Multicultural mission team shares work, witness

The Rev. Jenni Duncan

The Rev. Jenni Duncan

By Jenni Duncan
Special Contributor

On March 21, 2015, what brought together four United Methodists from St. Andrew UMC Little Rock, six from Sylvan Hills UMC and nine Hispanics from El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala in Black Oak, Arkansas? If you knew Black Oak is near Mayflower, then maybe you guessed we met to do tornado recovery. How did such a partnership bridge not only the river between cities, but also several cultures?

After the 2014 tornado that hit Mayflower and Vilonia, St. Andrew UMC Little Rock set up a reception station, taking in cases of water, cleaning supplies and other disaster kits, and we were surprised by some unexpected donations. Many Hispanic students in my adult English classes at St. Andrew left class early and came back with cases and cases of donations. They wanted to help the people they had heard about on the news.

Students asked about other ways to bring restoration to the damaged areas, and the idea for a spring break rebuilding trip was born. I polled my morning and evening classes and received a lot of interest.

In mission training, my husband, Glen, and I had learned that the best model is to work alongside people in need, rather than making handouts from a position of power. What an opportunity this would be, to work with immigrants who often found themselves on the needing end! They would be building something, and many of my students build things all day. Their expertise would put them on a whole different footing in this mission experience.

Forming a plan

Glen and I set aside four days to be involved in disaster relief, including one day to scope out the site and make certain we could put everyone to work. We wanted the three workdays to include the weekend, because most of my students work Monday through Saturday. Twelve or 13 students signed up, but I knew that if paying work was available, some volunteers would have to bow out. The snow and ice of 2015 caused many hourly workers to have lots of no-pay days, which increased the possible shortfall. But God always provides.

I teach night English classes in North Little Rock with Jane Ann Bilon, who also is a United Methodist—a member of Sylvan Hills. Both of us know how our class turnout varies with weather and work opportunities. Bilon volunteered to talk to her pastor, the Rev. Brittany Richardson Watson, about joining the effort. Before long, Sylvan Hills United Methodists had fleshed out the team.

Participants in a March tornado recovery project build a deck to provide entry into a Black Oak-area home. COURTESY PHOTO

Participants in a March tornado recovery project build a deck to provide entry into a Black Oak-area home.

Heavy rain was forecast for the second of the three days of work, and most workers could only come on Saturday. A few signed on to come back Sunday in the rain or Monday to finish whatever was needed. Thank God Saturday was cloudy but rain-free; the mud was already inches deep all around the trailer where the team worked.

No need for a return trip, however! With six Hispanics familiar with construction, and most of the Methodists being veteran missioners, in less than seven hours the team built a back deck platform and step, and a front porch with staircase and rails.

Making connections

It was especially rewarding to connect with the family we were helping. Knowing that our team was multi-ethnic and bilingual, Volunteers in Mission coordinator Byron Mann had sent us to a Hispanic family in the Black Oak area. When the students took a break, they visited with the family. Some ended up sharing information about immigrant resources the family really needed. The students had received the resources in presentations and displays at our ESL site. They also brainstormed ideas for future classes to help each other adapt to Arkansas—gardening, for instance, and learning to cook U.S. cuisine so that they can secure better jobs. Here was grassroots organization at work!

In the team meeting the night before the workday, I had read 1 John 4:11-12: “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love each other, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (NIV). I wanted the group to remember that our task was to build the two porches, but our purpose was to work together so that God’s love could flow through us toward others.

The very way we work is a witness, and I wondered how it might play out, having workers from such far-flung places. ¡No problema! Most students spoke some English and some of the missioners spoke a little Spanish, but language didn’t matter. The team hadn’t worked together before, either, but everyone mastered the art of becoming a team. It was a great day.

My work often centers on helping others use their gifts to share God’s love. Some of those “others” can even be the strangers in our midst that Matthew 25 talks about, to whom we offer welcome and yes, partnership.

Outreach is best when standing shoulder to shoulder with one another. Two or three days’ work finished in just a few hours? Well, sure—because when two or three, or 19, gather in Jesus’ name, God’s power is at work in marvelous ways.

The Rev. Duncan teaches ESL at St. Andrew UMC and Seis Puentes Hispanic Center, and is pastor of adult and Hispanic outreach at St. Andrew UMC Little Rock.