The following is an essay by the Rev. Dr. Ellen Richardson. She is currently Priest in Charge of Church of the Advent, an Episcopal congregation in Williamston, North Carolina. Dr. Richardson writes an honest, self-critical, and challenging reflection on the nature of congregation-led mission trips, questioning their orientation and implicit assumptions. Her full bio, including links to her written work, is below.
“Who is it For?”
Early every morning that is not pouring rain, I walk for an hour in a route that circles the center of my small Southern town, accompanied by my husband and a friend. We vary our route from day to day, passing houses both well-kept with lovely yards and houses falling in and surrounded by overgrown grasses. We walk some streets neat and tidy where the sidewalks are trimmed and usable and other streets whose sidewalks have been lost to overgrowth and layered with the detritus of fast-food containers and plastic bottles of all kinds. We walk by both viable small businesses and empty storefronts and warehouses, and by an old brick school that is now a home to pigeons and buzzards. And we walk past my church, a 150-year-old congregation that is small but engaged, finding its way beyond generations of memories from a time before the economic bottom fell out of the town, its children moved on to bigger cities, and its elders moved on to glory. It is a church of kind and generous people who thoughtfully allocate their limited resources in creative ways to make an impact in their community and beyond.
One recent morning we walked and talked about the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, which left our town—and our congregation—unscathed and grateful, and looking for ways to help those who were not so blessed. Major disasters, especially of the familiar and close-by variety, seem to stir up in us a well of compassion buried deep within, where it knows how to hide itself from the everyday suffering of neighbors living on the edge just a few blocks away.
The conversation was about a church member about to transport a truck load of dog and cat food 80 miles south to an animal shelter serving storm and flood victims. This particular load had been delivered the day before by someone who had driven it from Delaware to North Carolina—because his friends and church members, too, wanted to do something. In a tone far too critical, I asked why they had not just sent the money, because I knew that the big box stores between our town and the intended recipients of the gift were open and stocked. The answer was, “Because they didn’t, and what do you care, and why are you so critical of people who want to do good?” Ouch! Why am I such a verbal curmudgeon when confronted with a grand gesture of generosity? Why am I so critical, indeed? Is it the what people do for others in crisis moments that so unsettles me, or the when or the why? Or the who?
I have found in my professional ministry that in conversations about ways to serve others, my propensity to be the one to ask, “Who is it for?” has not won me any friends. And yet I believe it is an important question to ask in a Christian life. “Love one another” sounds a simple enough command but can be rather sticky in execution. Postcolonial theology has challenged us to self-examination: Is an offering of self for others going to fulfill another’s need, or to fulfill my need to be needed, to be perceived by others as heroic? Am I offering something I have deemed appropriate for others, or that others have determined appropriate for themselves? Am I making a difference that could be important in someone else’s life, or mostly just in mine? How often have I served Good News with a side of arrogance? And in a disaster, who cares anyway?
I learned to ask these questions in a very hard week in 2006 after signing up to be a lay adult chaperone on a “Youth Mission Trip” from South Georgia to coastal Louisiana several months after Hurricane Katrina. I thought at the time that the trip could offer our middle school and high school youth a lesson in empathy, as well as an experience of fasting from the usual creature comforts for a week. And surely those people near New Orleans needed help. Our plan was to sleep on the floors of a large church campus in Mobile, to shower at the YMCA, and to live without internet, TV, and video games. Our evening meal was at the church—pizza, chicken fingers and hot dogs— and breakfasts and lunches were grab and go. The adults took turns driving 15- passenger vans for the 10-hour trip there, and for the 90-minute trip each way every day to the work sites and back.
As a physician, my assumed responsibility to keep all participants safe and well began by refusing to depart from home with a child who had been up all the previous night with fever, vomiting and diarrhea, so sick he could hardly hold up his head. His mother’s assurances that he would be “fine” by the time we got there did not dissuade my determination to prevent others from getting sick a long way from home. It occurred to me later that her argument assumed that the value of his desire to participate so exceeded any potential use he might be in the project that it was worth risking the health of the entire group to accomplish it. In the end, they sent him by plane to join us three days later when he was well and less likely to be contagious.
Our group was divided into 3 teams with different jobs to accomplish. One group mostly picked up yard trash for some homeowners who had still been unable to accomplish much. One group was sent to clean out a molded house—without any personal protective equipment. My group of middle schoolers was sent to hang sheetrock, to paint it, and to lay insulation in the attic of a home that had been flooded to the level of its upper kitchen cabinets, which still held their contents—including food—almost a year after the storm. The small, 1000-square-foot house still held its place in a neighborhood of devastation. Tiny FEMA trailers sat in front of each home in an urban neighborhood where the lots were about a quarter acre. No one was living in them on a regular basis; our homeowner, whom we never met because she was working at a job an hour away, was living with her child at a relative’s home nearby.
