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I always hate coming back from mission trips.
After weeks of feeling so free and immersed in what God is doing, I return with a feeling of purpose and certainty. I’m convinced the impact of this trip is going to change my life at home.
And then I get back to my own house, my own neighborhood and culture and jobs and routines and before I know it all those well-intentioned changes seem to slip away.
For me, returning from a mission trip so often feels like making a New Year’s resolution. I tell myself this time it will stick, but I wake up the next morning and the world hasn’t changed. And it’s just too easy to not change right along with it.
Which is exactly why working at Shepherd Community Center has been weird.
Shepherd Community Center is an organization dedicated to serving the needs of impoverished families and individuals on the near-east side of Indianapolis.
They have an academy, after-school programs, food programs, a health clinic, a legal clinic, mentoring, bible studies, and a whole array of initiatives and special events designed to show the love of Christ by helping to empower people who often feel powerless.
What’s weird about it is that my home is only thirty minutes away.
While I’m working at Shepherd, I’m staying with a local family and doing my best to make the experience as immersive as possible. But to post articles I need internet access, and the closest access I know about is in the city. Downtown. A place I’ve been many times before.
To put it simply, I didn’t want to go.
I told myself I didn’t want to lose the “authentic experience”. It would feel “too easy”, like I was somehow cheating, to take a break and go someplace familiar. It would feel like coming back from a mission trip, leaving everything I had been thinking and feeling behind, if only for an afternoon.
But I needed internet, so I got on a bus. As I rode past abandoned houses, decaying sidewalks and sewage-stained rivers, I grew more and more anxious. As empty storefronts transitioned to new housing and poverty gave way to plenty, I was downright scared.
I realized I’d been lying to myself. I wasn’t afraid that Indianapolis was going to taint my time at Shepherd, I was afraid that Shepherd was going to ruin my time at Indianapolis.
13 Minutes Away
I was happy with traveling to places far away and encountering poverty there. But I wanted to come back afterwards.
I was a champion of the idea that poverty is “right next door”, that it’s right at our fingertips. But I wanted to control when and where I reached out. And when I was done, I didn’t want to be touching it anymore.
But as soon as I stepped off that bus, I knew that control was lost. Thirteen minutes from a neighborhood that was falling apart, I was standing in the heart of Indianapolis.
As I walked down newly-renovated sidewalks and passed remodeled storefronts, every bus stop I saw reminded me of what was on the other side. Only thirteen minutes away, families struggling with hunger.
I knew that every time I returned to the city, I would be reminded that the people who I share a bus with,
who clean my hotel room,
who stock my mall,
who cook my food,
may end their day and take a bus home to a house with peeling paint, decaying sidewalks, and tainted rivers.
My home was no longer a place where the oppressed are absent, it was merely a place where there are enough other people that I didn’t have to notice them.
And it’s not just my home, every city I travel to will be the same. Like one of those hidden-image pictures: once you see it, you can’t un-see it. Once you know where to look, you see it everywhere.
I felt terrible. I was filled with the sinking realization that I would never be able to escape poverty. That there is no city I can visit, no home I can return to, no resort I can vacation at, that will be without injustice.
What was I supposed to do with that knowledge? Wallow in guilt and shame? Pretend I didn’t know? Spend my life trying to fix every injustice everywhere?
None of these sounded fun, and they certainly didn’t sound freeing.
Strangely enough though, I started laughing. In the middle of Indianapolis, thirteen minutes from poverty, twenty minutes from home, and smack dab in the middle of a realization I just laughed and laughed for joy.
If poverty is everywhere, if injustice really is “right next door”, then I never have to come back from the mission trip.
My world is no longer divided into “places that need Christ” and “home, where things are ok”. There is no longer a distinction between where God is working and where I am living.
All my worries about coming back to a poverty-free community and falling into selfish routines were gone. I could no longer see any place as being poverty free, and I realized that, with the help of places like Shepherd, selflessness could become my routine.
I had traveled around the world to engage with poverty and injustice where it is, but for the first time, poverty is engaging me where I am.
That’s a scary thing, but more than anything else I’ve done, that has the potential to change my day-to-day life.
I know over the next few weeks, I’m going to be changed. As I spend time with people facing and fighting hunger. As I witness the amazing work Shepherd is doing to provide nutrition for those without it, I know I’ll be discovering a side of my own home I never knew existed, and a work of God I never knew was waiting for me.
The best part is, at the end I won’t be going home.
I’ll just be getting started.
- Read along over the next few weeks as I continue my adventure at Shepherd.
- Want to experience Shepherd yourself? Click here to to find out how.
About the Author: Brad Miller is a year-long fellow with WND. A student of Psychology, Biology, and Theatre, he's worked as an actor, teacher, balloon artist and last-minute fill-in guy for any number of projects. He loves camping and tinkering with broken and discarded things. Brad's passion in life is to unleash the potential in others.