Prior to 1994, all of our "outreach services" to low-income people were managed, planned and delivered by volunteers who came to us from outside our community of interest. Almost all lived in the suburbs. All were middle class or above. All were white.
These volunteers were, for the most part, lovely, well-intentioned people who wanted to "help people." Almost all of them showed up on their appointed days and carried out their assigned tasks with seriousness and dedication. Their aim was to relieve the need and some of the suffering of the "poor" individuals and families who came our way. They served thousands of hungry people who came expressing a need for food, housing, medical treatment, transportation, child care and jobs.
The only problem was, we were not making many transformative connections to people and we weren't really engaging our community.
That reality changed quickly and dramatically after we began inviting the people who sought our services to join us as leaders and volunteers in what we were doing. Today we enjoy the benefit of the intelligence, insight and energy of hundreds of volunteers who could be categorized as "poor" or low-income.
These unusual volunteers have served as a consistent "think tank," providing us wise counsel and direction on a series of "next steps" that we have taken over the past 13 years. They remain an amazing strategic resource for our entire organization.
Most important of all, these folks are our partners, peers and friends.
The manner in which we use volunteers and the way in which we regard "the poor," create a few challenges for us as we attempt to satisfy the demand of our more affluent partners from churches outside our community who want to "come down and help us out."
Let me be clear.
We want volunteers from outside the community to join us and to engage our process and become our partners, allies and friends.
When it comes to "the help" part, we need to talk.
It is not easy to explain our day-to-day reality, as well as the nature of our needs and our assets, to people who aren't here all of the time, but who face the challenge of arranging meaningful volunteer opportunities for their church members.
We need to craft an approach that takes seriously both our leadership style and our mission, and the need churches recognize for transforming experiences for their members.
With this duality in full view, I'll offer a few observations, mingled with suggestions, about inner city community development work and suburban volunteer projects.
1) It is clear to me that in-out "missions" are limited in their affect on the community. While project-based experiences serve a vital purpose for church leaders and the volunteers with whom they work, most enjoy, at best, short-term gains for the community. A clean up project, a day in the food pantry, an afternoon spent playing with children and any number of other time-limited projects benefit the volunteers more than the community. Let me hasten to add, this can be fine, so long as the community and its members are not injured or misled in the process. We want to meet the needs of our outside partners, but not at the expense of disappointed children or adults who misunderstand what outside volunteer presence means for the longer term.
I think it wise of church leaders to educate their volunteers about who benefits most from such short-term projects. Across the years, I've noticed that volunteers who recognize that they actually benefit most, approach their assignments with the proper attitude and perspective.
2) When you come, please come on our terms. In our large Resource Center on Haskell Avenue, community volunteers "run the show." For many outside volunteers an experience in this community center will be a first. "Poor folks" are in charge. They set the policy, organize the assignments and provide direction. The entire place is set up so that everyone listens to the community. From time to time, we have volunteers who don't understand that. It helps to recognize who is in charge.
3) Apply the "Golden Rule,"but in a surprising manner. Let me ask you, how do you feel when you are served by someone else? Most of us don't really like the feeling. We resist. We attempt to turn away the person seeking to do us good. It takes humility to receive gifts and service and "help," doesn't it?
Volunteers from outside the community need to apply Jesus' advice, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," but in a different way. They need to put themselves in the place of a person in need and consider carefully how they would want to be treated if the roles were reversed. This always leads to careful listening, honest communication and genuine human sharing.
Jesus also said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." This means that the highest good is to place another person in a position where he or she can give. This is the theology back of our decision to invite the poor to become givers. In such a setting of "role reversal," our need for "help" changes dramatically. Volunteers need to grapple with this new point of view before they come.
4) Understand what we are trying to do here. We really are disgusted by the need that persists in a city like Dallas. We are trying to change not only individual lives, but the system that keeps poverty in place. We are not primarily about relief. We seek to be into understanding. We want to influence policy. We want to get to know each other. We are all about making connections that endure and that take us all to a new place. This is the primary reason I believe that volunteers need to "hang out" at CDM. It is not so much "to help," as it is to know and understand.
5) Before you come as a volunteer personally or before you organize a group of volunteers who want to come, ask yourselves "What happens when the project is over?" Will the needs go on? Will expectations be raised? Will anyone be left looking for your return? What will the relationships established during your time with us mean for the future? Is there anything else that should naturally occur because of the connections you make during your volunteer experience?
6) Please understand, almost always, we don't need your stuff. There certainly are exceptions to this principle. When we need something though, we will ask you for it upfront! Recently, a great church group provided work boots and work pants for the 22 graduates of our construction training program. Another church provided new shirts for these same students for their graduation celebration. These donations really helped us. The recipients were very grateful.
But, usually, we don't need volunteers to shower us with things. That sends the wrong message in every direction about what's important. We don't need our children to become dependent on the sometimes caviler largess of outsiders. We are working hard to create an independence within our communities. Here again, we need volunteer/outsider buy in to our vision for our own community and its improved health.
7) Charity has a dark side that most charitable people never consider. Charity can be a rather sophisticated means for people with economic, social and political power to maintain control of their power. After all, if I believe that charity is the only and best response to poverty and its myriad problems, I don't need to trouble myself much with asking why so many people are poor? Or, what should be changed from a policy standpoint to see that fewer of my neighbors become and remain poor? We hope to move beyond charity to community development, empowerment and change. Charity alone will never get us there.
8) Can we simply commit to continue talking about the complexities of these issues? If we make this commitment, I know we will make progress for everyone. Frankly, I think we need on-going dialogue rather than another needs assessment.
I'd love to hear from you. We can start talking whenever you're ready!