Last night I was reading a book by a young woman who moved to Africa as a teenager. Her story stirred up a lot of feelings, both positive and negative, for me. I nodded off reading it, but woke up at 3:45, unable to sleep anymore because I was thinking of this: I was thinking of myself at sixteen, and some of the things I probably said when I came home from my first trip to the majority world.
These things which I’m nearly sure I said after a week in Tegucigalpa as a teenager have settled comfortably into the realm of Christian cliche, but that’s not why they bother me.
Words matter, and these statements carry troubling implications. If I could go back and talk to my sixteen-year-old self, I’d tell her not to say these things:
1)”They taught me so much more than I could ever teach them.”
Or “They gave me so much more than I could ever give them, ” or “I thought I went there to help them, but in the end they helped me.”
This is probably true. But when you say it this way, it implies surprise, and that surprise reveals your prejudice. Why should you be surprised that people from another country, culture, or socio-economic bracket might teach you more than you could teach them? Is it perhaps because you think that your level of education, wealth, or whiteness means that you are obviously smarter, more generous, or more able to help?
Try leaving yourself out of the equation. Instead, simply say, “I learned so much from the people I met, ” or “I met people who were unfailingly generous and wise.”
2) “They were so poor, but they were happy.”
I understand that to your American eyes this is truly remarkable. We’ve been conditioned from birth to believe that happiness comes from stuff, from shiny possessions we can purchase and then discard at will. How could you possibly be both poor and happy?
But reject that narrative. Happiness doesn’t come from money. Of course, it’s possible to be poor and happy, just like it’s possible to be rich and sad. Your emotional state does not depend upon your financial resources.
At the same time, you don’t want to paint poverty as somehow noble, as something humanity doesn’t need to work to eradicate. “They were poor but happy” gives you, and whoever you’re talking to, license to ignore structural injustices and poverty, because after all, they were happy.
So let’s talk about these things, but not together, and let’s use words that are precise, not general. Let’s say, first, that you met people who were smiling, who laughed easily. Then let’s describe what else you saw – concrete physical description (“rats as big as my foot”), not judgments (“disgusting”).
One final thing: think about the rhetoric you use when you ask for money, too.
If it’s true that “they” will teach you so much more than you will teach “them” – and undoubtedly, much of the time, especially when we’re talking short-term trips, they will do the lion’s share of the work – then why don’t we change the way we talk about our trips when we’re raising support?
Instead of saying, “Please give me money so that I can take the gospel to a dark place (and please, don’t call it a dark place)/ build a house for the homeless / run a summer camp program for kids in Haiti / assist in a temporary medical clinic in Tegucigalpa, ” why don’t we say it this way: “If you would like to invest in me, would you help me travel to a different culture so that I can expand my view of who God is and how God works by learning about him in a new culture?”
Because honestly, if this trip is really about assisting in a temporary medical clinic, it would probably be more efficient to send money and have the doctors hire local assistants, providing both medical help and much-needed jobs in the community without taxing the local missionaries who would have to host you. Buying an international plane ticket is rarely the most financially efficient way to support the developing world (or to evangelize, for that matter).
But it is a powerful way to learn about how God works. Let’s try to talk about it well.