Servant trips offer needed conversion for students

Bob Chell

Denver this year, Los Angeles last year, Washington D.C. and Tijuana, Mexico the two years preceding. I’ve broken up concrete in Jamaica, gutted hurricane-damaged homes in New Orleans and shingled a church on the Navajo reservation. For the past 19 years the University Lutheran Center has taken students all over the country and out of the country for a Spring Break trip at a maximum cost of $150 to the students.

We keep the cost low because we know that for many students, giving up a week of income from working at home is a sacrifice, let alone coming up with a chunk of change to finance the trip. We do fundraise, and alumni of previous trips provide generous support.

Things have changed over the years. In the early years they were called Mission Trips with the accent on changing peoples lives. That quickly fell out of favor because it implied we were coming with answers without even knowing the questions. For a while these Spring Break excursions were called Service Trips with the accent on serving others. The common sense observation, that we demean and insult others when we do for them what they can do for themselves, put this out of favor. As trips shifted from ‘doing for’ to ‘walking with,’ the title Servant Trips gained favor. Now books like, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, are raising legitimate questions about the assumptions undergirding any of these trips. Recognizing the difference between the time and place an emergency response is needed (New Orleans, Haiti) and those times and places where long-term development is the solution (choose any big city or isolated reservation) will undoubtedly lead to more changes.

When we live out our faith in service to others, it is important to reflect on what we are doing, why we are doing it and who really benefits from 19 years of sleeping on church basement floors, sorting dented can goods, painting walls and peeling vegetables.

It has given me time to watch, learn and think. This is why I call these trips Mission Trips just as we did years ago — but with a new understanding of what this means. Of course we are not taking God somewhere God has never been, and it’s most often the case that the faith of those we serve dwarfs our own. Three weeks ago I spent an hour listening to a homeless man in a Denver soup kitchen tell me how God has blessed his life. It is incidents like this that show us what the trips are designed to achieve: conversion. It’s given me reason to wonder if my iPhone, iPad, iPod, Mac and flat screen TV enrich or impoverish my life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not writing as one who has achieved self-fulfillment. The reality is I need to be converted again and again and again.

Conversion is not a popular notion these days. To say “I want to convert” implies you don’t have your act together, you need to reorder priorities and think about something beyond your own world and problems. Yet, that is exactly what I am saying dear reader. You, like me, need converting. Presumptuous or not, it’s why the University Lutheran Center sponsors these trips: in hopes of converting people — and we do. We’ve converted business majors to pre-seminary students, future lab workers into social workers and we’ve even converted single people into married people, although this was not by design. It’s we who need to be converted, those of us who go on these trips. I’ve been converted every time. Although I soon fall back into my selfish and self-centered ways. Yet, I grow a little more in awareness, in sensitivity, in my ability to listen to another and to see the person in front of me.

The church, during the seven weeks of Easter, reads a gospel lesson citing an appearance of the risen Christ. The disciples were startled and confused each time Jesus met them at a time and place unexpected. Often unrecognized by those who were his closest followers, he would invite them to break bread together. It was there, in the breaking of the bread their eyes were opened.

Thanks for lunch in Denver, Jesus. I look forward to dining with you again.