The Heart of a Servant

I’ve just returned from DFW Airport, where I went to see off our Guatemala mission team. They are headed for a week of mission with the good folks of ODIM Guatemala, which Northaven helped found and still supports in numerous ways.

But, while I was waiting for our team to make their way through baggage check, something happened which has me stirred up. Something that’s reminded me about how important it is to always, in every moment, have the heart of a servant while on a mission trip. So, since this week is a big week for all sorts of mission teams (Spring Break) I thought I’d tell you the story, and write this blog on servanthood.

What happened just now is that another, very large, high school mission team headed to Belize –from a very large nondenominational church in Fort Worth– was also checking in. But instead of moving through the regular baggage check line, their leader was sneaking them around the side, to the front of the line, five at a time.

It was efficient, to be sure. At least for them.

But it meant two things. One that’s annoying, and one that’s important. The annoying one is that it meant that the regular line suddenly slowed down for no apparent reason. At first, I couldn’t figure out why. But then I looked up, and saw the group. I immediately realized that it was this group causing the slow-down in the regular line.

The other reason is far more important. The other reason is about what this special treatment teaches those kids about what they are doing, and what it teaches everybody else who watches them in the airport. (Like me).

After a while, I couldn’t stand it. I approached the youth leader, a young guy who looked to be in his late twenties. I pulled him aside so that it was just the two of us talking.

“I’ve been in your position, as a mission leader,” I said. “In fact, we have a small team in the regular line right now. As one believer to another, I want you to think about what this special treatment is saying to your kids, and what it is saying to the world right now.”

He immediately got defensive. He apologized for delaying our team. He explained that he had a large group (a very large group). He explained that it had all be prearranged by their travel agent.

I said, “This isn’t about our team, and you delaying us. This is about the messages you are sending to your own kids.”

Then, he pulled out the Jesus-talk.

He said, “Well, I’m sorry that I’ve caused you to stumble today.”

That just went all over me.

I said, “You are missing the point completely. You have not caused me to stumble, or caused our team to stumble. My concern is that you are teaching your own kids to stumble…”

I continued, “I want you, somewhere on your trip this week, to ask yourself this important question: Are you teaching your kids to be Christ’s servants, or are you teaching them that they are privileged?”

He started to answer, and I cut him off. I told him he didn’t need to answer that question to me. He needed to spend some time and really “go to God” with that question in his own heart. He didn’t need to bring it up to the group. He didn’t need to make a big deal out of it.

foot washing-0071I simply asked him to prayerful consider this fact: That every moment of a mission experience, he and his team are Christ’s hands and feet in the world. Not just on the ground in Belize, but also as they travel through the airport, encounter strangers in the baggage line. What kind of message about Jesus and the servant ministry that he’s called us to, does it send for his team to cut in the line?

As a group that appeared to be mostly white and upper-middle-class,  it sends a terrible message about special privilege. It says that following Christ means we are afforded special privilege and treatment in this world. It’s a terrible message to those kids, who no doubt could desperately use the lesson of Jesus

Jesus took the heart of a servant. Jesus lambasted his own disciples for trying to take first place in a line. Jesus even washed his own disciple’s feet, and challenged them (much to their horror) to do the same for others.

Jesus, of whom Paul said,

“Though he was in the form of God,
        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
        by taking the form of a slave
        and by becoming like human beings.”

I love this Common English Bible translation. Jesus did not see being equal with God as “something to exploit.” Quite the opposite, the call of Jesus is the call to be a servant in all times and places, to show humility, to suffer with humanity as Jesus did.

Again, I am sensitive to these issues, because I once was that guy. For a good chunk of my ministry at HPUMC, I was that very guy. I was the one watching, and brooding like a mother hen, over large groups that traveled all over the world to do mission in God’s name. And, now and then, I am sure that I wanted my groups to have special treatment. But, if memory serves ( and I hope it does) we avoided doing the thing this guy did. And if we didn’t, then I repent of it now.

Because over the years, my own experience in mission has shown me how important it is to remember that you are always a servant on mission. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have individual team members who exploited their privilege while on mission. Sadly, we did.

haitii copyThe most vivid example was of a young doctor who traveled with us to Haiti one time, to work in the eye clinic, there in Petit-Guave. This doc was on his first trip with us, and Lila and Ken Foree were, as always, leading the team. Dr. Ken Foree, and his wife Lila, are two of the true saints of the world, IMHO. They have spent, literally, years of their lives in Haiti –leading mission teams over decades– and have brought sight to thousands of poor Haitians who could not otherwise afford medical care.

So, we were headed back to the US,  this one young doc in our group simply vanished in front of us. The Port-Au-Prince airport is a sea of humanity and, truthfully, misery. And this young doc had a first class ticket (meaning: He was not sitting with the rest of us…). And as he jockeyed and elbowed his way through the crowd, we watched him vanish. He’d left his team behind, and he’d literally pushed aside poor Haitians, like DeMarco Murray headbutting his way through linebackers.

