12.10.2014

Mission: St. Louis 2014 - Bringing it Close to Home

If you're just tuning in, this post is one in a series, so it will help to pick up some background and follow the whole thread starting here: "Racism & the Blessing of Being too Concerned to Understand." 

Following some time in Mississippi with John Perkins in 2012, I knew a local trip with Mission: St. Louis would only make sense. I was familiar with this ministry via The Journey church, and over the years attended several Mercy Quarterlies they hosted to discuss topics such as fatherlessness, foster and adoptive care, service strategies and more. I also enjoy their annual toy drive for Affordable Christmas, and was impressed by the upcycled work of Anew Nature inside the relatively new Revive Thrift shop. I often wished to learn more and work with them directly. 

In the time between the MS trip and this year, we saw the departure of the youth pastor who brilliantly designed both The Advance and Mission: Mississippi, and gained another. Curious as to what he might do for a mission trip, I dropped Mission: St. Louis as a suggestion. To my excitement, he agreed and scheduled us for late July. We, of course, had no idea the significance such a local trip would take just over a week later, but what we learned now seems even more invaluable. 

In order to facilitate groups such as ours, Mission: St. Louis began the AMP initiative, which stands for Authentic Missional Practice. Through the help of our gracious hosts, teachers and guides, our team of 14 covered a lot of ground in just five days.

Let's get to work!

Learning 
Much of our first two days were spent listening and learning. We took a tour and learned about the community of the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood, a.k.a. The Grove, in which we would serve. We learned of ways the area was improving, and even small things that had made a huge difference, such as attractive street barriers which cut down crime simply by prohibiting through traffic. We had times of teaching on topics including community development and relationships, diversity awareness, empowerment and identifying need. We also got to listen to Al, a St. Louis native born in 1948 who has seen a lot of history. We were all glad to let him talk, as he had some great stories to tell.  

Through all of this teaching, the primary focus was on empowering the people of the neighborhood, and anyone they served, in Gospel-centered community. All of what Mission: St. Louis does focuses on people and relationships. Just as Jesus gives us relationship with Himself, we must be available to others. Just as God has broken down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile, we cross racial divides. This helped create a strong foundation for our service this week and in future, an understanding that we best serve people, who are created in God's image, by assisting where they can't and empowering them to do what they can, providing opportunity and resources rather than mere charity. All of this is a process that takes time, listening, prayer and, once again, is dependent on building relationships. 

Our first teaching session.
St. Louis native Al.
The prominent Grove sign.
My favorite of the many area murals.

Service 
One day we spent some time with kids at Lamb's Bride, a free 24-hour daycare in the neighborhood. This is an incredible resource that is a great help to area parents who might not otherwise be able to afford such care so they can work or go to school. Some of our group performed a skit of the prodigal son parable, and then we played games with the kids a while. I found a few young ladies sitting out the fun due to a need to limit sun exposure, so I found a way to engage them by playing in the shade. This, again, goes back to relationship and just spending time with others. 

Another day we spent some time on area beautification, which included weed pulling, general trash pick up and watering the Mission: St. Louis community garden. 

Our primary projects revolved around serving at two different neighborhood homes. My team served a lady by repairing a dangerous porch, with which her landlord would not help and for which she did not have other resources. This involved taking out many of the boards, creating new supports and installing new boards, plus repainting. Our other team helped with clean up and landscaping at the home of a gentleman who had been disabled by a fall and was blessed to be alive. Both of these efforts allowed us to be a bridge to relationship between Mission: St. Louis and the individuals we served. Our group also had a few neighbors stop by to ask us who we were with and how they could receive assistance.

Hanging out with kids at Lamb's Bride.

The porch in its original disrepair.
Moving in the hardware.
Work in progress.
Amazing what our unskilled group accomplished
over 2 days with careful guidance.

The Bridge 
By day five our work with AMP and Mission: STL in The Grove was done, and we visited The Bridge Outreach, a homeless day shelter in downtown St. Louis.  

