It’s interesting where the unexpected can take you. When I first heard about this assignment, I thought it was odd and it may simply be an awkward dinner. However, it ended up being much more than that. While it did end up meeting the expectation of being slightly awkward in the beginning, the conversation eventually began flowing and it challenged me to thinks in news ways.
The dinner took place in my hometown Somerset, Kentucky with a family that graciously allowed me to bring a dish to their dinner table in their home. We have been family friends for over five years, and I know Becca, Leisha, Mike, and Hannah very well. However, I did not know their guests Bethel and Stella. Leisha and Mike are a middle-aged, married couple with two daughters, Hannah and Becca. Becca and I were best friends throughout middle and part of high school, and she now attends Belmont University where she is working on a degree in Theater Production. Hannah is a graduate from Western Kentucky University where she completed the Chinese Flagship Program, and she is now attending seminary in Louisville. Hannah also spends her time working with Scarlet Hope, a faith based organization that seeks to help women in abusive relationships as well as sex trafficking. Bethel is a Filipino young lady who grew up in a family that are full time missionaries, and she is going to seminary with Hannah to become a therapist and eventually return to the Philippines to also be a missionary. Stella is a German exchange student in the Chinese Flagship Program at WKU. With the combination of these diverse perspectives and walks of life, the dinner conversation was full of differing experiences and opinions that made it an enriching evening.
The meal started with me explaining the purpose of the assignment and asking each to share a little about what they do as citizens to help improve communal issues. Hannah spoke of her work with Scarlet Hope, Becca talked of volunteering with minority support groups, and Leisha explained her active involvement in our church. One aspect of the Citizen and Self class that intrigued me was discussing how service can help but also hurt, so I asked how they thought their service made an impact and if they had seen any examples of service that did more harm than good. Hannah explained that she knew that simply removing those women from their situations would not help them in the long run; they would return to it eventually because the mental damage was instilled in them. Lasting change came from meeting their deeper emotional and religious needs. Bethel shared a similar message as Hannah with her experience working in her father’s church in the Philippines. They had a program that fed homeless people, but this was simply used as a gateway to meet their deeper needs. The healing that has come from both programs has stemmed from focusing on subsurface needs, which is what they agreed truly helps in terms of service. Mike and Leisha offered an example of aid that did not successfully help. They used to attend a church that would give financial handouts to those that stated they needed it, but this only created a dependence on assistance and most people would exploit the system and use the money for unessential items. This reminded me of the organization I spent four weeks with in Haiti last winter break since they refused to give any handouts. They provided community life skills classes that taught people how to work and support their families instead of giving away money. The themes of improvement through teaching how to support as well as meeting nonmaterialistic needs was beginning to emerge throughout our conversation.
Another aspect of service that we discussed focused on how much culture influences the ways in which we try to help others. Churches are generally supposed to be a place of refuge that offer services to help those in need, but Becca brought up the issue of how “Americanized” churches are in the United States. People seem to have to dress, act, and talk a certain way to be considered a normal member of the church. Outsiders that look different from the usual, middle class church goer are much less likely to be welcomed. Hannah reinforced the point with a story about a former prostitute whose life had been transformed by Scarlet Hope. This women was covered head to toe in tattoos and had bright, red dyed hair. Even though her appearance looked the same, she had undergone dramatic healing and dedicated her life to helping others in her former situation. However, Hannah recognized that if she walked into a church they would immediately want to “help” her by covering her tattoos and changing her appearance. But that is not what this women needed and that is not what would her actually help her. Leisha mentioned that most of us do not realize how stuck in our culture we are and that conforming people to fit our culture will not genuinely help them. In her experience, this occurred often on short term mission trips and service projects. We think that going to a foreign country or area and giving them our American commodities will better their community, but we fail to listen to what they actually need or would help them in the long run. The concept of listening and working with the stakeholders has been a repeated topic in our class.
As the dinner came to an end, I thanked everyone for openly voicing their opinions and allowing me to join them at their house for the evening. I honestly did not expect the assignment to have much of an impact on my thinking, but it did. I learned that I must be aware of how my culture defines help and that it imperative to serve in more ways than providing a tangible object. As a church goer myself, I realized that I should be welcoming to everyone, not just those that dress and act a certain way. I am glad to say I walked away from that dinner table more enlightened and pleasantly surprised where the unexpected took me.