Voice of the National ~ in which I find myself in a really awkward, uncomfortable conversation

by Richelle Wright on August 28, 2013

It was one of those conversations that I could have never planned on happening… and it was so super awkward when it did – but God allowed it… He even had it happen with most of my biggers standing right there and listening… absorbing…

But first, a tiny bit of the back story.

Our son graduated from high school at an international school in W. Africa, we vacationed in Scotland and then flew back to the States for a whirlwind, but long road trip through the western United States. The goal was LA for a wedding and then we wanted to create some family memories before the chapter of life where all-the-kids-are-still-just-kids-and-in-our-home closed. We picked several places we planned to stop and wanted to see… But there were also some of our stops we just stumbled upon. This was one of those stops.

I’d never heard of the Crazy Horse Monument, but it is in the Black Hills region of South Dakota and we decided to take a look.

20130827IMG_0572

It is pretty impressive and we highly recommend a stop if/when you are ever in the area.

While we were wandering around, looking, browsing, reading… I stopped at the table of an older Native American gentleman. He was selling books on Native American spirituality as well as ones on the life and history of the Lakota warrior and leader, Cha-O-Ha, more commonly known as Crazy Horse. These children of mine, all prolific readers, tagged right along. After all, if Mama was going to buy a book, they wanted their input heard and to be front of the line to read said book.

I asked a few questions and he immediately started talking. And the one of the first things he said was,

“Missionaries, of all white men, have done us the greatest disservice. I want nothing more to do, ever, with the Christian idea of God.”

My wide-eyed children and teens jerked their heads to look at me. I know they wondered what I was going to do and say. I don’t think they’ve ever heard someone… anyone… say anything like that. At least not to our faces and certainly not in English.

This gentleman never noticed their shocked, even slightly horrified, expressions, for he had already launched into his story.

And his story broke my heart. I will try to retell it, using as many of his words as I was able to recall, after the fact.

First forced to live on a reservation, he and his siblings were then shipped off to a parochial boarding school for their education. Repeatedly harangued on the subject of the inferiority of all not white, he learned that even though the white missionaries told him he was precious to God, they didn’t really believe that, for they considered him a lot less than worthy… and really nothing more than a project to earn their own brownie points with God. Required to cut their hair, wear strange, confining and unnatural clothing, conform to western sensibilities, speak an unfamiliar language, abandon their culture and traditional practices…, he, his older siblings and other Native Americans attending his school were also punished if… or rather when… they gave hints of being homesick or longed for anything different. In other words, it was forbidden to demonstrate any desire for what they had lived before. According to this man, the punishment for such rebellion and ungratefulness to God was severe. Adding insult to injury, the education they received was, academically speaking, pitiful. One of 7 children in his family, he claimed to be the only one  who went to college and earned a degree. Today, he is the only one gainfully employed.

As a child, he felt coerced into multiple, desperate, professions of faith by men and women he could recognize as thinking they were well meaning… Today he despises how they had did what they did… Today, he has very little patience or respect for anyone affiliated with missions work… Today, he emphatically and vehemently scoffs at the idea of a god at all like the God “those missionaries claimed they worshiped.”

“Missionaries came,” he insisted, “saying they offered help and hope and words of life. They didn’t. They deceived. Our physical needs may have been crudely met, but they manipulated, emotionally and spiritually manhandling us. At least we knew where we stood with the Army and the trappers and the others who sought to take away what we had.”

I didn’t know what to say or how to react.

I had not in any way, shape or form participated in any of the horrible things that had happened to this man and his siblings, yet because I am a missionary (and want to be unashamed as I wear that description), I knew I couldn’t walk away silent. Appalled by what this man had experienced, I was equally horrified knowing I needed to, in some way, address this with my children all circled around – both compassionately and honestly. In other words, I knew he needed to know… my kids needed to know he knew… that we were missionaries and that there were some very human, imperfect missionaries who did strive to “do it” right.

That opportunity popped right up.

