“We are only a healthy community if we’re taking care of everybody.” — Edgar Villanueva, Decolonizing Wealth
As the coordinator of the Presbyterian Committee on the Self Development of People (SDOP), I frequently visit with people who we intend to fund — our organization seeks to eradicate poverty by investing in people and building relationships. Many visits in this work stand out, including one a colleague and I made several years ago to an immigrant farmer organization advocating to change laws that barred them from procuring driver’s licenses because of their immigration status. Without driver’s licenses, job sites, medical centers, schools, churches and grocery stores were all difficult to access.
During the visit, my colleague and I sat with the members of this collective who taught us about the issues at stake and the frustrations of this type of advocacy and justice work. At the end of our visit, I shook the hand of one of the community leaders and commended him on the incredible work the group was doing. He corrected me and said, “We — the great work that we, our community and your ministry, are doing together.” Not long after our visit, the immigrant community’s campaign was successful and a driver’s license law was passed so that anyone 16 or older is able to apply for a noncommercial driver’s license, regardless of citizenship status.
This community partner and so many others continue to remind me about the profound value of what it means to be we in partnership. In the 51 years that SDOP has been in existence, we recognize that our ministry benefits greatly because of what our community partners have taught us. We continue to learn how to engage the work of poverty eradication in ways that are sustainable and transformational. This learning has culminated into a series of workshops we conduct to equip, inspire and challenge mid councils and congregations to stay engaged in the necessary work of the PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 initiative and its call to live out the gospel through poverty eradication, dismantling racism and encouraging congregational vitality. In these workshops, we emphasize these essential learnings from our community partners as the “R’s” of mission partnership: righteousness, relationships, resources and response.
The first “R” should not be misinterpreted as judgment against communities or an attempt to proselytize them. The righteousness I refer to comes from the Hebrew Bible understanding of tzedek, meaning “justness” or “justice.” Tzedek requires that we are vigilant and active in mission for the right reasons — reasons that pertain to wellness and justice for all members of the community. Viewing mission as working in partnership means that we shed ourselves of agendas and practices that place unrealistic expectations on community partners and vice versa. I often think about how Jesus compassionately heals, affirms and comforts without conditions and ulterior motives in the Gospels. Jesus does not promise to transform people only if they go to the Temple — he heals them because he loves them. And so our missional partnerships are not transactional but covenantal. It is not about being “saviors” who exercise our sense of Western cultural dominance or “toxic” charity based on one-way, co-dependent giving (i.e., they need money, and we need to feel good). Righteousness is not objectification but accompaniment and solidarity; it is engaging the work of mercy, justice and wholeness.
When we engage mission with a desire of partnership, rather than a giver-receiver mentality, we allow God to be vast. We try to articulate this at SDOP through our mandate (mission statement), which reads in part: “We participate in the empowerment of poor, oppressed and disadvantaged people, seeking to change the structures that perpetuate poverty, oppression and injustice.” This sentence accentuates the collaborative character of our mission work, which reminds us that righteousness implies that we do this work without the pretense of superiority. God’s work is much larger than us.
Biblical righteousness in mission also requires us to think about our ideologies and actions. How we perceive our potential partners is made clear in the language we use to describe them. It is important that we are conscious about not using language, stereotypes and ideologies that dehumanize, shame and “other” communities in which we seek to partner.
Consider the following example: Some years ago, during a missional training about poverty and its impact on communities, a few participants asked, “What are we doing to address the culture of poverty that prevent those poor people from moving forward in their lives?” In my time of working with diverse communities who have been instrumental in advocating for change and creating hope through education, love and justice work, I felt I could only answer by saying, “We must first dismantle the cultures of oppression that continue to adversely impact those same communities.”
Popularized by anthropologist Oscar Lewis in the 1960s, “culture of poverty” language asserts that there are harmful elements and values (or lack thereof) instilled by the poor that prevent them from living lives of self-determination. While recognizing that poverty can affect mindsets and communities in deleterious ways, we must be careful about using this type of language because it stigmatizes, condemns and shames those who are significantly impacted by poverty. Righteousness in mission requires that we examine our ideologies, our language, and
In essence, righteousness is about how we “show up” as partners; being conscious about what we bring to the work of partnership and conscientious about subverting our own agendas, biases and ideologies that are informed by the historical legacies of mission, which carry within them the baggage of paternalism and colonialism.
