‘Grace at the Garbage Dump’ explores modern mission

Jesse Zink examines church's role in emerging world

Grace at the Garbage Dump: Making Sense of Mission in the Twenty-First Century. Jesse A. Zink. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Press, 2012. 174 pp.

Is there anyone left who wants to be called a “missionary”? In addition to being the punchline for jokes, missionaries are no longer universally regarded in high esteem and many question the very idea of “mission.” Colonial missionaries who often worked more or less hand-in-hand with occupying powers and who frequently imposed their own view of civilization to the detriment of rich local cultures have left an uncomfortable legacy.

Jesse Zink is among a small group of Episcopalians who were willing, even eager, to take on the title of missionary. Zink served as a member of the Young Adult Service Corps in South Africa at a clinic. There they focused on the desperately poor population of Itipini, a shantytown whose name literally means “at the dump” as it is constructed on a municipal garbage dump. The struggles he has as he lives and learns and serves in a situation of desperate poverty and horrible disease make Grace at the Garbage Dump a highly valuable tool for exploring a new sense of mission; of mission as joining the missio dei – the “work of God to heal and reconcile the world” – even if the book still leaves unanswered the ongoing difficult questions regarding any engagement of a powerful group with a disempowered and marginalized people.

Zink is an engaging writer who tells stories well, and stories are the heart and soul of the book. Although completely disoriented at first, he became quickly engaged with both the work of the clinic and his own work to help improve local literacy, develop a micro-lending system, and address the myriad personal and systemic challenges of poverty and disempowerment. Each chapter tells a rich story with complex local characters – people trying to improve their lives under desperate conditions, people simply trying to survive AIDS, children trying to learn when everything seems stacked against them. Zink excels at both drawing you in compassionately to the individuals and analyzing the social and political structures that contribute to an unjust world that leaves some living short lives on a garbage heap.

The book is a primer on the two-thirds world, the world of the vast majority of the global population, a people who live with crumbling infrastructure, barely serviceable schools, impenetrable bureaucracy, and complete lack of health care – where the lack of a stapler can potentially impede registering for school and the lack of a sewer means cholera epidemics. His description of the ravages of AIDS – which affects directly or indirectly everyone he serves – is particularly instructing to those of us for whom this disease can be (though should not be) regarded as less prevalent. A chapter is dedicated to how crowded the cemetery is every day, as people die in droves and funerals are conducted literally side-by-side. The book would make an excellent study in a Christian Education program, if only to help people from the one-third world understand the desperate needs of the rest of the world.

But what exactly is mission work for an individual? Despite wanting to save the world, Zink rapidly runs into his own limitations and his own awkward position as a privileged person who can, in the end, leave the mission and go home. Zink is admirably honest about his feelings both going into the mission and throughout. He admits to having a bit of a messianic complex, and while he was aware of this complex and its problems, it remained with him throughout his time in South Africa.

His honesty about his own struggles and failings, however, give a good sense of the challenges of multicultural ministry and the hard work it entails. As he puts it, “I barely knew what was going on most of the time” (p.155). This alone should end anyone’s romantic notion that all multicultural work in general, or mission work specifically, needs is an open heart and good intentions. Such work also needs a strong dose of humility – a deep realization that you don’t know everything nor can you quickly solve anything – that is often harder for empowered people from wealthy countries to reach. Perhaps one of the most useful aspects of the book is the degree to which Zink comes to realize he doesn’t know what life is like for those he wishes to serve, and his realization that his imagined messianic solutions first needed to encounter the life of others and learn from them. This goes a long way toward tempering the cultural arrogance and colonialism that characterized mission work for so long.

Despite the subtitle, however, the book is not a lengthy or subtle analysis of missiology, and it treats the highly complex questions surrounding missiology in a relatively cursory manner, primarily in a brief introduction and a few pages at the end. Zink’s insights are more personal than academic, and difficult questions – Can we “help”? Should we help when what we see as help can so quickly become colonial imperialism? What is the difference between non-faith-based and faith-based service? – are not addressed in depth. Zink emphasizes the incarnational, “being over doing,” or drawing “closer to one another more because of who we are around each other, and less because of what we do for each other” (p.166). His experiential insights and insistence that “mission belongs to God, not us” (p.165), is valuable if probably just one component of a highly complex question.

Making sense of mission is our important new challenge as disciples of Christ. This book’s greatest strength is that it puts real flesh and real blood on what the missio dei looks like on the ground today.


(The Rev. Matt Seddon is a transitional deacon in the Diocese of Utah serving as clergy-in-charge for St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, West Valley City, Utah. He has experience in campus ministry and Latino ministry and enjoys missional work. He has a wife and a 12-year-old daughter, and he honors his past as a college radio DJ by spending too much time mining obscure ’80s punk rock on Spotify.)

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