“I hope to have communion with the people, that is the most important thing.” - John Paul II
(So this is my first official post and I am sure it needs a lot of work. I pray that you will be able take something away from my humble insights and discussions. This is the first part of a series on the mission trip I led to the Philippines this past week. Enjoy.)
I just returned from a mission trip to the Philippines. We were there December 30th through January 9th. It was an amazing trip, but nothing like I expected. The Lord took this trip as an opportunity to challenge my leadership and trust, open my eyes, and grow my heart.
I learned many lessons on this trip but I would like share with you three that I think translate to youth ministry and life in general: (1) Empowerment is better than hand outs; (2) It’s not about the work you do but the time and presence you give; (3)Always be open to God changing your plans.
During the planning of this trip and as we arrived in Manila I was looking forward to working. I was looking forward to the familiar feeling of sweating and straining to accomplish a task for the betterment of others. On this trip the task was to help in whatever way we could with the construction of a school that had been demolished 30 years ago by a typhoon. Obviously we were not going to build the school ourselves but it would be great to help in whatever way they needed. After spending two nights in Manila we finally made our way to Infanta, Quezon, where the school is located.
Infanta is one of the poorer areas of the Philippines and they have suffered tremendously. Six years ago they suffered from numerous typhoons back-to-back. Because of illegal logging the typhoons washed all the fallen trees into the river which damned up at a bridge. The growing amount of water and trees, coupled with a massive mudslide, collapsed one side of the bridge sending a wall of mud and trees towards the town of Infanta.
The town was buried in mud and 2,000 people perished. The magnitude of the this disaster reminded me a lot of Hurricane Katrina. Thanks to the help of the local Catholic Church and its leaders, Bishop Tirona and Deacon Mario, the town has dug themselves out of the mud and organized the relief effort. (Allow me a moment to speak about the two great men I just mentioned. Bishop Tirona is one of the holiest and joyful men I have ever met. He is one of those people I am happy just to be in the presence of. He has such a heart for the poor that saturates everything he does. Deacon Mario was working at the diocese prior to the floods. After the flood he was given the position of accountant and head of the social action center after the death of Fr. Cha. Fr. Cha held those positions prior to the flood but was killed after saving 200 villagers. Deacon Mario has certainly stepped up to the added responsibilities. He has devoted his life to the poor and working class. He has been, and still is the head man on many projects throughout the Infanta area that are changing lives. Everywhere we went, whether it was a tribal village in the heart of the jungle, the projects outside the city, or at Sunday Mass, everyone knew who he was and loved him.) The Catholic Church is rebuilding this town. It is not some government organization or foreign entity that is coming to the rescue but the Catholic Church by taking the much needed aid from outside and empowering the people to put it to effective and sustainable use.
This system works. Unlike many other relief efforts where thousands of supplies are shipped in and then distributed to whoever is there, the supplies were organized and distributed according to need. The community had already been organized into small, local communities and each community had a spokesperson who knew the needs of their community and so were able to get help to the most in need without excessive waste or abuse of the system.
In the John Paul II village which was built for people who lost everything in the flood, they have their own greenhouses where villagers grow vegetables to be sold in the market for income. Nearby, there is a group of women who take fallen banana trees and make unique and beautiful paper products that are sold as far away as the Netherlands. And these are only a few of the many great things going on.
This was the first lesson I learned: Empowerment is better than hand outs. The old saying is well known, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Give a man a fishing pole and teach him to fish and he can eat for the rest of his life.” Lasting change can only come through empowerment, not handouts. Instead of relying on others to donate what they need, the people of Infanta are taking it upon themselves to improve their community.
This is a poignant lesson for youth ministry, especially Catholic youth ministry. Too often I think we get caught up in the religious education model of teaching the faith. We drill the correct answers into the youth until they can regurgitate the same answers back. Instead, we should be empowering the youth to take responsibility for their faith. We need to challenge them to think and feel instead of simply letting them coast through religious ed and youth group. I think one of the best ways to do this in a youth ministry setting (we are currently working with this model in our ministry at St. Thomas More) is through mentoring. In our program we have high school students who volunteer to be small group leaders and help in various aspects of the ministry. As the youth take more ownership of the youth nights they become more invested in the Church as well. It also provides great opportunities for us youth ministers to be more present to each student. We are currently looking at ways to empower more of our middle schoolers to help with different aspects of our nights.
As a youth minister the idea of giving responsibility to the youth can be scary. What if they mess up? Can they do as good a job as an adult? Don’t worry, they will mess up and an adult probably could do a better job. But the rewards wouldn’t be as great. Challenges make us grow and through messing up we learn to do better. Ultimately, it is not about how good, shiny and seamless our programs are. Youth ministry is about relationship and how much the youth are changed through encounters with Christ(more on this in my next post).
These days middle school youth are seen as the toughest age to work with. I think people don’t give them enough credit and don't expect a lot out of adolescents. However, I have found these kids are able to step up to whatever challenge we give them, if only we did. Just imagine if a 7th grader saw the Church as the only place where people took him seriously and trusted him. Or a high schooler, after spending year in religious ed is finally given an opportunity to formulate their own thoughts on the faith through preparing a testimony or talk.
Under this model the youth are not simply bystanders who are talked at each week by the adults (they get enough of that at school). Instead they become active participants in the ministry. This provides opportunity for them to become personally invested in the ministry, the Church, and ultimately Christ through the witness of the mentors they are working with. I think this also is a good tangible lesson, whether they realize it consciously or not, that our faith is not passive but something that we invest ourselves in and contribute to.
More to Come . . .