This discussion was shared at our 2016 team building meeting on July 9. Thanks to Amanda for researching and leading!
We’ve talked a lot this spring as we prepare for our trip to the Dominican Republic about why we go, what we do, and how we do it (cue 90s song!). So at our recent team building meeting, we were tasked with the challenging next step of how we do it with dignity.
We approached this topic by acknowledging that all too often, dignity can be taken from anyone, either intentionally or unintentionally in little ways. It’s not hard for a boss or a coworker to make you feel small with their actions in the office. It’s easy to feel insignificant or devalued if someone insults you. Can you think of a time when you felt inferior? In that time, what was taken from you? What could someone have given to you that would have made a difference?
In searching my own soul for times when dignity was taken from me, I turned the question on myself. When might I have accidentally taken dignity from another human? It’s a tough question to ask oneself, as we always want to point the finger at someone else who may have committed the sin. On our team building day, I read this story, by Kennedy Odede, written for the New York Times in 2010. We quietly contemplated how we would define dignity, and our group identified honor, respect, validity, and making someone feel real. We pondered, is it possible to serve others in a way that causes more harm than good? Can we actually serve others in a way that is sensitive to their personal dignity?
Consider this quote from Kennedy Odede regarding tourists in his hometown of Kibera:
I was 16 when I first saw a slum tour. I was outside my 100-square-foot house washing dishes, looking at the utensils with longing because I hadn’t eaten in two days. Suddenly a white woman was taking my picture. I felt like a tiger in a cage. Before I could say anything, she had moved on.
In the bible, we hear the story of Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4:1-29). In this story, we see Jesus break cultural norms. He speaks to a woman. He speaks to a Samaritan. And he asks to share a drink with her (which would make him unclean). This breaking of cultural norms was shocking to the woman. But as Jesus tells her things about her that a stranger never could have known, she begins to trust in him. And when they discuss their views on worship, she begins to believe. She goes to tell everyone in her village about this amazing man and, in turn, Jesus and the disciples spend two days teaching the Samaritans about the Good News. This story is ultimately a story about Jesus acknowledging and creating dignity not just for one outcast, one woman, but for an entire people group. We learn that it is not just important who we love, but that it is equally important how we love.
We identified and acknowledged goals for our trip this summer. We want to build meaningful, dignified, cross-cultural relationships. And we want to seek out relationships with mutual feelings of respect and honor. If we view ourselves as “above” or “better” than those we go to visit in La Mosca, this is impossible. We have to keep this concept of dignity in the forefront of our minds in everything we say, all the work we do, and in the pictures we take while in the DR.
A cursory search of our photos from previous trips brings up photos that depict times when we have not necessarily put dignity first. Take a look at these pictures. What story do they tell about the children in the photos?
A lonely girl stands in front of a house painted by the Americanos. Where’s her family? A small child with the largest spoon feeds herself at a nutrition clinic. Do her parents provide? Pictures like these suggest that the community “is incapable or uninterested in caring for it’s own people” (Dasgupta). And I carefully scripted that story to bring back to the United States with me. Was I honoring these children of God? Valuing them with these pictures and stories? But all is not lost. This is not a story of how we’ve only done this poorly in the past.
Overwhelmingly, pictures like this were actually hard to find. I found many many more pictures of us telling the story well. Like this one, of all of the children who helped paint the house in La Mosca, which instantly reminds me of the friendships we formed that day.
Or this one, of Danielle and her friend, Evan. Evan had lost use of his hands and his voice to meningitis. Which made Danielle a perfect, humble partner to help not only feed him, but also attempt to communicate with him and teach him some of the ASL that she knows. That is a story of honor and respect.
As we wrapped up our all-too-short time on Saturday discussing dignity, we acknowledged that we probably brought up more questions than answers. That the problem is not us, or at least not just us, but an issue that is being dealt with on a global scale. During the coming weeks, we challenged each other to figure out how we can be more of an answer than a problem. How can we continue to grow and develop our relationship with Luis and Reina and all of the people of La Mosca in a way that validates them and makes them feel real. Because they are—in our eyes, of course, but more importantly, in the eyes of God the Father.
If you missed the conversation or simply want to learn more, I leaned heavily on the following resources when creating my talk for the DR 2016 team. I hope you’ll enjoy them all as much as I did:
- “Slumdog Tourism” by Kennedy Odede, New York Times
- Dignity Training Resource from Experience Mission, Inc. (analysis of the woman at the well and source for many of the discussion questions)
- “When my conscience finally trumped my camera” by Bev Biderman, The Globe and Mail (on taking photos in other countries)
- “#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism” by Lauren Kascak Sayantani Dasgupta, Pacific Standard (on voluntourism)
- “We Can Do Better” by Ray Sawatsky, Comment (on short term missions)