Navigating structural complexities in christian service
It seems simple: people in need should helped, and no matter who you are or how you help, it’s a good thing to do what you can.
But good intentions may not represent the whole story. The way the giver interacts with the recipient has everything to do with the differences in class, race, intention and, yes, power between the two people.
For people who can afford to give their money or time to charity, these structural complexities can be a stumbling block or a chance at personal growth.
Helping those in need is a popular value of U.S. society in general. A 2013 Gallup poll found 83 percent of U.S. citizens donated money to a religious organization or other charity, and 65 percent donated their time to service.
It’s also a major part of Christian life and faith. Proverbs 19:17 sums it up nicely: “One who is gracious to a poor man lends to the LORD, and He will repay him for his good deed.”
Likewise, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Himself tells the people listening to Him that those who gave alms and visited the poor, sick and imprisoned were doing these things to God, and would gain salvation. Those who neglected the poor, however, were abandoning God, and would not be saved (Matthew 25:35-45).
Service includes spreading the Word of God for senior Ray Cheng, who is involved with his local church’s outreach program in Ithaca and his community back home in Boston.
“I see myself as part of His Kingdom, and I believe everyone needs to hear the Word, and I feel it’s partially my job to spread the Word,” he said.
Cheng said he and his fellow volunteers approach homeless people on the street, people in prison and people at soup kitchens, give them food or other supplies, and try to “squeeze in” a conversation about faith.
Sometimes, people are surprised— and not always in a good way — that Cheng and his fellow volunteers are evangelizing.
“The first time, it did disappoint me a little, but at the end of the day I knew I had to keep on going if I really wanted to spread the Word,” he said.
It may take several interactions before a person warms up to discussing faith and long-term assistance, Cheng said. But if the person was interested, the church community would provide transportation to church and even additional financial support.
Senior Imani Hall considers service and community to be a reciprocal relationship between God and people.
“Even though Jesus is God, He chose to come down and serve us, and serve man,” Hall said. “We, as Christians, are called to serve in the same way that Christ served us.”
This call to serve is central to Christian life, and provided the basis for Hall’s interest in service as he came to college.
But service is more than just monetary, and even people who are financially secure have emotional and spiritual needs, Hall said.
“I give what I can, even if it’s just an ear,” Hall said.
Providing one-on-one emotional support helps bridge the gap between people, even when there are differences in class or race, Hall said.
Junior Emma Grabek said she feels a sense of responsibility toward her local community.
In January of this year, Grabek organized and led a mission trip in Ithaca that 20 of her fellow Ithaca College Protestant Community members, including Hall, joined. It was both Grabek and Hall’s first mission trip.
Grabek titled the mission trip “Love Does Ithaca,” inspired by the book Love Does, by Bob Goff, a bestselling collection of short essays on the role Christian faith plays in charity.
“The love of Christ is not just supposed to be in our hearts, it wasn’t just supposed to be talked about. It’s an action,” she said.
The volunteers worked with Loaves & Fishes, a local Christian non-profit charity organization that operates a soup kitchen, and visited people in prisons, assisted living homes and cottages for homeless people. They also visited the Jungle, a small shantytown where homeless people live in tents to pass out care packages that included food, blankets and hygiene products.
At night, guest speakers spoke with the volunteers on topics concerning faithful and ethical charity, Grabek said.
Previous mission trips organized by ICPC have gone to places including Chicago, San Antonio and Haiti. The decision to hold the mission trip in Ithaca, as opposed to a foreign country, was important to her and her peers when they were designing the trip.
“We weren’t always seeing the long-term benefit of our work,” Grabek said. “Were we just going to go in and step out and things would still be bad, or were there long-term relationships being built?”
Grabek said she felt God was telling her and her peers to “stay here,” which felt radical because mission trips that go to faraway places are glamorized in American Christian culture.
“Some people really treat it like a glorified vacation,” she said. “We need to really careful about the way that we go, and the why.”
After all, poverty affects people in Ithaca as well. Deuteronomy 15:7-11 in the Old Testament teaches that people in need who live in one’s own community should be taken care of, not looked down upon or helped begrudgingly.
“Sometimes mission trips cost up to $1,500 because of the plane flight, because of food, and what if we took that money and poured it into the communities we lived?” Grabek asked.
