Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.
-- St. Augustine
It feels good to think we’ve made a positive difference in someone’s life, whether it is through collecting canned goods for the local food bank or donating spare change to the Salvation Army. As Christians and volunteers, we are called to serve the needy. But a question many of us struggle with is “Is our desire to help always coming from a place of genuine care and concern for the people we serve?”
Last March I spent spring break in a Border Witness Program in Alamo, Texas where I met Ramona. Ramona works for ARISE, a nonprofit organization that provides local colonia families with resources to meet the demands of daily life in the United States. A colonia is an unincorporated settlement (as of Mexican-Americans or Mexicans) in the U.S., usually near the southern border, that typically has poor resources and squalid conditions. A few of the services provided by ARISE include English Language Learning and assistance is applying for citizenship, school and/or work. Its motto is “[We do] not do for the people what the people can do for themselves”.
When I came home, it was inevitable that my family asked, “So, what did you do to help? Paint houses? Serve food?”
We didn’t do any of that. In fact, a large portion of what we did was getting to know families from the colonia and talk about their struggles. This trip wasn’t like most mission trips I’d heard of. At times I felt, “Shouldn’t we be doing more?” But I was reminded by our campus minister that this was an opportunity to learn from those whose life experiences and struggles are different from my own. We cannot help if we are not willing to humble ourselves and listen.
I was reminded of this lesson at the December meeting of the First Friday Club. The speaker was Diana L. Hayes, former Professor of Systematic Theology at Georgetown University.
Dr. Hayes said Christianity has often flourished at the expense or neglect people of color. What is especially insulting, she observed, is the Christian mission trips to such foreign countries as Ethiopia or El Salvador go with the assumption the native people are helpless and need us to rescue them.
It is belittling, Hayes noted, and less than helpful when we’ve neglected the voices of those we intend to serve. Some call this “voluntourism” -a “volunteer” experience that is more like tourism. A vacation you can put on your resume. Such trips do nothing to alleviate poverty in the long-term, she observed. Hayes suggests that we first get to know the populations we are working with and “walk with them.”
If we are truly dedicated to a cause, we’ll listen to the voices of the people we serve. If we fail to do this, our work becomes more of a performance than anything else.
Hearing Dr. Hayes’ speech transported me back to the colonias. I remembered hearing something similar from our guide, Ramona. “We are walking together,” she would often say. That was the ARISE mission all along: To walk with the people of the colonia.
Every day Ramona joins the people she serves on their journey, listens to their stories and does whatever she can to help without ever doing for them what they could do for themselves. Though the trip to Texas only lasted few days and the First Friday speech only an hour, both equipped me with invaluable insight on how to better serve the diverse populations in the Ursuline Sisters’ ministries.
Is your desire to help coming from a place of genuine care and concern for the people you serve? If so, commit to joining someone on their journey. Listen to her or his needs and ask how you can be of service.
God has given each of us our own gifts to aid one another in our journey of life, and it is our duty to humble ourselves and walk together.