Week two of my very first series was inspired, as most things in my life are, by television. Last week I watched an episode of 30 Rock about a baseball team in a poor neighborhood. Amidst the expected racial and socio-economic jokes, there was a lesson to be learned. So I watched it again and this time I took notes. (To read the rest of the posts included in this series, you can click on the ‘Short Term Missions’ Category to your right. Or you can click right here.)
If you’re unfamiliar with the 30 Rock cast of characters, allow me to introduce you to Tracy Jordan and Jack Donaghy, the key players in this weirdo Tina Fey/church people crossover. Tracy Jordan is an African American movie star/television actor known for being unreliable and outrageous. He’s basically a ridiculous child, with the financial means to do whatever he wants. Tracy works for a variety show called TGS. The bossman at TGS is Jack Donaghy, an Irish businessman who believes in hard work and money. Mostly money.
Season 2 Episode 7 (entitled, “Cougars” – but that’s another story for another time) Tracy gets assigned community service in the form of a little league baseball team. The story line is introduced when Tracy comes into Jack’s office toting all of his new charges with him. The baseball team is made up entirely of children of color from the poorest neighborhood in New York City, Knuckle Beach.
When Jack hears some of the kids’ dreams (and that the team hasn’t won a game) he decides to step in and get these kids on the right track. First things first! The team receives brand new uniforms and a brand new field. Jack also provides Winston Churchill as a role model, recommending biographies for the boys to read in order to “improve their bunting.” (FYI, Winston Churchill is probably not the most relatable role model for children of color living in a low-income neighborhood.)
Upon seeing Jack’s ideas put into action, Tracy attempts to set him straight by pointing out how different Knuckle Beach is than the environment Jack’s used to. He even explicitly tells Jack, “You don’t get these kids. They don’t care about winning. They just wanna play outside for once.” But Jack is determined to make these kids winners and he is convinced that his way is the most effective way to do so. Finding their dreams inadequate, Jack attempts to guide the boys toward the same dreams he has for himself – a big office and a big paycheck.
“I don’t have to understand their world in order to help them. It’s like this great country of ours. We can go into any nation, impose our values, and make things better.” – Jack Donaghy
When Tracy doesn’t agree with Jack’s method of “superior resources,” Jack replaces him with a yes-man, someone who “believes in what we’re doing here.” That someone is Kenneth, an optimistic yet clueless man from Appalachia, who understands even less about what is familiar for these boys than Jack does.
Well, short story shorter, Jack and Kenneth fail and the kids rebel.
In the end, Jack is forced to admit defeat, after putting the kids in danger (it’s dangerous to wear blue, the color of their new uniforms, in Knuckle Beach and the kids placed in outfield were afraid to go into the actual outfield because it was north of 125th Street) and turning the team on each other (“having a kid from Trinidad in charge made the Latinos real mad”).
Now this all may seem like just a silly TV show (or you might be just a little offended) but the truth is that this type of satire works because this kind of stuff happens in real life all the time. Yes, the characters and situations are exaggerated for comedy but the heart of the issue is so accurate it’s worth writing a blog post about.
Time for a little application.
The face of short term missions. More often than not, short term mission trips – at least the exciting ones – are to the rough and tumble parts of the world. The Knuckle Beaches, if you will. Those going are typically white and middle-to-high-income (typically, meaning not always) and they are usually going to the “needy” – low-income people of color. In our 30 Rock example, Jack, the rich white man, helped the poor Latino and black kids.
Now there’s nothing wrong with a white person serving a person of color, and I’m not suggesting that we separate missions experiences by race. Heavens, no. What I am suggesting is that this formula of who goes and who receives isn’t the only way to do service. What I am suggesting is that everyone has something to offer AND everyone has needs.
I lived and worked in Springfield, Ohio while studying at Cedarville and for a few months during my last year there I provided child care for weekly meetings of an organization called Circles USA. Circles is all about partnering low income individuals with middle-to-high-income individuals in mutually beneficial relationships. Circles provides training, discussion, support, weekly meetings, and other resources in an attempt to eradicate poverty of all kinds from the United States through relationship and education. In the Circles system, the low-income individuals are the Circle Leaders – the ones in charge of their resources and their education – and the middle-to-high-income are their Allies – their support and their friend. The Circle Leaders and their Allies grow together and learn together as they love and serve each other.