He asked us where we were from. One of my gang said “Niger” – pronounced the French way… “Nee – zhair.” He looked a little confused, so I added: “We’re from Michigan when we’re in the States. But we work in Niger (English pronunciation), West Africa.

The obvious follow-up question was, “What kind of work do you do there?”

“Ummm… We are missionaries.”

Awkward, very awkward, silence.

Then he asked me why I felt it was my job to convert the rest of the world to Christianity.

I replied something to the effect of,

“Sir, I can’t explain why Christian missionaries treated you the way you described being treated. I don’t understand it myself. I hope and pray every day that my life, my actions, my words are never experienced or understood even remotely as you experienced and understood the missionaries you knew as a child.

As a missionary myself, I have never believed my job was to ‘save the world,‘ nor is it to convert others to a brand Christianity that looks just like mine. I’ll try to leave convicting and the converting for God to do. My job is to love with all my heart and obey the God I say I serve and worship. I try to love and serve the people He places in my life the very best way that I know how. If in that loving, God gives me opportunity to talk about Who He is, what He means to me, what He’s done for me, why I do what I do, what i read in the Bible about how to be in a right relationship with Him… I want to do so truthfully, graciously, gently and kindly.

And yes, Sir. It is my prayer that through those types of conversations, relationships, friendships, etc., God woos others to see Jesus’ sacrifice and gift, to seek forgiveness and to become followers of Him.”

In that answer, I think God satisfied my children’s questions… and most of them skipped off to find their daddy and move on to the next thing.

But this gentleman wasn’t satisfied. Instead, he was a actually a little bit angry. I think he’d heard those sorts of words too many times before. Sadly, he’s apparently never experienced someone fleshing those words out in person in such a way that he could perceive it.

20130827IMG_0574

We spoke for a few minutes longer. I thanked him for sharing his story and for helping me and my children to learn and see from the perspective of another. And I was ready to go. His anger and frustration were intimidating and exhausting. But before we left, I asked him if I could tell my missionary friends what he had shared with me. He agreed – and then thanked me for asking.

Somehow, that last question – asking permission to share his story – allowed us to part comfortably and on essentially cordial terms.

And I’m sure there’s a further lesson (or two) that God will teach me through this story – but several weeks later, I’m still not sure what they are. I do want to glean all that God would have me take from this difficult-for-me encounter.

***********************************

How would you have answered this gentleman’s question?

How would you have handled this encounter if you’d been standing in my shoes?

What could I/should I have done differently or better?

*************************************

– Richelle Wright, missionary on home assignment from Niger, W. Africa

blog:   Our Wright-ing Pad    ministry:   Wright’s Broadcasting Truth to Niger     facebook:  Richelle Wright

(Please note... Words in quotation marks are an approximation of our conversation as it occurred and as I recall it to the best of my ability, as this was not a planned interview.)
Print Friendly

About Richelle Wright

Disciple of Jesus, lover of God's Word, wife to one great guy, and mama of eight, Richelle has spent the past 13 years in Niger, West Africa. She and her family are currently in the throes of transition as they begin life and ministry (teaching, audio-visual production) in the Canadian province of Québec. |ourwrightingpad.blogspot.com|
  • Liz K

    Wow…yeah, awkward just touches the surface doesn’t it? I have never come up with a good answer to this question, except that I am just obeying God by being here. I often find myself feeling like I should apologize for things that other missionaries/white people/my government have done. And I never know if I should or not.

    • Richelle Wright

      so. very. hard! and you never know what is the right answer – or if there even is one – or the best response… how do people respond when you say obedience… or when you apologize?

      • Liz K

        When I’ve appolgized, people have been very receptive to that. I think sometimes it helps to hear another missionary/white person/citizen of the US say what happened was wrong, period, that “we” should have never done X, Y, and Z. Often the obedience response just gets a look, because often they don’t really know what I mean…ha, so maybe that needs to be reworked 🙂

        • Richelle Wright

          a dear mentor friend of mine said essentially the exact same thing. apologies… quiet listening softens hearts. the obedience response… or even asking the question he asked, according to my friend, shifted it from his story to my story and he wasn’t in a position to hear that without it angering him further.

          as i concluded, i think i’ve still got lots to think about, pray about, and learn as God teaches me through this conversation.

