Monday, November 23, 2015

Projects and Presence, Part 1: Lessons in Partnership from ‘Clem’ and ‘Tine’

“Well Clem, whatcha got for us this year? Are we gonna plow the back 40, put up some hay, slop the pigs, or dig a new well?”
“Golly Tine, I was hopin’ this year we’d replace that fence in the front pasture that’s fallin’ down. I’ve got everything ready to go. So change out of those city clothes, put on your overalls, and we’ll get to work…”

What sounds like an excerpt from a 1950’s era western was actually an annual conversation between me (Richard) and my brother-in-law (Rob). For most of our married life, Debbie and I would spend Thanksgiving with Debbie’s sister Korreen and her husband Rob. Every year we would trade visits. One year we would travel to their suburban Everett, WA home, and the following year they would visit our little farm outside of Spokane, WA.
New barn doors on an old barn. A Clem 'n Tine project

Rob truly loved doing projects on the farm, hence the corny greeting as soon as they would arrive. Over the years our projects became as much a part of our Thanksgivings together as the Thursday meal or Friday shopping trips. Over many Thanksgivings at our home we built fences, replaced barn doors, chopped firewood, and dug trenches. On our visits to Everett we made many trips to the city dump, landscaped, and worked in the garage. Not only did our project time help us build appetites for the meal (or work off the effects of over eating), it also gave the sisters time to themselves to catch up with one another, and in retrospect, I believe I got to know the most I know about my brother-in-law from the time we spent working together.

Besides the fact that we are now celebrating our third Thanksgiving in Guatemala, I’ve had additional reasons for reminiscing about past holiday traditions. Throughout our history with mission partnerships (even prior to our new careers as PCUSA mission coworkers), we’ve experienced a tension between different approaches to partnership. To some, partnership can only exist in the context of working together building or creating something that improves the lives of their partners. The economic disparity between the partners dictates that project resources generally flow from the US partner to the Guatemalan partner. We’ve observed many buildings built, repaired, or improved, and many gains in health, education, and financial independence that have resulted from projects carried out by partners working together in these work-focused visits.
U.S. and Guatemalan partners work together
Building a pastor's manse in the Peten Presbytery
Yet many have observed how project-focused partnerships can easily encounter unintended consequences such as dependency, misappropriation of resources, paternalism, loss of partners’ self-esteem, and visits that resemble a service provider’s call rather than a gathering of equal partners. Recent book titles such as “When Helping Hurts” and “Toxic Charity” do an excellent job of identifying the reality and impact of these consequences.

On the other side of the spectrum, we’ve observed partnerships focused on the building and maintaining of long-term and deeply personal relationships between partners. We’ve observed wonderful personal connections develop as people worshiped, shared music, had meals, and listened to one another’s stories together. Spending time in one another’s homes and communities creates a lasting understanding of each person’s context and faith journey.

Yet challenges exist in the ministry of presence as well as people who visited in the past no longer make the trip for whatever reason. Stories are retold as new and experienced travelers gather visit after visit and keeping the partnership fresh and relevant to both parties becomes more difficult. Eventually, the disparity in resources between partners can become more difficult to reconcile, and it’s not uncommon to see a relationship come to a place where people want to do something together.

Lately we’ve wondered… at what point did we decide that partnership has to be either project focused or relationship focused? Both aspects offer much to the vitality of our partnerships. And so we return to Clem and Tine. One year our project was to chop firewood for the winter. In anticipation of the family’s arrival I borrowed a neighbor’s hydraulic wood splitter. We split lots of firewood. But at the end of the day after we turned off the motor on the machine and took off our hearing protection my brother-in-law commented, “Boy, you sure can’t have much of a conversation with that thing going can you?” Unknowingly, I’d traded our opportunity to visit with each other while we worked for increased firewood production. I don’t think it was a good trade. From then on we stuck to more manual, but less intrusive methods of working together.
Team members from Alabama mix concrete by hand
with their Guatemalan partners.
Very manual and "non-intrusive".
“Just don’t let your project become your purpose” were the closing words to a conversation I had with a friend as we discussed a major renovation project in our aging church facility. No one denied the need to make the old building accessible for people with physical limitations, but my friend was aware of the ability projects have in taking on lives of their own, and we can sometimes lose sight of the purpose our projects have in the lives of our relationships with one another. We’ve had the privilege of working alongside so many of you who have partnered with us as well as with our indigenous sisters and brothers in Guatemala. Whether it’s in the execution of projects, the deepening of relationships, the financial support that keeps our ministry going, or the regular encouragement of your communications with us, your involvement is a joy to experience and witness.

Thanksgiving blessings to you all, in all of the different ways you may be celebrating the season!

Thank-you and blessings to you all!
Debbie and Richard Welch
PC(USA) Mission Co-workers, Guatemala

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