The thing about poverty is that there are many different kinds – spiritual, personal, communal, and material (When Helping Hurts) which means that we are all poor in one way or another. Which means that we can all benefit from some service every once in a while. Which means that poverty comes in all shapes and sizes and colors and genders and income levels. Which means that maybe instead of looking for the next exciting locale for our short term mission trip, we could look a little closer to home. Maybe our idea of “the needy” can be broadened to “everyone everywhere” and our concept of “the mission field” can be broadened to “here.”
The art of listening. Listening well is listening to what is not said as much as it is listening to what is said. In our 30 Rock example, Tracy and the boys never ask for help. They’re fine not winning because, after all, “[the boys] just want to play outside.” But Jack assumes that because the boys’ dreams aren’t the same as his own and because according to his definition of success these boys are failing, that he must step in. His help wasn’t appreciated because it wasn’t requested or even necessary. Let’s start there. Is your help really needed in this situation? If not, that’s okay! There are plenty of other short term service opportunities!
How often do we assume we know what a community needs? It’s so easy to look in from the outside and pick out flaws and shortcomings, but why don’t we start with listening. Tracy tried to help Jack understand the people he (Jack) was trying to help. Tracy represents the long-termer, the native, the one-invested. (Let’s ignore the fact that he was court-ordered to coach this team for the purposes of our long-winded metaphor.) Tracy understood what it was like to live in these kids’ shoes. He knew which ones didn’t have contact with their birth moms, which ones were afraid of which gang territories, which ones grew up on Orange soda and potato chips – he knew them. And it was because of his familiarity and his relationship that he could see Jack’s failure coming long before Jack did.
How often do we breeze into a community for a week with our own agenda? How often do we fail to get to know the people we are serving, focused only on an end goal? Short term missions are just that – short – but even in one week we can take the time to get to know somebody. Better yet, before piling in the bus or jumping on the plane we can ask those long-term invested ones questions about the people they love that we get the opportunity to hang out with. Then, when we’re there and we’re still not getting it (because we’re humans and we’re imperfect and we’re new and we’re excited!) we can be ready to accept criticism and direction, even when it hurts.
People before projects. Oftentimes short term trips come with a goal. This week we are going to paint the church. This week we are going to throw a kick butt daily kids’ program. This week we are going to pass out 1,000 church flyers. Goals are great. I love goals. (And lists!) But sometimes we let our desire to achieve a goal overshadow the actual people around us. Jack had a banner made that said, “Fun Times Accomplished!” He was so focused on success that he missed out on getting to know the boys he was supposedly helping. Sometimes we become so focused on producing a successful program that we fail to realize our own shortcomings. Programs are great, but nothing beats real relationship. Maybe a drama needs to be scrapped in order to offer more time for songs in a music-loving community. Maybe a dance number needs to be cut in a conservative setting. Maybe a new baseball diamond and new uniforms shouldn’t be priority number one. Be attentive and be flexible.
Here’s the thing, the fact that Jack only wanted to help doesn’t change the fact that he essentially ruined everything. When it comes to short term missions, it’s not just the thought that counts. Mostly because it’s not the thought that actually shows up and lives among actual people for a week, month, or year. It’s the execution, the putting thought into action, that leaves its mark. So think carefully, listen well, pray a lot, and remember that you are just as in need of a Savior as everyone else.
In the end, Jack and Tracy struck a balance – a 50/50, if you will. Know-how + resources. Long-termer + short-termer. Experience + gusto. Speaking + listening.
We can do this guys, and we can do it well. Short term missions can be successful, beneficial, and fruitful times for everyone involved as long as we (I’d never thought I’d say this) listen to the Tracy Jordans of the world and avoid being the Jack Donaghys.
I know, I know. You never knew Tina Fey had so much to say about Short Term Missions! I didn’t either! Now that we’ve heard from her, what do YOU have to say about Short Term Missions?