  • Marla Taviano

    This breaks my heart. And so angry over horrible things done in “Jesus’ name.” I love what you said to him. I’ll pray God continues to use your words to bring healing to this man.

    • Richelle Wright

      that’s what a dear friend actually said to me yesterday, right after she read this… i’m praying, as well and adding in that prayer that God works through those who join with us.

      i also wish i could hear the same story from the “other” perspective – because a part of me hopes it wasn’t that bad and another part of me is completely sobered by the fact that good intentions can’t carry us, that when we do what we do to the best of our abilities – our actions might still not “translate” in other worlds and cultures. i wonder, if in some senses, better accountability wouldn’t have prevented some of these issues… and that accountability seems to be an issue missos (who are often long ranger types) seem to avoid, dread and/or shy away from.

  • Beth

    Wow, Richelle! What an encounter. I’m sure it felt mighty uncomfortable but I’m so glad you were willing to listen with grace and enter into the pain that has been a part of his life because of his experience with missionaries. Perhaps in some small way God will use your listening, your full-of-grace response, your compassion to bring healing.

    • Richelle Wright

      not so sure that i listened with grace – though i did consciously try to listen. i was more than a little overwhelmed that my kids were standing there, listening – especially the middler ones. and there are other nuances to our conversation that i discussed later with my oldest, that i didn’t enter in to here. my oldest struggled with the fact that this man was so anti-evangelistic and yet my boy felt as though he was trying to convert us to his way of thought…

      thankful for teaching moment opportunities, even the uncomfortable, awkward ones. and thankful for how my kids teach me in those moments, as well!

  • Little Gumnut

    It sounds like you gave a good account of your faith and were as honest as you could be with him. I think sometimes people just need to hear someone say sorry on behalf of the Christians who have deeply hurt and scarred them, a bit like the Australian Government publically apologizing to the Aboriginal people. It may sound like a weak offering but I think it has mysterious power and if nothing else, it offers the chance for that person to take one tiny step into forgiveness and being set free. Such a challenging situation to be in.

    • Richelle Wright

      yes… that is the prayer now… that this conversation led for a tiny step towards forgiveness and freedom. but even as i type that, i know that he’d bristle at the fact that we’d think he even needs to be forgiven (the second part of the equation I didn’t share in this post).

      thanks for jumping in to this conversation – appreciated what you said about our willingness to apologize – even when we’re not directly responsible. i agree that that can be part of the healing process.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Love what Sophie said. I’ve been thinking about this since yesterday when I read it. I deeply appreciate this post. partly because I worked with Navajo and Hopi tribes in Arizona for about 3 years and learned a lot. I think that willingness to humble ourselves and not say “well it wasn’t me, I’m not like that” instead saying “I’m deeply sorry” as Sophie says has ‘mysterious power’. And Richelle – your further step of asking if you could tell his story seems to be a Holy Spirit driven question. The fact that he said yes is attests to his trust of your ability to relay his story. Thanks so much for a hard, good post.

      • Richelle Wright

        sounds like you have a lot more experience in this area than i do… i shared in my response to angie’s comment above that while most people have responded “good answer…” a godly mentor friend of mine challenged me to rethink my response, has privately pointed out where she thinks I was off track, and encouraged me to try to see more of how he might have perceived my words and why they agitated rather than calmed.

        so i don’t think this conversation or issue is anywhere near settled in my heart or mind yet.

        thanks for your kind words.

  • Richelle, this is real life stuff! Wow, that your kids were there to hear you speak – so timely. Thank you for sharing this with your missionary friends. I envy your desire to wear the title ‘missionary’ unabashed.

