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Serve with your eyes open


Participants discussed the pros and cons of service trips in Mennonite Church Canada Assembly 2011 seminar, “Serve, but with your eyes wide open” on July 7

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July 15, 2011
- Emily Loewen

Waterloo, ONT. — Traveling to Haiti to help with rebuilding sounds like a great service trip right?

Maybe, maybe not — that was the message at Mennonite Church Canada’s July 7th seminar,  “Serve – But With Your Eyes Wide Open” seminar. The seminar was one of many choices offered at Assembly 2011, July 4-8 in Kitchener/Waterloo.

“We may think or want things to come out of it, but it’s not automatic,” said Allan Reesor-McDowell. Reesor-McDowell was clear that service and learning opportunities, like SALT or Enlace, can be extremely valuable for young people and adults alike when executed properly. Such exchanges can promote cross-cultural learning, compassion, inspire a vocation, spiritual discipline and a sense of perspective.

Attendees suggested that many youth need to get out of their bubbles and come back from such trips with new priorities and a desire to get involved in the church. But service trips also risk becoming glorified vacations – adventure-filled weeks or months that can have negligible or even harmful effects, said Reesor-McDowell.

According to a Princeton University study, $2.4 billion was spent on service trips in the US alone in 2005, and some scholars wonder if that money might be better donated straight to the cause. There are also worries that these exchanges might leave participants promoting the cultural stereotypes the trip was designed to break down, said Reesor-McDowell.

Despite these and other concerns, he was clear that there is a place for service and learning adventures. But participants should be very clear on the purpose of the trip (learning and relationship-building rather than vacation), and there needs to be significant pre-trip training and post-trip debriefing to make sure the lessons stick.

“If you expect the trip to be everything, you’re probably going to miss some great opportunities for discipleship and growth,” said Reesor-McDowell. He also suggested that these trips be co-directed by a church in the destination community to ensure the work is helpful.

Though there is worry that these trips could be damaging Reesor-McDowell encouraged participants, “you shouldn’t not do anything because you’re afraid of mistakes.”