“Who would name their dog Tequila??” Disapproval and disgust were in her voice as she wrinkled up her forehead in a snide expression, studying the little Chihuaha-mix mut on the front steps of my house.
My friend, that’s who, I thought. My neighbor. The mother of these two children who just heard you ask that question.
I wanted to snap back with something equally as snobby like, “who would wear such an ugly hat?” But then I realized that I was the 23-year-old and she was the high school student who apparently didn’t know any better. Still, I reasoned with myself, I ought to do herself a favor and teach her a lesson by bursting that little self-righteous bubble of hers.
Maybe I was more bitter than I should have been, thinking about how I wished that someone had burst my self-righteous bubble when I was that age. I know I would have asked the same question at 15-years-old.
It was day two of a summer “missions trip.” This youth group from out of town was assigned to our neighborhood for their service project as part of a summer camp being held on the campus of my alma mater. For three days in a row the group would come into this neighborhood they had never visited before and spend 3-4 hours ministering to our neighborhood kids by playing games, sharing Bible lessons, eating snacks and making crafts. Great concept. Great group of people with great intentions.
But somewhere in the midst of the lesson, sitting in the grass of our front yard on that sunny summer afternoon, in between the hushes and snaps of fingers and demands for children to pay attention and sit still, (impossible requests given the circumstances) I caught a glimpse of what many missionaries must feel when groups come to “help.” As much as I would have loved for the kids to be enthralled by a lesson given by a middle-aged man they’d never met about how scientists have not yet been able to engineer anything close to what God created such as the single blade of grass he held in his hand, chances were slim that they’d be paying attention.
I did my best to encourage listening and interest in the topic at hand but it was apparent that there was a distinct “us and them” division. Clearly unintentional on the group’s part, they had failed to relate to the kids, build any kid of foundation of friendship, trust or respect and it left the kids feeling talked at rather than talked with. I felt uncomfortable because I didn’t want to choose sides. If it came down to it I know who I’d be with.
My friends and I have been building relationships with these children and their families for over four years. It is kind of strange to see new people come in and start making new rules. We don’t want to be territorial but we do feel a sense of ownership. It takes time to earn trust. It takes time to learn the people and atmosphere around you. I think it is a great disservice to march into a new place with a rigid plan and a disregard for individuals’ needs.
Honestly, the kids probably had a blast. They played with soccer balls and did parachute activities. I’m sure they enjoyed the break from summer vacation monotony. This is in no way a reprimand or diss on the part of this particular group. It is a commentary on all service projects, social ministry and short-term mission trips. I think it would be healthy to reconsider the way we have traditionally done missions.
When that young girl came into my neighborhood and judged my neighbor for naming her dog after alcohol, I felt personally offended. I didn’t feel embarrassed for my neighbor because this church girl found out the controversial name of her dog, I felt embarrassed for this church girl because she had vocalized judgment instead of grace and it was not representative of the heart of my Savior.
What if when we went on “mission trips,” instead of barging in like an army taking territory, we let grace lead the way? What if instead of coming at people we decided to just be with them? What if instead of telling them what they should consider important, we learned about what was important to them? I don’t think we will win those around us to the heart of God by suggesting they change the name of their pets… I think those around us will be drawn to the heart of God when we walk across the street and visit them on their porches; sitting and talking and laughing, accepting them for who they are, Tequila and all.