Mission: More than a Transaction

Pick a project, write a check.  For many of us in US parishes, this sums up our relationship with the poor beyond our borders.

Over the past year, I have been serving as a mission adviser for a budding twinning relationship between a parish in the Archdiocese of Seattle and a parish in Haiti.  Sister parish relationships can be beautiful, strong relationships that affirm the dignity of all partners, but they can also quickly fall into the above trap.

Let's look a common scenario: a parish in the US enters into a twinning relationship and asks the other pastor right away, "What do you need?"  The pastor of the parish in the developing country expresses a need to provide year-round salary for his teachers.  He explains that not being able to pay them during the three months of summer means that many (understandably) move on to other jobs/schools (he can barely pay them during the school year, as it is).  The parish in the US immediately gets some figures together, makes calculations, and budgets out what it would cost to cover the teachers' salaries for the year.

Sounds good, right?  But many parishes trying to offer support do not stop and reflect: Are we in a strong enough relationship with this parish yet to make these types of decisions?  Have we met and heard from the teachers at the school?  Do we know the needs of the community?  Have we asked the questions that we should ask to truly work with this community towards a mutual goal?

Looking at this specific issue, teacher salaries, let's examine an approach of learning before doing.  US parishes usually (or should!) send members to visit their partners at least once per year.  During a visit, they can take the opportunity to learn more about the problem from the point of view of the pastor and the rest of the community.  It is a time when they can ask, "WHY can't you afford to pay your teachers?"

That simple question, "Why?", may be one of the most important questions we can ask of our partners, especially as we try to learn from them about their communities.  In this case, the pastor may respond, "Because the families cannot afford tuition."  The typical US response would be, "Well, let's pay for tuition, then."  But what would happen if we instead asked, "Why can't the families afford the tuition?"  And, eventually, "What can we do together to help address this problem?"

By respectfully learning about the problems that our partner communities face from their perspective, we can together figure out ways for our partners to become what Kim Marie Lamberty of CRS calls "protagonists in their own development."  We learned in our group, for example, of a parish that quickly began paying the salaries of teachers at their sister parish, and five years into the relationship the sister parish is completely dependent on this support to function.  In contrast, we were also told of a parish that helped their sister parish community set up a goat cooperative that not only helps families afford to send their kids to school, but is sustainable within the community.

When we enter into relationship with people suffering from extreme poverty, we often feel an overwhelming need to do whatever we can as quickly as we can.  I know that members of our group struggle with the feeling that little is "getting done" so far.  But we can look at the examples above to see what happens when we take the time to enter into relationship with our partners, and start by asking questions instead of assuming that we have all the answers.

Kevin Foy is a mission promoter for the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers in the Pacific Northwest.