How to Serve a Community When They Don’t Look Like You

by Jonathan Fechner

There’s an old proverb that says “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” While this statement is true, it presumes the man first likes fish.

In leading BridgeBuilders, a ministry that serves the most poor, vulnerable and under-resourced residents of our city, we have often mis-stepped in “serving” our neighbors. Many of the people who serve within our ministry come from wealth, privilege and opportunity. Most of the people that we serve are on the opposite end of the spectrum. To say there is a difference in culture and values would be an understatement.

Through the school of hard knocks and biblical principles, BridgeBuilders has learned three valuable lessons in how to engage our residents in a way that maintains their dignity while still allowing us space to influence and serve the community.

Submit to the community as authority.

Imagine not being able to ever move out of the neighborhood in which you were born because you can’t afford anyplace else. Imagine having no hope of getting a job because you didn’t graduate high school due to having to help your mom take care of your younger siblings while she worked. Imagine having no hope because opportunity is absent.

Now imagine that someone who has opportunity, flexibility, resources and hope comes into your community and takes the leadership away from you and your family because that person holds all the resources.

Many of our residents experience just this. We have to realize that their neighborhood is not just their community, it’s their life. And when we strip ownership and leadership away from their life, we are stripping them of their opportunity to utilize their God-given creativity, ingenuity, leadership and potential for the betterment of their community.

As citizens of heaven, we must submit to the citizens of the communities we enter, understanding that we may not know what’s best for them. We need to empower them to lead their community so they can maintain their community’s identity while also showing us what resources are needed to produce greater opportunity in their neighborhoods.

Understand the history of where you are working.

No businessperson would invest in a company without first looking at past financials of the organization. No scientist would seek to cure a disease without looking at what potential cures have not worked. Why then would ministers of the Gospel not first seek to understand the context and history of the area before they begin to serve?

No community gets to its current state by accident; people plan it, whether good or bad. To think a community and parts of our city chose to be poor, under-resourced and unaccounted for is naive. More than likely, these parts of our city were purposefully forgotten, abandoned, and had hardships forced upon them that are nearly impossible to escape. Things such as redlining, government projects and “stop and frisk” policies are just a few manifestations of injustice that members of urban communities have had to endure.

As you seek to learn the history of the community you are serving, ask lifelong residents about their experiences in their community, visit cultural centers and local libraries in the area, and discuss the difficult history (often based on past racism) with your new friends and ways that you can move forward together as the body of Christ.

Invest in the community outside of your immediate ministry focus.

Some of Bridgebuilders’ largest and most time-consuming investments have been on items and plans that the ministry really doesn’t prioritize, but because our community cares about them, we care about them – things such as requesting the city to install speed bumps on streets, preserving an old historical theater, or memorializing a “nobody” to us but a “somebody” to them.

When you help others with what they care about, they will then help you with what you care about. Local residents can contribute to initiatives that those outside of the community cannot. And in the reverse, outsiders coming into a community can contribute to initiatives in ways that those within the local neighborhood cannot. We need one another to see the betterment of our community. But as the ones coming into their neighborhoods, we first must serve and push forward what they care about.

It’s worth repeating: If you show your neighbors that you care about what they care about, then they will often care about what you care about.

In closing, we must always remember that we have to earn the opportunity to serve our residents. It is not given; it is earned through humility, care, consistency, listening and most importantly, love.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. —John 13:35

Jonathan Fechner serves as Executive Director of BridgeBuilders, a non-profit ministry in South Dallas birthed out of Prestonwood Baptist Church in 1996. To learn more about BridgeBuilders, visit www.bridgebuilders.org. To connect with Jonathan on Twitter: @jcfechner.

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