Mrs. Jellyby is a character in Dickens’s Bleak House. She’s forever going on about society’s responsibility to the poor suffering souls in Africa, but ignoring the needy husband and children under her own nose. I thought about her when reading Doug Bannister’s challenging piece in Christianity Today, about how getting involved teaching poor inner-city kids in his own community how to swim made him rethink all he’d invested in overseas mission trips. Excerpts:
In some ways, however, what is happening with our urban swim team is more the exception than the rule in our city. Some well-meaning Christians have a theology of mission that seeks to alleviate the spiritual and physical suffering of people far away, but pays little attention to needs here at home.
I know because I was one of them. I spent many years taking mission trips to Tulcea, Romania. We shared the gospel, cared for orphans, and started a medical clinic. It seemed that God moved in powerful ways. Then my friends Jon and Toni moved into one of Knoxville’s marginalized neighborhoods. Jon invited me to go on prayer walks with him on Wednesday mornings. I saw syringes on playgrounds, prostitutes turning tricks, hustlers selling drugs. Our walks led me to volunteer at the elementary school in Jon’s neighborhood. I’d assumed all the schools in our city were pretty much the same. They aren’t. Kids with B averages in Jon’s school score in the 30th percentile on standardized tests. Kids with B averages in my neighborhood score in the 90th percentile.
Along the way, a pastor named Johnny began showing me what the city looked like from the front lawn of his cash-strapped inner-city church. As I spent more time in Knoxville’s at-risk neighborhoods, I realized that I knew more about poverty in Tulcea than I knew about poverty in Knoxville. I was pursuing the common good of a city across the world while neglecting the common good of the place where I lived.
I don’t think I’m alone. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, “All of life is interrelated. . . . We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Most Christians I know believe this in a global sense. We feel a God-given burden for the starving child in Haiti. Yet we sometimes lack a similar burden for the Martins back home.
A good example of this imbalanced approach to mission is the exploding popularity of short-term missions. In his book When Helping Hurts, Brian Fikkert observes that short-term missions have become a $1.6 billion annual enterprise in America. Every year, thousands of Christians in our city take short-term trips that cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 per person.I believe in missions. I also believe in short-term mission trips. Yet the longer I work in the resource-poor inner city, the more frustrated I become with the amount of money God’s people spend on these brief trips. We seem so eager to spend thousands of dollars sending our people overseas for one week without stopping to ask, “Would some of this money be better invested in my own community?”
Read the whole thing. We have church kids in our town who will drive hundreds of miles away to do good work building housing for the very poor. Nothing wrong with that at all, Lord knows. But we have the same poor right here in our own community. Why don’t we see them? Why is it easier to give ourselves over to alleviating the poverty and suffering of faraway people, but not our own neighbors? Pastor Bannister makes a very good point.