Painfully thin for his age, Martin shivered uncontrollably by the side of the city swimming pool. He held his sides in a futile effort to keep warm. I was puzzled. A rare June heat wave had swept through Knoxville, and the temperature was pushing 90.
A few weeks later, Martin squeezed in beside me on the bus ride to our first swim meet. He was a wiry, bouncy 10-year-old with mischievous blue eyes and a killer smile. He could rarely sit still long enough to hear the workout set. Yet today he slumped down against the window and curled into a ball.
“Coach Doug,” Martin asked after a few minutes, “can I have my dinner now? I haven’t eaten in two days.” A father of four, I know a con when I see one. “No, buddy,” I teased. “You need to wait until after the meet like everyone else.”
The summer got even hotter, and Martin kept shivering. One evening, a social worker who knew Martin dropped by the pool. I asked her if she knew why Martin always shivered. She pulled me aside and whispered, “It’s because he’s literally starving. The woman he lives with told a judge that she was ‘starving the Devil out of him.’ ” I felt sick.
Summer swimming is enormously popular in Knoxville. Until a few years ago, however, kids like Martin could not compete in our summer swimming leagues. Every year on the last weekend of July, 2,300 wet kids jam into The University of Tennessee aquatic center for three days of fast times, cheers, and soggy ribbons. Until recently, however, no children from our urban neighborhoods were able to join in the fun. Lacking access to pools, few knew how to swim. As a result, drowning is a major cause of death among children in the inner city.
Five years ago, Emerald Youth Foundation, a Christian urban youth ministry, saw the need and launched Knoxville’s first inner-city swim team. Today the team has about 50 kids. I’m the head coach. Our swim team is one beautiful example of how the church in Knoxville is seeking the common good of our city. The team is run by dozens of volunteers. Emily and Spencer, for example, compelled by God’s command in Jeremiah 29:7 to “seek the peace of the city,” moved into Martin’s neighborhood.
Emily noticed Martin roaming her neighborhood from morning to night, and asked if he wanted to join the swim team. When he said yes, Emily went to work organizing rides and meals. Other families began taking turns in the car pool line. It costs $25 to join the team because Emerald Youth Foundation raises funds to cover caps, goggles, bus transportation, food, insurance, and pool time. All Souls Church, the downtown congregation that I pastor, included the swim team in our mission budget and supports the team with volunteer coaches.
The broader community is also partnering with Knoxville’s churches in serving Martin and his friends. For example, I recently stood up at a coaches’ meeting and asked if any team had old lane lines they could loan us. I had three offers in three minutes. Swimmers from the Pilot Aquatic Club, Knoxville’s nationally ranked club team, have donated fins, suits, and kickboards. Even the University of Tennessee swim team has gotten involved, providing suits, coaches, and lane lines.
Rethinking the $3,000 Mission Trip
In some ways, however, what is happening with our urban swim team is more the exception than the rule in our city. Some well-meaning Christians have a theology of mission that seeks to alleviate the spiritual and physical suffering of people far away, but pays little attention to needs here at home.
I know because I was one of them. I spent many years taking mission trips to Tulcea, Romania. We shared the gospel, cared for orphans, and started a medical clinic. It seemed that God moved in powerful ways. Then my friends Jon and Toni moved into one of Knoxville’s marginalized neighborhoods. Jon invited me to go on prayer walks with him on Wednesday mornings. I saw syringes on playgrounds, prostitutes turning tricks, hustlers selling drugs. Our walks led me to volunteer at the elementary school in Jon’s neighborhood. I’d assumed all the schools in our city were pretty much the same. They aren’t. Kids with B averages in Jon’s school score in the 30th percentile on standardized tests. Kids with B averages in my neighborhood score in the 90th percentile.
Along the way, a pastor named Johnny began showing me what the city looked like from the front lawn of his cash-strapped inner-city church. As I spent more time in Knoxville’s at-risk neighborhoods, I realized that I knew more about poverty in Tulcea than I knew about poverty in Knoxville. I was pursuing the common good of a city across the world while neglecting the common good of the place where I lived.
I don’t think I’m alone. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, “All of life is interrelated. . . . We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Most Christians I know believe this in a global sense. We feel a God-given burden for the starving child in Haiti. Yet we sometimes lack a similar burden for the Martins back home.
A good example of this imbalanced approach to mission is the exploding popularity of short-term missions. In his book When Helping Hurts, Brian Fikkert observes that short-term missions have become a $1.6 billion annual enterprise in America. Every year, thousands of Christians in our city take short-term trips that cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 per person.
I believe in missions. I also believe in short-term mission trips. Yet the longer I work in the resource-poor inner city, the more frustrated I become with the amount of money God’s people spend on these brief trips. We seem so eager to spend thousands of dollars sending our people overseas for one week without stopping to ask, “Would some of this money be better invested in my own community?”
Every time I hear of another $3,000 short-term mission trip, I think about Dan and Mary, whose ministry to Knoxville’s refugee community is chronically underfunded. I think about the 1,600 meals that the same sum would pay for at our rescue mission. I think about the inner city schoolteacher who dips into her $34,000 salary to pay for pencils and treats. I think of the 83-year-old widow with the $700 winter heating bill, waiting for a new roof she can’t afford. I think about the 50 children of prisoners on the waiting list for the underfunded Amachi mentoring program. I think about the 30 children who have never seen a deer who could go to a Bible camp in the mountains for the same amount of money it takes to send one person overseas for a week. And I think about the starving boy on my swim team.
I do believe we are changing. Churches in Knoxville with strong foreign mission programs are beginning to invest considerable resources in meeting the spiritual and physical needs of the weakest members of our community.
Without these resources, I couldn’t coach Martin.
Martin never stopped shivering that summer, but he did start swimming faster. I made some calls to see if Martin might join a year-round swim program. The local swimming community was eager to help. Then Martin stopped showing up. Nobody at his house returned our calls, and Martin missed the rest of our meets. At our year-end swim banquet, we gave Martin the “Most Improved Swimmer” award. He wasn’t there to receive it. A friend and I drove the award to his house after the banquet. After many knocks, a man answered the door. He wasn’t happy to see us. We handed him Martin’s trophy and told him how well Martin swam. “I don’t know where he is,” the man said. He shut the door.
This post originally appeared on Christianity Today’s “This Is Our City” section.