I saw Dr. Foree look ahead one last time, before the doc disappeared. And I saw him lower his eyes in sadness. Really, it was much the same reaction I had with this young youth leader today. Which is why I spoke to him. Because, when you have the change to teach such lessons, it seems to me, you should.

In a world that increasingly sees Christianity as irrelevant and even harmful, I would hope that all mission teams would be modeling Christian servanthood in all they do. Even if it means waiting in line like the rest of humanity.

If these kids learn the lesson of servanthood it, it could change their lives. I’ve seen that too. I’ve seen kids go on mission, and go on to choose careers and lives that serve God and the world. I’ve seen adults go on mission, reach out in service, and come back home only to turn their whole world upside-down….change careers…change their very lives. It happens.

But, if those kids don’t learn a servant heart on mission, they may come to believe their faith insulates them from the real world, and gives them special privilege. This happens all too often in the world. Too many times, our theology reinforces our social privilege in a seamless, tragic, and unChristian cloth.

Servanthood can, and should, be one of the primary lessons of a Spring Break mission trip for those who go to serve.

So, did I make any difference by speaking to this young man? Did he just walk away thinking I was an asshole? (Probably too polite to think that…) Will it change anything? Will he actually do as I asked, and meditate/pray on this later?

I have no idea. But one final story from Dr. Ken Foree gives me hope.

One night, after a long day of working in the clinic in Petit-Guave Haiti, I watched Ken very carefully. He came in the door of our guest house, but instead of heading to the bathroom to shower, or the chair to rest, he headed straight to the kitchen to help with the meal. (a man in his early 80 at the time, keep in mind…)

So, after dinner, I told him that I’d noticed this. He paused for while, then said something about how important it was to lead by example. Then, he told a story.

Years ago, he told me, while in between cases on a full afternoon of eye surgeries at Baylor Hospital-Dallas, he picked up broom and started sweeping an operating room floor. A fellow surgeon saw what he was doing, and took him aside, privately.

“Ken, this is beneath you. We have staff to do this. You are the doctor, and they are the staff, and everybody has their role. You should not be sweeping the floor.”

Ken replied, “No, I am the leader, and I am modeling what we all should be doing. I had a few minutes to spare, and nothing to do, and so I decided to sweep the floor. In fact, we should all be sweeping the floor.”

Ken said the other doctor huffed off, incensed at this breach of the immutable the hospital caste system.

Ken paused again. As he was telling this story, it was already dark. But it was still probably nearly 95 degrees, with 90 percent humidity, and no air conditioning. We were, literally, sweating through our clothes.

After that long pause, Ken said, “But sometime later, I was passing an operating room. And I saw that doctor. And, son a gun, if he hadn’t picked up a broom, and he was sweeping the floor.

Ken leaned back in his chair. He turned a wry, satisfied, smile and we sat in silence, listening to crickets chirp, and stray dogs bark, in the hot Haitian night.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

5 thoughts on “The Heart of a Servant

  1. It took over an hour to read this because I had to go sit in the corner and cry. Mission trips that fall in the category of “poverty tourism” are such a soapbox issue for me. Still, I acknowledge their purpose if even one person gets it and is changed by the experience. Thanks for being one of the role models for “getting t” in the midst of privilege and conformity.

    1. Thanks, Rexi. It’s absolutely the case that many trips, unfortunately, do get reduced to “poverty tourism” and little else. However, it would be unfair to lump all in this category, any more than you could lump together all politicians, “Christians,” or “Muslims.”
      For my part, I personally saw trips (and continue to see today) that change lives in the country, but also change the lives of the privileged first-world folks who go. As I say in the blog, I’ve seen folks change their whole lives, become advocates for justice…literally move in entirely different directions in their future…because they were involved in mission.

      It can be horrible. It can be life-changing. Heck, it can probably be both at the same time! 🙂

  2. Thank you for sharing this timely post on the issue of being in mission. In my personal experience, far too often I have witnessed the all-too-pervasive attitude of Christian “missionaries” that we who have been blessed with so much–in a material sense–have an obligation to give back to those less fortunate. The foundation of this mission mindset is permeated with a sense of self-importance on the part of the missionary and pity for those being served. How much more condescending can a religious effort be!

    To me, the idea of service through mission is a daily activity. It is a belief that every day offers us a new opportunity to share our God-given gifts with every person with which we come into contact. Even more importantly, it is about doing our best to represent with humility the example of Christ’s life. The giving of our unconditional love and respect for others, whether it is during an organized trip abroad or a spontaneous trip to the grocery store, is the purpose of mission in the world.

    So, if our religious institutions–either directly or indirectly–foster the idea that being of service to the world through mission work will guarantee that God will maintain the perks and privileges of our own lives, people will continue to view organized religion with a cynical eye.

    Jonathon Cole-Morrison

  3. Thank you, Eric, for speaking up in a teaching moment for the young man. How easy it is for us to grumble and fret without calling us into accountability, one with another. I appreciate you!

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