How we “show up” brings us to the second “R,” relationships, which is key to what it means to engage in non-paternalistic missional partnerships. We learn from our partners that trust and engagement are the proverbial glue that keeps a partnership together. Relationships are integral to partnership, and relationships built upon integrity, mutuality and transparency lead to authentic and
For SDOP, one of the ways we foster relationships is through conducting site visits and community workshops. Briefly mentioned in the beginning of this article, site visits and community workshops are ways for us to be intentional about connecting to communities. Throughout the pandemic, SDOP has utilized Zoom and other means of telecommunication technology to connect with communities in which we seek to partner. Recognizing that some communities may not have a physical location or even access to these technologies, we have been creative in utilizing other partners like churches or community centers near potential partners so that they may have technological access to connect with us. This has also helped us create larger networks of relationships by getting others involved in the partnership process.
Regardless of one’s context, we have learned that we must also be creative, proactive and intentional in finding unconventional ways to connect with, learn from and listen to potential partnering communities. This intentionality includes being ready to go to the areas where your potential community partner is located. Learning requires proximity, and the closer we are, the more enriched we become. We also become better familiarized with the issues that adversely impact communities.
We must utilize “thicker listening” that subverts our own assumptions and makes space so that potential partners can freely articulate the issues impacting them. This helps us begin to realize how much more complex (socially, politically and historically) these issues are. Relationship building also requires cultural sensitivity and humility, which implores us to be both self-aware and sensitive to the cultural differences that may be present in the partnership. This means that we maintain the dignity of the relationship by refraining from assumptions that our partners are not aware of the issues that impact them or the possible solutions for them. We have also learned that we must be careful in avoiding the creation of “solutions” that promote ongoing dependency.
We often make “resources” synonymous with money, which results in unintentionally overlooking the vast possibilities of how we can engage in mission through partnership. When viewed only as a monetary enterprise, resources (or lack thereof) promotes a scarcity mindset that makes members of our congregations and ministries believe that toxic one-way giving of money is their only expression of mission. For churches who lack money, some feel like inadequate partners in mission because they do not have much money to contribute.
In thinking more broadly and creatively about resources, I think particularly about the concept of “asset mapping.” Explored by authors Luther Snow, Krin Van Tatenhove and Rob Muller, asset mapping helps us move away from the confining hopelessness of scarcity thinking. It can be simply defined as ways to recognize church strengths and leverage the things of ministry that we already have to do the work of mission in partnership. As scarcity becomes an abysmal exercise in examining what we lack, asset mapping provides us the opportunity to examine the ways that we are already equipped to do ministry. It is a spiritual exploration of celebrating abundance, which recalls
2 Corinthians 9:8 — “And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”
Engaging in the work of asset mapping prompts us to ask ourselves, what kind of significant nonmonetary resources do we have? What physical assets do we have? How can we use these to live out the gospel? For instance, the church I served in Philadelphia added showers to its bathrooms so that it could better accommodate the families in transition who, at certain times of year, would stay in our church until they attained housing through a housing and placement network program.
Our community partners remind us that the community is one of our greatest resources. Blessed with artisans, educators, administrators, workers, organizers, business owners, technology experts, activists, veterans, lawyers etc., it is critical that we understand that we have bundles of potential sitting in our presbyteries and congregations. How many of our congregations and ministries are within proximity of schools, libraries, medical centers and other churches? What associations does the congregation or ministry belong to? What associations do you belong to that could partner with your congregation or ministry? Do you have connections to clubs, community centers, city offices, local businesses, community leaders, activists and organizers?
Sadly, scarcity thinking convinces us that we bear the burden of mission alone. Associations as resources remind us that we do not have to reinvent the wheel; we can engage communities by collaborating with other churches and organizations that are already involved and invested in those communities. To revisit the wording used in the SDOP mandate mentioned earlier, we can participate in work that is already being done. How do we use our spiritual assets – such as worship, the Bible, the arts and book studies – to create opportunities to learn more about the communities around us and the issues that impact them? How do we use these assets to cultivate generosity, leadership development and hospitality in our congregations and ministries? How can we utilize telecommunications and social media to build and strengthen the missional spirit in our own congregations and areas of ministry?
“Response” is about living the mission of Jesus Christ by loving and caring for the whole of our communities. Response is about living the gospel in justice, reciprocity and mutuality. Taking you back to the handshake in the beginning of this article, it is about recognizing that we do this work together. As we respond to the great and important work of mission through partnership, I leave you with the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction’s credo written by its founder, educator and organizer Y.C. James Yen:
Go to the people,
Live among them,
Learn from them,
Plan with them,
Work with them.
Start with what they know,
Build on what they have.
Teach by showing,
Learn by doing.
Not a showcase,
But a pattern.
Not odds and ends,
But a system.
Not piecemeal, but integrated approach.
Not to conform, but to transform.
Not relief, but release.