“Why don’t we just send the money?”
A student asks this question at least once during each service-immersion program that I run, often after we’ve made some mistake in the work we’ve come to do. Without fail, the query stirs debate, creates uneasiness, and forces our group to sincerely consider why we are here – wherever here is – and whether the community we’ve come to “help” might have been better served had we simply cut a check. It’s an uncomfortable conversation.
I love it.
The idea that we can do more by sending our money to work rather than our bodies is not born out of fear of a hard sweat, sub-five-star accommodations, or local food options that often require a pronunciation chart (though one is sure to encounter all three of those). It comes from a genuine desire to do good and the feeling that whatever good we do accomplish is insufficient.
Immersion programs are not designed to deliver a silver bullet to social, economic, or political injustice we’ve gone to learn about and tackle. Rather, they are about planting the seeds of Goal III, specifically the third criterion: The school is linked in a reciprocal manner with ministries among people who are poor, marginalized and suffering from injustice.
Links don’t get made from a distance. Putting ink to a check won’t erase the margins. The antidote to suffering is not remaining comfortable to do something for the other; it’s compassion, which literally means “to suffer with” the other.
Immersion programs, which run about a week, remove the distance from the “other” and place students in the midst of the experiences of those who are poor and marginalized so that compassion – which, even more than awareness, impels one to act – might become second nature.
To sustain them in this task the students don’t go it alone. To ask students to develop a deeper sense of community with those at the margins without first doing so among themselves is absurd. Thus we turn to the absurd to ensure that this happens: spontaneous dance contests, cockroach-hunting expeditions, and unfathomably complicated efforts at preparing family dinners abound. For groups with such little collective cooking experience, opinion about this chef’s recipes is one ingredient in great supply.
Students often tell me that their favorite part of immersion is getting to break out of their comfort zone, whether it be the distance that’s created from home, their typical friend group, or their phones when we engage in fasts from technology. This allows them to “be where their feet are,” as my colleague Reid Particelli puts it, and it is in this space that we journal, laugh, reflect, pray, and cry our way through the experience. This helps us when we inevitably return to the original question.
I am careful to not dismiss the concern of how much we are really doing during our time on the immersion trip. After all, when we travel to Los Angeles we don’t magically end gang violence any more than we somehow solve the immigration crisis when we travel to the border town of Nogales. Heck, sometimes we feel like we are actively unhelpful, like when we paint the wrong door during a Katrina rebuilding trip in New Orleans. In the moment, I understand the temptation to dwell on what we’re unable to do.
But, I remind them, we do humanize the community members who might otherwise remain to us mere statistics, complicate the issues so as to seek more mature and humane solutions, and practice intentional accompaniment with one another and those we serve. We also critically examine how our faith is challenged by and can sustain us through these encounters. In doing so, we are fundamentally altered, shaped, and changed by our experience, and students move a step closer to using their future influence, power, and vote – greater tomorrow than today – on behalf of those with whom they now feel a sincere sense of kinship.
So no, it wouldn’t have been better to just to send the money.
Even if we paint the wrong door.
SHP service-learning coordinator and religious studies faculty member Matt Carroll holds a master's in divinity from Santa Clara University, and has previously served with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, and as a resident minister with the University of San Francisco.