The Promise of Serve Projects

The following is a piece by Jason Leif, originally written for The Twelve.

At the institution where I teach I’ve come to be known as the “guy who hates serve projects.” This comes from my ineffective attempts to carefully critique all of the money and time that go into these projects, as well as the terrible theology that is often used to justify them. As much as I would try to tell people that I don’t hate them and that I believe they can be important transformative experiences—the label has stuck. I stand by my critique, and I’m not the only one who feels this way. Over the past ten years or so there have been a number of people who have articulated the problems with these projects much better than I can.

St Pauls Indian Mission Door

This morning, however, I’m getting ready to lead my second serve project in as many years. Tomorrow young people from Canada and the U.S. will gather in a small church in Sergeant Bluff, Iowa for a week of worship, fellowship, and work. We call it Prairie Serve. The idea came to me a few years ago when I was having a conversation with someone about the issues facing rural America. Look at a map of the most economically impoverished parts of the United States and you’ll see they are not in urban areas; they are in rural areas. Arizona, New Mexico, and South Dakota are all lit up on these maps…the one I was looking at was a dark blue. These are the places Native Americans inhabit—the reservations as they are called. This week a group of young people will be working with Pastor Lowell from the Winnebago Reformed Church painting houses, doing yard work, demolishing dilapidated structures, and meeting new people. But that’s not why we go.

Inside St Pauls Indian Mission

The reason I started this serve project is because I want young people to encounter the diversity that lives right in their own back yard. As a planning team we try to make sure that we deal with the messiah complex right away. We’re not “saving” anyone by painting houses or mowing a lawn; in fact I’m not sure the work we do matters all that much in the end. But we are meeting our neighbor; we are putting ourselves in a place where we encounter the other…where we encounter difference. My hope for this project is not that these young people will think they are bringing God to the Native people or the Lao people, but that the Native people and the Lao people will open up an encounter of God for us—that we will come to see how God is at work in ways we could never imagine.


Country Road and Field

So that’s why I’m helping to lead a serve project this week. Sure there will be time for silliness, time for play and time for eating good food, but this will all take place within the context of a time of being opened up to encounter our neighbor in ways that crack open our own religious and cultural worldview. In teaching VBS to Lao kids, in attending the annual Winnebago Pow Wow, and in painting a house for a young family in need, these young people will be opening themselves up to encounter the God who in Jesus Christ has promised to come to us in ways we never expect. That’s my hope for this week, and that’s why I love serve projects.

The Unexpected Prairie

When asked to think about cultural diversity, most people understandably think about urban communities with people from all sorts of different backgrounds. But increasingly, this same diversity can be found in the rural communities out on the northern plains as well. Many of our neighbors come from Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, and they bring with them a wealth of diversity, cultural strengths and Kingdom cooperation.

The native people settled here because they loved, even worshipped, the sun. They took advantage of the natural resources the land provided. Today, the descendants of these people are still here wrestling with the challenges brought on by the near destruction of their way of life. European settlers came here in the 1800’s and established communities grounded in farming and faith. Today, people still come from around the globe in search of opportunity.

While there is much about rural life that is good, as with every other place in the world there are significant issues and problems to overcome. There are kids who go hungry, and there are men and women without good jobs. These people, our neighbors and family members, struggle with disabilities, extended sickness, addictions and all the financial, emotional, and relational needs that go along with that.

While urban and global poverty get much of the attention, rural poverty represents a unique challenge. It is pervasive and destructive to families and communities, and yet many of the resources and networks needed to address the significant issues associated with rural poverty (physical and emotional abuse, substance abuse, etc.) are under-developed, under-funded, or non-existent.

What’s unique about the rural setting is that there’s often a stoic pride and stubbornness that masks how significant these needs can be. Some small communities don’t have all the resources they need, while many of the people who could benefit from the resources either aren’t sure how to ask or aren’t willing to.

The Prairie Project is a four-day Serve project at Dordt College in which students will immerse themselves in the issues facing rural America.

When you come you’ll meet some of our hardworking, wise neighbors. You’ll experience the issues and struggles that are unique to this people and this region. You will also find that many of these problems affect us all regardless of where we live. We invite you to come, not just to give, but to receive. We invite you to open yourself up in generosity and love to the people and the land and see what happens. Hear God speak to you in the wind and the blue sky, and let Jesus meet you in the people you encounter.

You’ll experience both diversity and poverty here along with the rolling hills, big skies, river valleys and vistas that allow you to see for miles—all part of the beauty of the plains. You’ll also experience a Divine Normal that followers of Jesus Christ are ushering in by his grace.