I have lately had my doubts about church mission trips.
But it’s been a while. Like 4 years and 3 months, to be exact – which is how old my twins are at the moment.
Finally, after this long stint away from planned mission trips, I went to West Virginia with the lovely good folks from First Presbyterian Church. My mind was all over the place with stories about #dejarriabechton and #racheldolezal and #freddiegray and #tamirrice and then we were helping with VBS at the local Presbyterian church where the main verse was the familiar Micah 6:8. Do justice. How do we do justice? I kept turning this over in my mind. I’m thinking about restorative justice and transformative justice and racial justice and reproductive justice and social justice. All really important. Still. As much as I theorize and criticize the white savior complex, the nonprofit industrial complex, the Christian mission trip complex (might as well throw that in right now), I had forgotten about the complexity of feelings and dynamics that happen on these kinds of trips. Like:
The feeling of simple tools in my hands. I learned how to use a digging bar – a 6-foot long metal bar heavy in my hands – it was flattened at the bottom, and oh, so helpful when digging 18-inch deep postholes. I fought with it at first because it felt strange and awkward in my hands, but then I let go. I let it do the work. Gravity. Metal. Leverage and weight. All these made digging holes so much easier, yes, but weirdly and wonderfully… delightful. I enjoyed it. It was likely one of the most mind-numbing tasks but still so liberating to just focus on digging, moving and shoveling dirt.
The feeling of small, slow connections emerging every moment with each other and with the family whose house we were working on for the week. To learn names. Makaya. Evaline. Neisha. The quiet and knowing smiles between mothers and daughters hanging joists together. Kids who normally wouldn’t hang out together at home. Snippets of conversations in the car about parents and family and school friends. The little one in the house eager to show me her bike. I fought against the compulsion to take photos, not wanting to sentimentalize or romanticize the work – but she demanded them of me. I mean, she was a little one but there was no way I would deny her. I had to oblige. And it was a gift to be able to capture those bright eyes for a moment.
The feeling of the sun wringing the sweat out of my skin so that no matter how much water I drink I never have to use the restroom. Because it’s just so dang hot. But, that feeling of sweat and dirt and sunlight mingling together so deep in my cells so that no matter how hard I scrub in the shower at the end of the day, I still feel it all just under my fingertips. Like a different kind of baptism, and one that doesn’t wash it away but makes it a part of me. Sweat. Dirt. Sunlight. And a little bit of Gatorade.
It’s good to embrace these moments. But, we need to thoughtful and critical along with being hopeful:
We have to be self-reflexive. We have to constantly check our privilege. We have to check our language. We have to check the work that we do and make sure it isn’t about our agenda and what we think is necessary. We have to realize that we’re not necessary, in the long run.
We have to be sensitive. We have to listen. To each other. We have to see. The people we’re working with and for and around on the work site. We have acknowledge our insensitivities.
We have to be sincere. We have to be open. We have to be honest. What we do means nothing if we don’t embrace our bumbling and clumsy way of doing this work.
Ultimately we – and I’m preaching to myself – have to remember that nothing is perfect. None of these endeavors are ever going to be void of the social, historical and institutional problems that make such work necessary, but even our theologies are lacking, too, our faith language is faulty and we will fall short. It’s okay. The Holy Spirit makes up for it. The Holy Spirit fills in the holes. The Holy Spirit takes cares of the gaps.
So we trust, we follow, and we strive and struggle to make God’s kingdom known. But not just in a cerebral way – we want to taste God’s kingdom and share and be nourished by that same food at the table with all. So we taste, we drink, we pass, we break bread and pour out the cup – and sometimes that looks like tortilla chips and granola bars, sometimes it looks like hammers and nails, sometimes like riding a bike with training wheels, sometimes like taking photographs and selfies with a little black girl named Evaline.
Because this is how we do justice. We show up. We aren’t above digging holes and moving dirt. We get our hands dirty. We acknowledge our mistakes and flaws. We give thanks. We keep showing up.
MIHEE KIM-KORT is a teaching elder but mostly stay-at-home mom to twins, Desmond and Anna, and a third named Oswald (and fourth named Ellis, a boxer dog). The children graciously allow her to also work part-time in a ministry with college students as well as serve on various boards and committees. She is a writer and blogger (miheekimkort.com). She and husband Andy, who is also a teaching elder, live in Bloomington, Indiana.