As people of faith, we care deeply about the well-being of human communities, both locally and around the world. We are inspired to help curb injustice, ameliorate poverty, and foster opportunities in struggling communities. Too often, though, our efforts to serve others are marred by imbalanced structures, paternalistic assumptions, and short-lasting results.
With these pitfalls of cross-cultural engagement in mind, thirty faith leaders working in churches and non-profit organizations in the Twin Cities gathered for a conversation about how we frame mission and community development efforts on May 20 at Mano a Mano International in St. Paul.
Over a wood-fired pizza lunch, we explored the grassroots community partnership model of mission and community development, which focuses on assets over needs, bicultural collaboration, community participation, friendship across barriers, and sustainable change.
Mano a Mano’s community development work in Bolivia served as one case study for the conversation, while sister church relationships between congregations in the U.S. and congregations in Africa and Latin America served as another case study. Janel Kragt Bakker, associate director of the Collegeville Institute, and Joan Velásquez, co-founder of Mano a Mano, presented findings from their experience and research, while Mary Pickard, board member of the Collegeville Institute and principal advisor for global development at GHR Foundation, convened the event. In addition to the Collegeville Institute and Mano a Mano International, the Kaleo Center of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities co-sponsored the conversation.
Even in the midst of the partnership model of mission or community development, it is easy to fall into colonial patterns of engagement. One of the challenges we discussed was that while partners from the global South are routinely held accountable by their North American partners for how they spend money and other resources, the reverse is seldom true. During the event, we brainstormed about how to build mutual accountability, solidarity, and sustainability in international partnerships. We also discussed the importance of agency and investment on the part of southern partners, noting that mission and community development efforts tend to be more effective when the communities in which projects are carried out lead the way.
Having dedicated several hours to the conversation about partnership in mission and community development, participants in the conversation left with copies of Janel’s book, Sister Churches, and Joan’s book, Gaining Ground, ready to go about their work in local communities and beyond with additional tools and insights.