Earlier this month, Doug Baker—the PC(USA) regional mission liaison for Ireland and the United Kingdom—asked me to participate in his plenary address at the World Mission Matters Conference at Big Tent. I first met Doug two summers ago when I led a youth mission trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland, where Doug lives and works. He was instrumental in the planning and implementing of this incredible trip. Doug was intrigued by our follow-up trip, the Justice Journey, and wanted me to share a little bit about this as part of his plenary on “Engaging in Reconciliation Amidst Cultures of Violence, Including Our Own.” My vignette was intended to be an example of how we can expand the horizons of international mission experiences by using our experiences to inform our ministries and mission back home. Here is the text and video of my presentation:

Doug asked me to be here to talk about how we have built on our experience of learning about reconciliation in Belfast to intentionally think about reconciliation in our own culture.

For the past several years, our youth ministry has been casting a broader thematic vision for our summer mission trips. By connecting each short term mission trip together with a developing theme, our hope is to nurture the kind of long term engagement that Doug has been talking about.

Fourth Church has a long tradition of travelling to different locations each summer for our high school mission trip. When I began my ministry at Fourth five years ago, I continued this tradition, organizing my first trip as leader to an Appalachian community in Kentucky. For the next summer, we decided to build on our experience of helping with home improvements for low income families by contributing to the recovery process in New Orleans.

In addition to the work we did in homes and churches, our experience in New Orleans was shaped by theological reflection on the deep socioeconomic problems exposed by Hurricane Katrina. We thought a lot about the racial and economic divisions of New Orleans, which also prompted us to think about the racial and economic divisions of our own city of Chicago.

Somewhat independent of this trip to New Orleans and the reflection it inspired, we decided that our 2009 summer trip would be to Belfast, Northern Ireland. We quickly realized, however, that the issues of societal division and reconciliation that we would encounter in Belfast would in fact provide a perfect follow-up to our experiences in New Orleans.

The program that Doug arranged for us in Belfast was a powerful exploration of reconciliation work, especially among young people. Once again, we found that our group processing of the situation in Northern Ireland drew us back to thinking about our own divisions and need for reconciliation at home in the United States, and especially in Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in the United States.

As an intentional follow-up to our experience in Belfast, we planned a trip for the summer of 2010 that focused on racial reconciliation in the United States. We called this a “Justice Journey”. It was a trip that combined a study tour of key locations in the civil rights history of the American south and several days of volunteering with a community improvement organization in a rural area of the Mississippi Delta. We assembled a group composed of youth and leaders from our church, which is predominantly white and affluent, and youth and leaders from two African-American churches in Chicago neighborhoods quite different than ours.

The makeup of this group served two goals. First, for a trip that focused on racial reconciliation, it seemed appropriate and more meaningful to have a group that was intentionally diverse, something that we could not fully achieve on our own. We knew that having a multiethnic and multicultural group would intensify our learning and processing together. Second, this was an active experiment in mixing our group of youth with youth of different social, economic, and racial backgrounds. We have a strong desire to broaden the horizons and sense of community among our youth in Chicago, to get them to think about community beyond the bounds of their neighborhoods and the neighborhood of our church, and to imagine what reconciliation in our context might look like.

To give you a better sense for how these trips worked together, I’ve put together a short video that will allow you to hear from some of our youth and adult leaders themselves.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit johnvest.com.

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