by Jimmy Dorrell
In 1986, a youth director from Oklahoma City called us. Janet and I had returned from several months in Haiti and India and were still overwhelmed by the harsh realities of a hungry and impoverished world. “My youth are good kids,” he said.” They attend church regularly, read their Bibles, and even go on mission trips, but they seem struggle in their ethnocentric middle-class values to love minorities and the poor in our own city and the world. Can you create a weekend that would help challenge them to face their duplicity?”
And with that appeal, we created the first poverty simulation at Mission Waco Mission World www.missionwaco.org. Twenty-nine years later, well over 12,000 youth and adults from all over Texas and states as far away as Wisconsin and North Carolina have made the journey to Waco, Texas, to participate in the 42-hour plunge into poverty that continues to impact change. Even an association of millionaires and their families made the plunge into a world far different from the one they live in each day. The impact has been transformative.
Based on David Kolb’s learning model, the Mission Waco Poverty Simulation challenges traditional church education that assumes Christian discipleship is a matter of understanding biblical stories and memorizing verses of Scripture in a static setting. “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development; Kolb, 1984, p. 38). Kolb insists that concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation are the four necessary stages in the learning cycle. The intensive weekend creates an environment where the participant becomes poor and experiences many of the realities and choices the real poor must make each day.
Details of the poverty simulation are withheld from the participants prior to their arrival as well as through the weekend. Since middle-class Americans barter their knowledge to manipulate circumstances, the lack of information about what they will do during the weekend is often harder than the simulation itself. With no cell phones, no watches, and no schedule of activities, participants experience the powerlessness that the world’s poor live in daily. Where they sleep, what (or if) they eat, what they wear, and how they will navigate the long weekend without information creates an environment of anxiety most middle-class Christians rarely experience. Once the participants arrive, they are gathered to hear the rules of the experience without any preparation and it begins. (Note: Actual details are available in Plunge to Poverty: An intensive poverty simulation experience, Jimmy and Janet Dorrell, New Hope Publishing, 2006.)
Evaluating the weekend’s impact has shown tangible and impressive results. In 1993, a research thesis was submitted to Baylor University about the impact of the poverty simulation weekend. Based on pre/post testing during the experience and anecdotal interviews with participants through the years, change happens. Mere knowledge about poverty and the poor increased from 68% to 84%. Attitude changes toward other socio-economic groups and cultures were even more impressive. For almost three decades, the phrase we hear most is, “That weekend changed my life!”
Yet, the obvious question is, what change really occurred and what are the ongoing implications of those changes? Based on various surveys, Christians in the United States are relatively uninformed and unengaged with the poor in their own communities and much less in the world of poverty. The poverty simulation weekend’s design helps participants “feel” the realities of hopelessness, hunger, inadequate sleep and frustrating choices. Yet is also provides timely awareness of need and motivation, processing and biblical teaching as the experience deepens. Once attendees begin to identify with unfair judgment on them as poor, projected anger at those in control of the system, and a “why me?” attitude, the next stages of real learning occur. Through time on the streets, interaction with low-income children, the “world banquet,” videos about global hunger, discussion, prayer and attendance at Church Under the Bridge, participants begin to identify with the poor. They also learn of practical ways they can impact the poor once they complete the weekend.
Action steps are a part of the last phase of the training. Helping them see and own the biblical call to empowering the poor and offering tangible ways to do something about it is critical. Whether sponsoring an impoverished child, helping provide micro-loans for women, raising funds to drill clean water wells where children normally drink from the river, or deciding to get engaged with their own community upon return home, the final hours of the experience shape the engagement process.
Based on the presupposition that what Christians do speaks more loudly than what they say, integrated and holistic experiences like the Mission Waco Poverty Simulation causes participants to recognize their own call to “merely listen but be doers of the word” (James 1:22).
Dr. Jimmy Dorrell is the Founder, President, and Executive Director of Mission Waco/Mission World. He is also a professor at George W. Truett Theological Seminary and pastor of the Church Under the Bridge. His goal is to follow Christ’s example and empower the poor to a holistic life that represents the Kingdom of God.