neighborhood we were seeing was drastically different then how it was described from the early 1990’s.
“The Devil’s Triangle,” a neighborhood in Fresno, Calif., defined by the triangle created by three major freeways, is the community that my family moved into seven years ago. This neighborhood is home to Fresno’s highest crime rate and highest poverty. In 1996 there were more murders on a quarter-mile stretch of one of the neighborhood streets than anywhere else in the country. During this time the Lowell neighborhood was known as “The Devil’s Triangle.” But today, fewer and fewer people remember this title.
Each of these neighborhoods has one very important thing in common: Each has changed due to the transformative presence of Christians moving into the neighborhood. These communities may still be plagued by crime, drug sales, gang activity and poverty, but things change when Christians intentionally move into neighborhoods and engage appropriately.
A philosophy of service
These three stories have helped to anchor me in a philosophy of service. Whether leading groups into a short-term mission trip or being part of the on-going community engagement in my own neighborhood, my philosophy is the same: “We strive to do service in such a way as to support long-term transformation. This happens when our group is prepared both in appropriate skills and anchored in a holistic theology, where we strive to truly learn from those we go to serve and the places we visit help us enter into long lasting meaningful relationships of mutual respect.”
Unfortunately as a youth pastor I have all too often seen, experienced and participated in community engagement that brings more harm than good. A few years ago I put together a summer program for our youth ministry which consisted of weekly pool parties, summer camps, Bible studies, Frisbee golf tournaments and much more. But I had not provided any service opportunities for our students.
So I called up my friend, Bob, who runs a local nonprofit organization to see if our students could participate in any projects he had going. He did have an amazing, ongoing house renovation project for which a lot of help was needed. As Bob talked, I realized that this project would not work. I was looking for a weekly service project that our students could engage in on a specific day of the week and during a specific time in the morning. Bob’s meaningful summer project did not fit with my specific logistics.
Since Bob is a friend, he found other projects for us. But these projects didn’t meet a real need, didn’t provide for real change and didn’t foster meaningful relationships. When I put my agenda before the real needs of the community, both my youth group and the neighborhood we served were robbed of any meaningful and lasting transformation.
Guiding principles born from experience
Because of negative experiences like this, I have adopted some guiding principles that help me lead groups into service in a way that doesn’t damage the very people we are trying to help.
Guiding Principle 1: Never assume we are taking God into the place we are going to serve. We always start from the framework that God is already there, and we want to join him in what he is already doing in that place. This first principle has really helped our students and families see God, themselves and the places we go in a proper light. Our students understand that God cares deeply for all his creation and is currently at work making all things new. Every person and every place matters to God.
Guiding Principle 2: Desire to learn. Our primary motivation for going is anchored in our desire to be learners. We avoid going with an attitude that we have all the answers.
A little over a year ago our junior high ministry participated in World Vision’s 30-hour famine. While fasting for world hunger, we also wanted to serve our community. At the time my friend Bob was organizing volunteers for a total home renovation on a house just across the street from mine. As our group spent a Saturday afternoon painting the outside of this house, we intentionally took the time to hear the story of the man living in the house.
This man had lived in this house most of his life. When crime was at a high, he built a 12-foot wall to surround his front yard. In fact, he built it twice and both times the police told him to tear the wall down. This man had lived in fear for decades and rarely spent any time outside of his house.
One day while Bob was working on the house, he introduced this man to one of the kids next door. The man learned through his interaction with his neighbors that the people in the neighborhood weren’t all that bad and that he didn’t need to live in fear. Now he spends his evenings sitting on his front porch. On a day where our junior high students served an urban poor neighborhood, they learned a lesson from Ephesians 2 on how the gospel of Jesus tears down the walls that divide us.
Guiding Principle 3: Anchor all we do in long-term, meaningful relationships. Aiming for long-term relationships helps us view those we serve as our friends instead of “those people.” A good friendship is centered on listening and knowing a person’s story. When we know someone’s story, the walls that divide us start to come down, making respect and dignity a splendid reality.
When I moved into the Lowell neighborhood, I became good friends with Nancy, who leads a youth ministry for teens in the neighborhood. I started volunteering with her ministry and over the years our two youth ministries have beautifully linked together. The partnership we have brings holistic, meaningful and lasting transformation to everyone from both youth groups as well as the neighborhood we live in.
Guiding Principle 4: Adopt a common story. While we specifically train for each ministry experience, it is more important that we tell a common story in all our gatherings.
The training we do for specific missions trips or service projects, whether going across the border or across the street, are essential to our desire to “help without hurting.” Our training specifically hits issues such as worldview, cultural awareness, poverty and specific logistics from the people we are going to serve or help.
More important than specific training is striving in our youth ministry to share a common story and to tell it all the time. This story centers on our understanding of God and our understanding of mission. Telling this story repeatedly has helped to anchor our students in a theology and practice that truly benefits others.
Guiding Principle 5: Finishing what we start. Several years ago a service team from an affluent church out-of-town came to our neighborhood to rebuild a broken fence that surrounded the backyard of a single lady. The group took three days to rip down the entire fence in her backyard and then two days to build about half of the new fence. Despite the unfinished work that left her backyard completely open, the church group went home feeling really good about their ministry. But this woman had a less than positive experience. When we serve, we commit to finishing what we start.
God became flesh
The Apostle John opens his gospel story by saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it…. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
Two things strike me. First is the reference to the creation story. John seems intent on making it clear that God is doing something new—that a new creation is at hand. Just as God brought forth life out of chaos and nothingness in Genesis, God is birthing a new creation through Jesus where all that is dead will be made alive and all that is broken will be fixed.
John also wants his readers to know that God chooses to roll up his sleeves and get dirty. God doesn't do his work from a distance but from the trenches and chaos of our current situation. God became flesh and moved into the neighborhood. Too many churches engage mission or service from a distance. We go into a certain setting for a short period of time with all of our answers, but rarely does this kind of service produce any long-lasting transformation.
May our service be anchored in a holistic theology as we strive to truly learn from those we go to serve, entering into meaningful and lasting relationships of mutual respect. And may we understand that when Christians who are transformed by the gospel of Jesus thoughtfully enter and intentionally engage in a broken community, they will be a transformative presence.
Matt Ford is pastor of student and family ministries at North Fresno MB Church in Fresno, Calif. He has served in full-time vocational youth ministry for 15 years and is a 2000 graduate of Fresno Pacific University and a 2012 graduate of Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. He and his wife, Beverly, have three children.
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