Yesterday a faded yellow church bus with magic-marker "Atlanta or bust" signs taped to the windows pulled into the FCC parking lot. The moment I saw it, I knew that the season had arrived. Eager young people piled out bearing Bibles, sleeping bags, chewing gum, CD players and hearts big with desire to make a difference in the city. Their arrival, as predictable as the return of the purple martins in my neighbor's back yard, signaled the first of 40 waves of youthful volunteers that will land in our community this summer. I confess that the sight evoked a mix of emotions within me. The excitement and energy exuding from these fresh troops triggered a rush of adrenaline to my tired body. But their naivete, their overly simplistic understanding of the Gospel, their unrealistic expectations - all would demand considerable retooling if their efforts were to yield fruitful outcomes (and damage-control held to a minimum). The freshness of their faith and the willingness of their attitudes was warming and contagious. But to our veteran staff, already spread too thin along the front lines, the presence of these new recruits meant additional responsibility. To properly train and deploy short-term reinforcements - some of whom would consume more precious energy than they would contribute - is no small commitment.
To be sure, reinforcements are badly needed in the city. There are fatherless children in need of love and attention. And widows whose homes need repair. But I do wish that the adults who organize urban mission trips would develop less dramatic promotional tactics. The images of ghetto children who have never experienced love (save that of the recruit's), of woeful souls just waiting for someone to rescue them from destruction - these are effective marketing techniques, no doubt. I know. I've employed variations of these themes with pretty good results myself. Come to think of it, that's what first hooked me on urban ministry 22 years ago. Even so, I would still hold out for a tactical change.
I have seen how demeaning it can be to be treated as a lost soul. I have watched a child's countenance fall when he discovers that he has been someone's project when he thought he was their friend. I would have it different.
I wish it were enough to simply extend friendship, attentiveness, kindness. Or to exchange stories and enjoy playing with new friends of a different culture. Such quiet diplomacy obviously wouldn't have the intrigue factor of a search & rescue mission in the heart of enemy territory. But perhaps a creative communicator could convince young recruits that reconciliation is as least as important as rescuing. And that exploring relationships in the forbidding chasms of class can be as exciting as offering triage to the casualties of racial misunderstanding.
This is only a wish, mind you - a fantasy. I'm enough of a pragmatist to know that we must sometimes resort to sizzle in order to attract those who will later sign on for serious duty.
Enough of this wishful thinking! The troops have landed - wide eyed, leaping with life, hearts ablaze to change their world. Time to begin our training sessions and break out the paint brushes, ball equipment and Bibles. Time to exploit to the fullest (in the best sense of the word) the resources that God has graciously entrusted to our charge.