The homeowner had been ripped off by a contractor, was out of money for repairs, and dependent on the kindness of mostly unskilled strangers, who came from hundreds to thousands of miles away to rebuild her modest house. The previous church group that worked on her house had made a mess of the sheetrock, some of which had to be torn out and replaced before we could paint. It was 97 degrees, the only power was through a cord from the pole to the FEMA trailer, and our crew was mostly 12- and 13- year olds who had no experience with manual labor of any kind. My heart was broken for the homeowner, her children, her neighbors, and the children in my charge, who were enthusiastic for about two hours on the first day. After that they were helpless and almost useless. One boy had to be pulled out of the attic and taken outside to be hosed down before he passed out, covered in fiberglass. The rest mostly sat in the shade of the porch and prayed for each day to be over. In a week, we—mostly the other adult and myself—managed to get the walls of the small living/dining room painted. The other teams had their own challenges, though the older kids enjoyed the destruction of walls with crowbars. There were multiple emotional meltdowns at night, but no one else got gastroenteritis. I have no memory of a fun/reward day at the end—only of the long trip home with almost everyone but the drivers asleep the whole way.
I arrived home exhausted and frustrated, facing re-entry to my world of work, family, and church. Those who had footed the bill for our mission trip were eager for stories of compassion and heroism overcoming misery and devastation. The kids were adept at depicting their own suffering and endurance. To this day I wonder what they remember, beyond the heat, and images of people making a life in a wasteland yet to be restored. I wondered what that homeowner could have done with all the money that was spent on all the groups of people who traveled over the years to her area with good intentions? How many years of poorly hung sheetrock and paint jobs done by 13-year olds did it take for her to reach the point of getting the power restored and cleaning out her upper cabinets? How long was it before those FEMA trailers, too small for long-term habitation, and later found to be toxic, were hauled away to their own graveyards?
The anger and remorse I felt after this trip has tainted my belief in disaster relief and “mission” trips ever since. No longer one to sign up to go, I have scoffed at the thousands of dollars spent by each well-intentioned team of unskilled church members who fund-raise to fly into poverty-stricken countries with high unemployment to paint churches and pour concrete into houses without floors or screened windows while spending their nights in air conditioned hotel rooms and obsessively confining their water consumption to sealed plastic bottles from reliable sources. What does it say when they invariably get dog sick for a week, sometimes spending days languishing in those hotel rooms, before returning to their congregations with pictures of all of the new friends they made across cultural divides—at least for a week? What could those friends have done with all those thousands of dollars? Is it that we don’t trust them to know how to distribute and spend our hard-earned money in their community’s best interests? Do they not have workers as skilled at mixing concrete as a middle aged school teacher? Do they need us to tell them what they need? Should we have a say in how our money is spent? Who is it all for?
Each new unfolding disaster in our world brings its own drama, as self-directed, 24-hour media coverage offers up a kind of addictive entertainment enhanced by the uncertainty of who will be affected and who will escape. And after the worst is over, for some who escape with their survivor’s guilt intact, there is that deep hope-filled human impulse—with all good intentions—to do something to help, at least in the short term. I do believe this impulse is good and a grace-laden gift from God. Whether that help winds up being intrusive and patronizing or effective and transformative depends on how prayerfully, humbly, intentionally—and thoughtfully—we offer it. And whether we send our aid 80 or 800 miles away, or around the corner, it never hurts to pause and ask, “Who is it for?” I just need to find a way to sound less critical when I ask it.
Rev. Dr. Ellen Richardson grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, received her undergraduate degree from Georgia State University and her MD from MCG in Augusta. She practiced rural Family Medicine in Upper East Tennessee and South Georgia until she spent her last 10 years as a doctor specializing in Hospice and Palliative Care in Savannah, GA, and Northern Virginia. She was ordained in the Episcopal Church in 2008, received her M.Div. from Episcopal Divinity School and served as a bi-vocational priest until retiring from medicine in 2014.
She is currently Priest in Charge of Church of the Advent in Williamston, NC, in the Episcopal Diocese of East Carolina. Her book, Holy Dying: Stories and Struggles (Church Publishing Mar/2017) is intended for clergy and congregations when addressing end of life medical issues in a spiritual context. A review can be found in The Anglican Theological Review (Summer 2018).
You can find more of her writing at the following: