“Sorry this is so late, but I’m up tonight thinking: ‘why do we separate the church and missions?’ Any thoughts?” The text came through just after midnight on a Tuesday morning.
“I have a lot of thoughts but not many answers, ” I replied.
My first go at post-college employment was starting and directing the Global Missions Ministry of a 3000-member mega-church. I was getting paid, and I was traveling—two things I’d never done before. In many ways, it was exciting work.
Three years of flying to Les Cayes, Haiti every other month gave me a second family of sorts. Within this new family, I witnessed gross governmental corruption, uneducated aid, misuse of resources, and over-romanticized retelling of stories (mostly my own). I became an evacuator from natural disasters, attender of orphan funerals, and an accidental participant in political struggles where I questioned my my likelihood of making it out alive.
Within this context, I also observed to the ability of the human body to survive and of the human spirit to heal. I wondered at the generosity of people who have few possessions in this world. And I became certain that humor, hope, and home can translate across boarders, age, and culture.
But all the while, a tension was growing within me. What are we doing here?
I should clear the air with a couple disclaimers.
I do not think travel is bad. In fact, travel is a gift (not to mention a privilege of the wealthy). It can make us appreciate home. It can give us perspective. It can show us that the American way is often neither the only nor the best way. It can add to the unity of humanity by lessening the power of othering. It can teach us about people and culture and the Church as a bigger and more beautiful web than we could see from our front porch. It can allow us to stand in solidarity with countries in crisis. It can feed our romanticism of other foods and garb and customs and then break our romanticism as we learn to see the messiness of people in every place.
I also do not think that we should refuse to be global citizens who are aware of and active in the greater world simply because “we have enough problems of our own in this country.”
In fact, I believe the opposite. We are already global citizens whose actions affect the world in positive and negative ways whether we are aware of it or not. The way we shop, the way we treat the environment, the way we choose to be educated or uneducated regarding our footprint on humanity—this is a train that is already rolling regardless of whether we are flying internationally.
So yes, I think we should be the global citizens that we already are, even if I long for us all to be a bit more informed and compassionate.
But rest assured, I will not ask you to burn your passport and picket your church’s clean water campaign (please do not do that).
Instead, I’d like to think more about three symptoms of distorted “Global Missions” that I have witnessed, wrestled with, and perpetuated.
- Romanticizing “the other” is still othering. I remember my initial rounds of story-sharing and fundraising during the first year of my employment in “foreign missions”. My language was offered through a rose-colored lens which made it sound like no Haitian could ever do wrong. They were perfect, and their children were Jesus. Their country was magical. The experience was Holy. And I could make it sound like whatever I wanted it to sound like because few people had come with me. Few people could check my facts. It was foreign enough to be what I recreated it to be.
It wasn’t like I was making things up. But I was leaving things out—things I hadn’t been able to experience in ten short days. Things like the mundane. Things like how people go about their chores and their conversations. Things like a normal, slow-paced work week for a normal slow-paced Caribbean people.
When my husband and I have folks come and visit us from out of town, we try to make sure their experience is filled with fun and good food. They get the best of the best because their time with us is short. But the town and the life that they get to be a part of while here is not the town and the life that we live 90% of the time. It is an exception packed into a dense weekend—an exception that would be debunked if they stayed longer than Sunday.
Romanticizing foreign missions gives us a false sense of God’s world and His people. It keeps folks othered in such a way that we come to believe we could never have what we had with them in the places where we live our ordinary lives. It keeps folks othered in such a way that we never fully know them. Because once we stay long enough to really know them, the rose-colored lenses fall, and we must find someone new to make glorious.
- Uneducated efforts can do a lot of damage in the name of Good. You don’t have to do much digging to see that this is true. Colonizing Christianity left brutality and racism in its wake. Foreign food aid and clothing drops have disrupted local economies to monumental (and fatal) extents. The importation of cheaper crops, the occupation of “peaceful troops, ” the money pumping into cash-cow orphan efforts…these have been real detriments imposed by loving people. (Please read Travesty in Haiti for more examples.)
This is hard for me, because I know my time in Haiti changed my life and my understanding of the world. I made wonderful and life-altering friendships, and I tried in some small ways to improve life for a few people. However, I also know that I initiated the dumping of hundreds of pounds of supplies that could have been bought in country. I led us in efforts that made us look like the rich foreigners there to save the day. I brought clothes and toys and bandaids and doctors when all of those things were right there in Les Cayes.
Some of the worst things in the world have been done by good people who love God and tried to obey Him but didn’t take the time to listen and learn before they acted. I am one of them.
- We are entirely willing to preach about short-term going but not long-term staying. American Christians are often challenged to “go, go, go!” as if this were hard for us. But I have come to realize that we aren’t having nearly as much trouble with going as we are with staying (at least for my generation of 20-30 year olds).
Wanderlust. Adventure. Travel. Instagram posts of plane wings in clouds. Palm trees. Third world children in profile pictures. You’ve seen it. We don’t have a problem with going. And we don’t have a problem with preaching about going.
Yet when the roommate situation gets hard, we move. When the church leadership disappoints us, we leave the next Sunday. We change jobs, we change houses, we change cities, we change friends.
All parts of our world are desperate for the village-mentality of Family. Jesus talks about it when he says to take care of the women who have lost husbands and the kids who have lost parents; when he is dying and looks to his mother and dear friend and tells them, “Now you are family.” Jesus’ adoption of family language was not only brilliant because it showed us that our definition of family must now surpass biology and borders. It also emphasized the crucial importance of doing life together with other people.
We all need a family, a home, a village. Every single people group and country needs this more than anything else. But if we keep leaving, we can’t have it. These things get built by intentionality and stability. And a whole lot of grace.
I wonder if maybe we can believe that it is not fundamentally bad to travel or be involved with and grow relationships among other countries.
Maybe it’s not shameful to see another country’s people as brilliant and glorious. Maybe we just need to learn that people from all places (real, un-romanticized, un-othered people) are brilliant enough on their own, in their mundane lives that are lived out long after we’ve left. My Haitian brother is as glorious as my across-the-street sister. And all of their children are Jesus.
Maybe instead of “mission trips, ” we can start taking “perspective trips, ” where we go to learn and listen. And maybe we can consider staying a little longer in an effort to do that well. In that scenario, we all get changed and bettered and liberated.
And maybe we can begin submitting our big dreams for solving the world’s issues to larger research and further questioning to make sure the Good being done is not incredibly harmful. The same goes for larger NGOs and nonprofits to whom we entrust a ton of our resources as well. Have they counted the cost of your partnered efforts? We can press for bigger-picture answers and information by asking, “Could what we’re doing have a negative or harmful effect on these people?” And maybe more importantly, “Are they even asking for it?”
And lastly, maybe we can be encouraging people in the truth of stability, in the freedom and adventure of staying. Planting roots and making a village doesn’t have to mean we never travel. But it might mean we don’t quickly and permanently leave the people and the places where God has placed us—amongst the glorious brilliance of normal people living normal lives where the Gospel can be found.
It’s more than I could say in a text, but I’ll say it just the same: there is good to be done in this world. There is medicine to bring and wells to dig and classes to teach and take. I just pray that we would approach our efforts with much fear and trembling—and listening and research—that we may do more good than harm, that we may see how we all need each other, that we may regard the whole world, near and far and within, as our “mission.”