Grabek said mission trips to foreign countries are important for helping Christians around the world, but to neglect one’s local community would be unjust.
Approaching those in need
In retrospect, Grabek realized she had gotten involved in service work without fully understanding the ramifications of her involvement.
“I always viewed any type of service as a good thing,” Grabek said. “No one ever really challenged me to question … if the method we were using was really effective and really loving.”
The Christian philosophy on charity goes beyond the simple act of giving and addresses the spiritually and ethically proper ways that one should understand one’s own situation and the situations of others.
Jesus spoke against doing charity to gain the admiration of others when He said, “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full” (Matthew 6:2).
In other words, there is more to Christian service than feeling good about oneself or receiving congratulations from others in society. Trying to make everyone happy and feel good is not realistic or transformative, Grabek said.
“You are not going to end pain,” she said. “When Christian charities have this mentality that they are going to save the world, it’s just inaccurate. … If your motive to do something is because it feels good, you’re going to burn out really quickly.”
The giver and recipient may have completely different lives, and the giver must be cognizant of how even subtle differences may put up barriers between the two people, she said.
“What kind of language are you using?” Grabek said. “Are you using language that says, ‘I’m better than you,’ or ‘you need me,’ or ‘I have something that you don’t have,’ or are you using language of togetherness and unity?”
Even something as simple as wearing a regular pair of jeans and a t-shirt, instead of expensive coats or shoes, for example, can make it easier for both people involved in the act of service to feel more together, she said.
Cheng draws from personal experiences to try to connect with the people he meets, such as in his early teens when he struggled with depression.
“It was definitely a rough patch, and it was difficult for my parents to help me,” he said.
He recalls his struggle with depression to better imagine how the people he meets are feeling, but still acknowledges the differences, he said.
“With these people I’m talking to, they’ve had it way worse,” Cheng said. “Even my rock bottom isn’t even close to where they’ve been.”
It was through the consistent support of his Christian community combined with his personal faith that Cheng overcame his depression, he said.
Hall, who spent most of his childhood in a predominantly black lower-middle class neighborhood, still makes an effort to notice his own privilege, including simply the fact that he is not homeless.
With that acknowledgement of at least relative privilege, Hall said there is a sense of guilt that comes from privilege and power.
“For me, it comes from the realization of … my own security,” he said.
But empathy and guilt are two different things, he said. In other words, feeling bad for someone is only one step towards understanding them as a person.
Cheng regularly spends time praying on his own to remind himself of why he’s serving those in need.
“I need to humble myself,” he said. “This is about the community as a whole.”
As a white woman, Grabek said understanding her own privilege is absolutely necessary to make sure the charity is not just to help herself get over her own guilt. That understanding often only comes when one sits down and listens to others.
Sometimes, calls for forgiveness skip over the need to respect oppressed people’s righteous anger, Grabek said.
“When people are oppressed, that anger that’s in their hearts, that bitterness, that pain, is real, and we need to make sure that do not invalid it,” Grabek said. “It can be very damaging to hear someone say, ‘You should be slow to anger. Forgive them and move on.’ It’s never that simple.”
Understanding race is crucial to discovering the proper application of faith and charity, Hall said.
“It is important to speak the Gospel, but the history of how colonialism used Christianity to harm others needs to be recognized,” Hall said.
Over the years of friendship between Grabek and Hall, both said they have shared many meaningful conversations about privilege, especially racial privilege.
“There’s less anger there because we know we are sinful, and we can look at each other and say, ‘I know you’re broken, I know I’m broken, let’s have a conversation and seek healing together,” Grabek said.
Grabek said she has found that conversations with fellow Christians about these topics are fundamentally different than with non-Christians.
“Sometimes when I have conversations with nonbelievers, there’s an anger that feels hopeless, and that breaks my heart,” she said. “It’s anger that’s righteous, it’s anger that’s deserved, but it’s hopeless, and so it stays and it grows.”
Having a community of friends and mentors dedicated to making their charitable practices more beneficial for the recipients is invaluable to Grabek.
“In recent years, I’ve been really challenged just by being part of the Ithaca College Protestant Community … to look into the dynamics of mission trips and to ask does this exude the love of Christ, or does this exude power and privilege?”
*The author of this piece is a Russian Orthodox Christian
Michael Tkaczevski is a senior journalism major who knows that personal growth is directly tied with connecting to others wholeheartedly.