Mission Trips and Religion

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Lessons Since Katrina

by Rev. David Goodine, Executive Director, Camp Restore – New Orleans (RAI Ministries)

One of the questions that we often receive from groups is: How do you handle your religious viewpoint and volunteers? 

Since we have been around since 2006 and it is 2018 as I write this, we have had some time to consider this question. Camp Restore was founded by the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod’s Southern District as a response to the massive flooding in the Greater New Orleans Area caused by Hurricane Katrina. People across the nation gave to help families that were affected by that storm. They did more than that though, they came to the city to help.

The first group that I met was in September of 2005. A group of young people drove into the city in a repurposed school bus and they asked if they could park it in the lot at St Paul Lutheran Church in the Faubourg Marigny. They were around for a little more than a week working on what they could to help us on the way to recovery. They helped, but it would be a long time. They were not affiliated to any kind of religious group that I knew of; they were just there to help. 

Later, more and more people started coming. In the early days around St Paul there was no gas and intermittent electric coverage at best. A neighbor who had evacuated lent his house to another neighbor who hosted groups who were staying at the church for showers in the evening. It was a great time, as people that often came from more conservative backgrounds got to meet with those of more progressive viewpoints. Many would sit in the dining room while others went off to shower, drinking beer and talking about life. There was no attempt from either side to convert anyone to a particular viewpoint. It was fun to be there! What we did see was that people respected one another. Many of the people that came held particular religious ideologies, but they were there to help. It was instructive for the future.

In the early days of Camp Restore there were a great many people that came to work in the city that were of a Lutheran background. They came to the city to gut houses, tear out carpets, drywall, furniture, and carry out memories of a homeowner’s past. Photo albums, dolls, dishes from parents and grandparents, old toys and mementoes soaked in mud and salt water had to be removed. Some people would say, “It’s just stuff!” but it was much more than that. Memories of loved ones and important events were tied to that stuff. Respect for the feelings of people was paramount in the minds of those working. That too was instructive for the future.

As time went on the work continued and we saw many differing religious groups coming to stay at Camp Restore. They came as groups on a ‘Mission Trip’ to help. They were not pushing a particular religious doctrine as they carried on the task of gutting and then rebuilding. They were coming to help folks. One of the common things that I was told was “I got more out of helping people than I helped.” People shared their humanity and their faith with one another. Through the years we have had Christian people, Jewish people, Muslim people, and people that came with organizations that were secular. Universities, high schools, junior highs and other kinds of groups came. They came to help and that was their ‘mission.’ 

We learned that if we focused on helping the groups that came to carry out their ‘mission’ and connected them to people in the community who were working on their ‘mission’ we could get a lot more done. So we partnered with over one hundred community groups and nonprofits working on rebuilding and other community development efforts through the years. By this time we had learned that if someone came to ‘help’ and acted as if they knew better than the people that were living here before and through the disaster, that was not help. No one’s ‘mission’ was achieved in that case. 

What we were hoping to do was restore the homes, the community, and the faith of people who lost a great deal to the storm. Many people came informed by their own faith traditions that called them to care, to love, to support those who had lost much, and were vulnerable. Certainly a number of people came because they saw their fellow human beings in need of help and they stepped out and gave of themselves to aid those in need. That was and is the mission of many who come to Camp Restore.

We also know that our partners in the city are here working in individual communities to restore parts of what has been lost, and to build and grow anew. They’re partnering with people here carrying out their individual ‘missions’ and it makes a tremendous difference in the lives of all the people.

Central to our thinking and viewpoint has been and is respect for people. We respect those who live in the community of New Orleans. The idea that others come in as ‘heroes because these poor people do not know what they are doing’ shows no respect for those who, in many cases, have spent their lives here. If we think less of volunteers who come to the area because our ‘mission’ and their ‘mission’ are not identical, that also is not respectful to one another. I think through the years that we can and do respect those of differing faiths, or those who hold a viewpoint that may be viewed as secular. We can work together for the good of all of us.

So when a volunteer group comes to Camp Restore on a ‘Mission Trip,’ whatever that means to the group coming, we endeavor to partner with the group and connect them to people in the community who can work with them to carry out their mission. We do not foist our religious viewpoint on volunteers or our partners in the city. We have religious services, both Lutheran and those of Sovereign Hope Apostolic Fellowship, on our campus. Volunteers are welcome to attend if they so choose, but no pressure or expectation is made that they ought to do so. We find it unbecoming to think about doing such a thing. We seek to provide a winsome witness to the work that we do, and at the same time we acknowledge those who come and share of their time and gifts to be a boost to our locally-led efforts, providing a winsome witness to us. Together in partnership, this is how we continue to restore faith, home, and community in and around the city of New Orleans. 

So, we want groups to know that they can come to Camp Restore and feel comfortable working alongside us without being concerned about being cornered and questioned about their beliefs. 

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