Want Service to Stick? Here’s An Easy Starting Point.

Youth Specialties
February 1st, 2016

At a party recently, I (Brad) learned Karina and Harry’s story for the first time. She’s from Central America, he’s Mediterranean. Their journey of meeting and ending up in LA is both common and unique, and it was fun to hear. Karina and Harry are the parents of one of my daughter’s friends who I’ve known for a handful of months. I knew they didn’t share the same ethnicity, but without making all sorts of assumptions, I needed their help to place their stories in context. So I asked.

“How did you meet?” was my lead-in this time, but often the question is some form of, “Where are you from?” While the grammar isn’t ideal, this question is actually a helpful one for our students.

Especially when they ask it about themselves.

Many of the young people we work with don’t think they have any story of cultural heritage, especially if they come from light-skinned stock and especially if their families have been in the US for several generations (both of us are holding up the mirror right now).

Yet understanding our own “social location” is incredibly helpful when we’re preparing to serve others, especially if the folks we’re serving among look, sound, or live differently than we do.

We love asking students, “When someone asks where you’re from, what do you say?” Recently in a middle school group this question revealed ambivalence from one young man who has lived in the same house his entire 13-year life, while stirring up conflict for a young woman who has lived in four different states and a dozen homes in as many years. These responses are fruitful, because behind the question is a whole host of ideas about social location—the ways we’re shaped by our geography, socioeconomics, race/ethnicity, family size, education, and other means of social power.

Knowing where we “come from” is critical as we prepare to serve because students (and adults) naturally make all kinds of assumptions about people in host communities—everything from “they all eat like that” to “they have so little, but they’re so happy!” Naming the diversity that exists in our own team can uncover the need to ask more questions before making assumptions about folks where we’ll serve. And that can prevent us from making incorrect or even derogatory statements about others.

To get started, here’s a free download of a handout you can use with students. It asks them to complete prompts like, “I was born in …” “My house/apartment is like …” and, “I spend money on …” and then share their responses with a partner.

Afterward wonder aloud about the experience, asking questions like:

  • How did it feel to think more about your cultural location? How does that shape how you interact with others who are different?
  • If some of the teenagers from the community where we’ll serve filled out this same list, how do you think their answers might be similar or different from ours? How could we find out more?
  • How can we honor those we visit without just being cultural or spiritual tourists?

Invite students to pray that the Lord will help all of you be mindful of your own backgrounds and appreciate interacting with different cultures while you serve.

Explore this and other ideas for leading students before, during, and after service and mission trips in the Sticky Faith Service Guide and accompanying Student Journal, available now, just in time for spring break and summer trips! Download a free chapter of the book today!

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Kara Powell press photo 12.14Kara Powell, PhD, is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary (see fulleryouthinstitute.org). Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women to Watch,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and is the author or co-author of a number of books including the new Sticky Faith Service Guide. @kpowellfyi


BradGriffin_2013_500Brad M. Griffin is the Associate Director of the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, blogger (fulleryouthinstitute.org), and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor of several books, including the new Sticky Faith Service Guide. @bgriffinfyi

Youth Specialties

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