Chicago Urban Program: Part 1

This is part one of a two part entry. This entry is reflections before my involvement with Chicago Urban Program (CUP). Part two will be written March 11, after my involvement in which I will give my conclusions.

On March 5-10 I have the privilege of participating in a ministry of InterVarsity called “Chicago Urban Program.” The ministry, which has existed for over 20 years now, connects college students with various communities in Chicago to present them with the opportunity to interact with issues such as reconciliation and social justice. This is a time for students to ponder and work through important issues while getting hands on experience. Throughout their involvement they are given biblical and spiritual training to help them work through the theology of what they are experiencing.

I am extremely excited about being a part of this ministry. Issues revolving around social justice are huge right now within missiology and the church. Understanding how social justice and the proclamation of the gospel fit together is a common discussion, and even a tension point within the evangelical church today. Short-term missions trips have helped fuel the confusion as to what God really expects for us as His witnesses. Is giving someone some food or change really a proclamation of the Gospel? Is painting a barn or building a house really missions? Is simply telling people about Jesus as their hope of salvation really enough? (Are we even telling people about Jesus in the first place?)

My goal is not to get into this issue here (if you want to read about it, you can go to Jim Plueddemann’s blog). However, these are the questions that people are asking, and they are having a hard time finding answers. My generation is eager to help the poor, the needy, the “widow and orphan” of James 1. But because they are not getting answers to the questions they have about how social justice fits into God’s plan of redemption, the responses are varied and are usually incorrect.

Short-term missions trips have indeed added to the confusion. Generally speaking, students who go on short-term missions trips go to areas of the world which are defined by poverty, devastation, or disease. And after coming back from these trips students (and adults) have a hard time processing the two different worlds in which they have now experienced. What a student many times concludes as the overall lesson to be taken from the mission field is that they should be thankful for what God has blessed them with here in America because there are so many other people who are not as fortunate as they are. But is being more grateful for what God has blessed us with in America when contrasted to other parts of the world really the proper response?

To show better what I mean, I will give an actual testimony of a student I met after she had come back from a short-term missions trip. This student told the story of walking down the street of an impoverished area of Africa. Because so many are poor there, children roam the streets, homeless and dirty. To keep themselves amused they play with whatever they can get their hands on, which is usually trash of some sort. She remembered a specific child playing in the street with a cap off something like a soda bottle. She said as she saw that, her heart was moved by the fact that a bottle cap is what children have to play with. She went onto to say that when she returned to America and bought a bottle of soda from the vending machine she was reminded just how fortunate she was as an American. Now every time she sees a bottle cap she is more grateful for all that God has privileged her with here in America.

She gave that story after I asked her what the greatest lesson was that God taught her while on the missions trip. But I’m not sure if we should be satisfied with that answer. I don’t think that that should be our conclusion as we interact with those in worse conditions than ourselves. But this is more often than not the overwhelming response of those coming back from missions trips. Why is this the case? And how should we, as people that have indeed been blessed with monetary wealth and prosperity, be responding to the poor around us?

These are some of the questions that I am thinking about before I personally interact with those living in poverty. How do I respond in a way which treats everyone with dignity and respect? How do I interact with those in poverty in a way that shows them that I love them as a brother or sister, and not in a way which seems like I am so nice that I, a middle-class graduate student, would make such a sacrifice of my time to spend giving to those in poverty? It’s not a sacrifice. It is an expectation. It is not going beyond what is expected of me. It is simply helping out someone who needs to be shown that God loves them and that because they were made in God’s likeness, they are valuable.

How does one spend six days in the midst of poverty without it turning into “poverty tourism” as some have put it. (See the article in the Huffington Post on a girl’s experience with CUP and the comment a user made at the end). Indeed, this experience is not like a reality TV show in which I become a contestant for a week and then go on living a life which appreciates the material things in my life more. It’s reality.

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