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Today in the Mission Yearbook

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance teaching a humble approach to volunteerism


Training helps people avoid bringing a colonialistic attitude into communities

January 17, 2024

It’s important for volunteers to be willing to listen to people’s stories, according to PDA. (Photo by Michelle Muñiz-Vega/Presbyterian Disaster Assistance)

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is helping the church to understand healthy volunteerism through training that it also calls “decolonizing volunteerism.”

The training, which is provided to designated groups, speaks to the importance of not going into an area with a colonialistic mindset — the idea that someone is superior because of the color of their skin or the fact that they have wealth or perceived power.

Sometimes, there is “this idea that I’m going to a place to ‘save’ the people” or “I’m going to a place to do amazing work ‘for’ the people,” the Rev. Edwin González-Castillo, director of PDA, noted during a presentation earlier this year.

Instead, Presbyterians and others who volunteer should “go and experience and connect and create relationships with the people” and take time to learn why particular problems exist, rather than relying on what they might have heard, González-Castillo said.

“Take time to listen to stories,” he said.

“When people share their stories, I say to them, ‘Thank you. Thank you for sharing your story’ because it’s theirs. They didn’t have to,” González-Castillo said.

It’s also important for volunteers to get in step with the rhythm of a locality. “When we work with communities, we need to be careful not to try to push our own rhythm on them,” he said. Rather, “learn the rhythm of the culture.”

Doing some groundwork before embarking on a volunteer project can be helpful, he said. If you’re going to a particular country, find out whether there are people from that area who live in your town and would be open to connecting with you. “Have you invited them to your church? Can you start there? Can you start to learn about the culture, about the community, about some of the root causes for the situation that is happening?”

“Before I go to any country, I spend time reading,” González-Castillo said. “I spend time looking for information. … If I have people that I know that are from that country, I start asking questions. I start learning. I’m trying to create an understanding before I go there because I don’t want to … ask the wrong questions.”

Volunteers serve with PDA in a variety of capacities and commitment levels. (Contributed photo)

Healthy volunteerism training has been given to various groups in recent years, including the Young Adult Volunteer program and at the “Art, Recreation and Worship” conference at Montreat Conference Center. In the future, PDA hopes to be able to record the training and offer it to churches, colleges and other sources of volunteers.

Michelle Muñiz-Vega, Disaster Recovery coordinator for Puerto Rico, was also part of the workshop in Montreat and she emphasizes that “as volunteers, we may not realize how much harm we are causing to a community or partner organization and how that harm can delay the projects. The reason for having these conversations is to have a more in-depth global view that can reform our approach when we serve our neighbors in our own town or in another country.“

In addition to that training, PDA recently released a work trip planning guide that is available for download.

“There is a lot of harmful mission theology in the way we do volunteerism,” said the Rev. Nell M. Herring, mission specialist for Volunteer Ministries for PDA. The how-to guide is one of the ways PDA is encouraging a “more aware, more humble approach to doing volunteerism” and “helping people to think about what they’re communicating when they show up in spaces,” she said.

González-Castillo hails from Puerto Rico and has experienced visitors wanting to come in and tell residents what to do rather than “connecting, belonging and relating.” He sees the same phenomenon in poor countries in other parts of the world. “Be careful with those dynamics of control,” he cautioned.

“Instead of control, try to create a relationship of belonging, and what we say about belonging is continue the conversations and relationships” after your volunteer work, he said.

And if you find issues that need to be championed, find a way to amplify the voices of the people. “You can become an advocate for that community,” González-Castillo said. “You can share the stories with others and try to fight for rights and try to fight for change.”

Darla Carter, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus: Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and volunteerism

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Myoung Ho Yang and  Ji Yeon Yoo, Mission co-workers serving in Hong Kong, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Cindy Yates, Maturities Specialist, Presbyterian Foundation

Let us pray

Our Father, you have given us so much, including your own Son. Please look with favor on our efforts to care for what you have given us and to lead people to hear your message. Amen.