Service is about relationships
Ariel Ropp, writing intern with Mennonite Mission Network
Over the years I have participated in a range of service projects: teaching English as a second language, weeding community gardens, playing word games with seniors, you name it. But of all those experiences, the thing I remember most is not the work itself—it’s the people.
Last year, for instance, I spent five weeks teaching English to seminary students in the small lake-side village of Nyabange, Tanzania. My memories of our grammar lessons are fuzzy. I couldn’t even tell you the name of the English textbook we used. But one thing is certain: I will never forget the friendships I formed with my students and fellow teachers. Whether it was catching up between classes or discussing religion over cups of chai at our daily tea breaks, my time at the seminary was most meaningful when I was making genuine connections with the people who worked and studied there.
Of course, labor itself is still incredibly important—it provides the impetus for going on service assignments in the first place. However, when we value work output at the expense of relationships or place productivity over people, we undermine the real reason we are called to serve: sharing the love of Christ with all of God’s children.
Relationships, I’ve learned, are at the core of service work—and of life. As a goal-oriented introvert, I often find it easier to focus on a task and tune out everything else, to the point that I can forget who I am even serving. It has taken me years to realize that getting to know people is just as important as the actual work I’m doing with them, and sometimes even more so. In Tanzania my students and co-workers were grateful I was simply there because they valued our relationship. In fact, I probably learned as much from them as they did from me –perhaps more.
Making meaningful connections, especially with people we don’t know or who we consider “the other,” frequently requires more time and energy than we would like. It is risky, and quite frankly, it’s scary. In the end, though, the effort is worth it because we learn more about ourselves, humanity and ultimately, God. We learn there is much more “us” than there is “other.”
This summer as I complete my writing internship in the marketing and communication department at Mennonite Mission Network, I am trying to apply the “relationships first” concept by intentionally getting to know my co-workers and host family. This means pushing myself to eat lunches with co-workers, going on short walks with them and asking them about their lives beyond the office. When I return to Goshen College in the fall, I want to remember not only the work I accomplished at MMN but also the people who I connected with while I was here. Hopefully they will remember me as well.