By Jeff Brumley
It’s usually called a mission trip when a group of college students and their campus minister visit a ministry located in a struggling out-of-state neighborhood.
But that’s not what a group of Clemson University undergrads and their leader are calling this week’s visit to Touching Miami with Love, a ministry with Baptist ties located in one of South Florida’s toughest neighborhoods.
Instead, they’re calling it a pilgrimage.
“A pilgrimage is to a site, and in this case what we’re saying is that there is potential for sacred moments to occur in whatever places we travel to,” said Casey Callahan, the campus minister of the Cooperative Student Fellowship at the South Carolina university.
Callahan, who wrote on the topic last month, said the switch in terminology is much more than a clever rhetorical device, and instead reflects an altogether new way of conceiving service trips.
“Before there was an element that the people stepping off the bus have all the answers and all the power and are coming to the rescue,” he said. “It … keeps them as lesser-than folks who can only receive and have nothing to offer.”
Now the goal is to help participants realize it is they who may come away transformed by their involvement, said Callahan, also the minister of students and mission at First Baptist Church of Clemson.
“It’s to change their awareness of the world, their perspective on what it means to be human and live in a certain place.”
Such views of mission are becoming increasingly common in American churches and are beginning to shift attitudes toward domestic and overseas outreach in often radical ways.
The evolution in thinking about missions began years ago among international missionaries concerned that their efforts were doing more harm than good. More recently it’s been catching domestically and is growing, said Bob Lupton, author of the 2011 book Toxic Charity.
“I’m hearing from churches and groups all over the country,” he said. “It feels to me like a movement is astir into developmental charity and away from one-way charity.”
Many, including Callahan, are inspired by recent books like Lupton’s to see previous mission efforts as more harmful than good when teams simply visit an area, do some work, then leave.
“That kind of charity is not moving the poor out of poverty, it is perpetuating poverty,” Lupton said.
And that is the definition of “toxic charity,” he added.
“It produces dependency and erodes worth ethic,” he said. “That kind of one-way giving tends to diminish people rather than move them out of poverty.”
Ministries ‘in a bind’
One force resisting this change, however, are some ministries and organizations that depend heavily on the manpower and other resources that generally come with the quick-hit mission teams.
“Folks on the receiving end are in a bind,” Lupton said. “They need the money that groups like this bring, but they also know they are spending a lot of their time doing volunteer coordination.”
But other organizations are beginning to embrace the new paradigm on missions, seeing that historic ways of operating were keeping the very people they exist to help in continuous poverty, Lupton said.
“It’s an internal conflict but it’s increasingly the groups who … tend to be more mature who are saying ‘we are about developing people, developing long-term relationships and outside involvement doesn’t accomplish that.’”
‘We need local people’
That’s been a growing awareness at Touching Miami with Love, a multi-services ministry for adults and children in the city’s crime- and poverty-plagued Overtown area.
Assistant Director Angel Pittman said the organization has already begun limiting the number of visiting groups it will host annually, choosing instead to hire former clients and to develop a more consistent volunteer base.
“We love [visiting] people to come along side us because they provide energy and support and they get some practical hands-on experience,” Pittman said. “But we need local people, right here, volunteering day in and day out.”
Decreasing dependency on outside groups means Touching Miami with Love can be more selective in the number and size of groups it accepts. Pittman said what used to be 40- and 50-member groups is down — as in the case of the Clemson students — in the 20s now.
“I say the mission trip is fine, but only if it leads you to go back to your own community to implement what you’ve learned here,” Pittman said.
‘Open our eyes, spiritually’
That message is one that a number of the Clemson students said they heard loud and clear from Callahan and Pittman.
“Casey pointed out that a lot of times it’s really difficult for us as majority, middle-class white students … to go into a trip like this and not think we are helping these poor, marginalized people,” said senior and First Baptist Church member Emily Moeller, 21.
“What I like about the term ‘pilgrimage’ is it breaks that stereotype of spring break trips — it is us who are coming here to learn,” she said.
During their visit this week, the Clemson students are performing a lot of the tasks typical of college spring break mission trips, including light construction and remodeling, cleaning and organizing donations and working with children attending after-school programs.
But it didn’t feel like such trips and tasks typically do, Laura Drbohlav, 23, said after spending Monday morning cutting and installing insulation at Touching Miami with Love.
“I’m here to help, but I’m also here to be accepting of their culture and to get something from them,” Drbohlav said. That something, she added, was how to live in community with neighbors in ways she doesn’t experience in her college community.
“These people can open our eyes spiritually in a way that other people can’t do, and they show us how to live in a real, true community.”
That kind of awareness will make this group of students better in their ministries back home, Callahan said.
“We need to be able to step outside our comfort zones and see things from a different perspective,” he said. “We need these experiences to help us be better Christians in our communities.”