The Ethics of Service Missions
Before coming to Wake Forest School of Divinity, I studied International Service and even spent some time in sub-Saharan Africa as both a college student studying abroad, and later as a teacher working in a South African high school. These experiences showed me that southern Africa is full of well meaning professionals, college students, volunteers, and missionaries who may have had the best of intentions, but as they sought to “fix” sub-Saharan Africa, they ended up causing more harm than good. This led me to seriously question the role of outside influence, whether monetary aid, political and economic advising, the work of development professionals and academics, or the service of faithful missionaries, on the state of developing nations. And more importantly, this led me to question my own ability to responsibly love and serve my neighbor – if these professional servants can’t get it right, how can I? And what does good service even look like? I left southern Africa feeling jaded about international service and especially pessimistic about the role of religious organizations in international development.
These questions are all part of what led me to realize my call to ministry and to Wake Forest University School of Divinity. I wanted to learn more about what God’s justice looks like and what my own role in bringing forward God’s reconciliation and compassion looks like for the whole world. I wanted to figure out what it truly meant when Jesus told us to love our neighbors. Recently, I was able to take part in a weekend course, “The Ethics of Service Missions,” where we dug into these questions. We explored the many power dynamics at work in our globalized systems and discussed what responsibility do faithful Christians have as a response. We read womanist ethicists and liberation theologies, and we discussed our underlying values, named and unnamed, that we all bring to service missions.
Over the weekend’s thoughtful conversation, study, and introspection, I began to find hope once more. As students around the table, we were honest about our own perceived limitations in the struggle toward justice and equity for all in this world. Together, we named our fears and supported one another in the hard work of continuing in hope even when the stark realities of suffering and pain can become too much to bear.
Our weekend together helped me to further understand that service missions are complicated and that they can never be altogether beneficial or detrimental. While holding this tension we should continue to serve as best as we can by remaining thoughtful of the consequences and implications of our service. I’m not saying that it’s right to excuse the wrongs committed by service professionals and volunteers when they’re failing to help, but that all of these experiences and questions have led me to spirit of grace for others and myself when we inevitably get it wrong. I guess what I’ve learned is to embrace my call to love others in all times and places, and be honest with myself when I find it difficult. I’ve realized a true life of Christian service and mission bears the burden of living into the hope that we can figure out how to make a world where development and service organizations are no longer necessary. Together with one another and with God, we can create a world where God’s kingdom is breaking through and where all will taste the compassion and justice of Christ.
Originally hailing from Kalamazoo, Michigan, Laurie Kenyon is a first-year student at Wake ForestUniversity School of Divinity. Laurie loves talking about social justice and service, and some day wants to help other young people talk about their vocations, even if she hasn’t fully figured out her own quite yet. When she isn’t studying, Laurie can be found dreaming of ways to get back to the mountains.