When I first saw we were visiting The Bridge, I did a double take. Just months earlier I'd learned of this place and included their information on a resource sheet I make available to those seeking assistance through the church office where I work. I keep copies of this sheet in my car as well, and was now excited to see what this organization offered firsthand.

We first learned a bit about the facility, which offers meals, computer and phone access, temporary physical addresses and more, all of which are intended as a stop gap to help empower individuals to become self-sufficient. We then went on "The Walk," a unique downtown walking tour of areas where many homeless individuals congregate and seek help. In this way we experienced how far people must walk to access potential resources and considered the perpetual struggles of going without easy access to convenient restrooms, hygiene items, food and more.

We then returned to The Bridge, where some of our group helped in the kitchen. Others of us ate lunch among the shelter's visitors that day and got to hear some of  their stories. Several of the people we spoke to once had careers and families, but various unforseen circumstances, such as an apparent head injury in one case, derailed their lives. It did not take long to realize any of us could end up in a similar situation given the right series of unfortunate events.

After lunch we also helped with a fundraiser mailing to help garner support for The Bridge, which was recently able to expand their hours to include weekends. 

The old church housing The Bridge.
It was designed with the original sanctuary on the upper floor so
women's dresses wouldn't be soiled by dirt from passing carriages.
Taking "The Walk."
Helping serve lunch at The Bridge.

A Hand Up, Not a Handout
As the topic of empowerment continued, I noted staffers working closest with the homeless adamantly stated that providing handouts for those on the street is not an empowering gesture. This is more likely to encourage a lifestyle of panhandling (which is illegal) rather than help someone out of poverty. They instead recommend having a resource list, such as the one I mentioned above, to direct people to places more likely to provide long term empowering assistance rather than short term charity. This was a behavioral shift from The Advance, but an important one I was wrestling with just before this trip.

A helpful resource for understanding the difference between charity and empowerment is the book "When Helping Hurts," which I highly recommend. Both that book and these trips have helped adjust my counsel to those in need by encouraging them into community. Most I speak to have no net, whether family structure or friends, and begin seeking help only at the point of desperation, which few organizations are equipped to properly address without relationship and may inadvertently further the individual's decline. I also listen for clever ways to help at functional points of need, such as providing a bike for someone losing their car to reintroduce some mobility, and always working to keep dignity intact.


Transferring the Focus
While The Grove and downtown STL are more urban than the primarily suburban areas where I live and work, it is clear these principles apply regardless of location. A Gospel-centered focus on relationship, empowerment, opportunity and dignity remains key.

In my previous post I used the word "presence," and this was perhaps even more apparent on this trip. Presence with people is necessary to forming the relationships out of which empowerment and reconciliation grow. We need to push past our independent American mindset and continue to pursue others as Jesus pursues us, remembering that He was willing to die to make relationship and reconciliation with Him possible.

As a final note, I would encourage any group looking for a short-term mission experience to consider Mission: St. Louis. This would certainly apply to those outside the region, but the staff told us it's very rare they host a group from the St. Louis area. This trip would strongly benefit any local group, perhaps now more than ever

In addition, I don't tend to relegate the St. Louis region merely to the various divisions many assign. I very intentionally live in the center of the County, and see that what hurts one area affects the whole. So serving in The Grove and downtown does have the potential for a positive ripple effect, which I hope encourages local groups even more. You will return to your area of ministry with a renewed focus and perspective, and all for the distance of a trip to the city, so well worth your time.

Thanks, Mission: St. Louis, for your teaching and allowing us to serve alongside you. It's exciting to see the ways God is using you, both in your neighborhood and along this journey through which He is teaching me. 
________________________

In the process of writing, I realized I was the only one to have experienced all three of these clearly related trips (starting with The Advance and then Mission: Mississippi). I hope sharing all this will help others think through their own approaches to reconciliation and development, in St. Louis and elsewhere, and am keeping my eyes open to how the Lord will use this in the days ahead.

Next in the thread: Engaging the Conversation

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