    Hm, such a rich conversation. I have had people ask me just as bluntly why I feel like I need to convert the world to Christianity. Each encounter is distinct and requires a sensitive hear to the Holy Spirit for the words to speak. You ask us to evaluate your encounter. From the looks of things it seems you were sincere and motivated by love. You did not become defensive or belittle his experience. You were kind and respectful, yet unapologetic.

    He felt he had a right to blame others for his hardships. I wonder what the love response is to that innate human tendency to search out the culpable. Do we correct? Do we agree? Do we empathize? Do we let people “get it all out there”? Do we explain that we all have junk we have to get over so stop gazing at your belly button in self-pity? It’s such a delicate subject. But blame is a never ending chain of despair. Everyone who is blamed can point the finger to someone else who “made them do it”. I find myself becoming impatient very quickly with people who are so wrapped up in the wrongs done to them. As you say, it is exhausting. Bless you for taking the time to talk with him.

    • Richelle Wright

      i had one of my mentor friends write to me privately in response to this post. and she gently challenged me by pointing out that i didn’t apologize, but rather launched into my story instead. thus, his angry initial response. then, when i asked his permission to share, that was when he felt he was actually being heard. she and her husband work with nonmajority people and encounter reconciliation issues between those groups and the privileged groups, so she has some real life feet on the ground experience in this area. i want to”mind munch” and pray through what she shared because i’m thinking she has some very good points. but i also agree with your last paragraph… so i’m wondering where we find the balance between those two points.

  • BFGuy

    This is so terrible, but it s reality we all must come to terms with. The best thing that comes to mind and the only thing I can think to say is a quote I heard from one of our pastors in Nebraska: Sometimes the people of God do things in the name of God that brings shame to the heart of God.

    I couldn’t agree more. So sad. On a positive note my children are also in an International School in West Africa. The love it.

    • Dalaina May

      “Sometimes the people of God do things in the name of God that brings shame to the heart of God.”

      Nailed it. Totally stealing this phrase.

      • Richelle Wright

        yep! i Love that phrase as well!

    • Richelle Wright

      that is an awesome quote. i wish a quote like that could address that gentleman’s hurt and anger – but i don’t think it will. i think, as some of those who’ve commented have said – I think I’ve got to somehow acknowledge that pain and a continuing part in a system that leaves him under privileged and me so privileged. but i also believe that there has to be someway to confront the victim mentality as well – because i’ve never seen that lead to healing either.

  • Tom

    It’s not about us, it’s about our Saviour. We, no matter how good a missionary, are sinners, and we will fail people. But not our Saviour. He would never have failed this man or treated him like a second class citizen. He would have served him, for He did love him and pay the penalty of his sin.
    I would never elevate myself as a “better” missionary, but I would lift Jesus Christ up. Any missionary, when he is not being Christ-like, will do things that make our God look bad, but my God doesn’t approve of such behavior, but calls it sin, worthy of death, a death He suffered. A death He suffered for that man, who now speaks so poorly of Him, but God continues to love him and want to have close fellowship with him.
    You did well. Thinking on one’s feet when surprised by such a statement isn’t easy. I see similar attitudes in some missionaries where I am at in Africa. But I do not lift myself up as better, for then I draw the attention to me and not my Saviour. I am out to win the world; not to Americanize them, for I don’t even care for American Christianity; but, to preach the gospel, to baptize, to disciple, and to see them go with the gospel, until Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the world have heard that God so loves them.

    • Richelle Wright

      so true, Tom. we have failed, and do fail and will continue to fail as long as we draw breath. and we strive to preach Christ with our lives and with our words… but when someone is so hurt by our failures (historical, individual, current, collective) in that process, i don’t think we can not address it or gloss over it – and i know that is my tendency. it is, for me, the much easier path.

      and i do think part of this story is missing. as i mentioned to someone else – i’m so curious to know if things happened as this gentleman described (which is highly possible) or if perhaps the missionary perspective was radically different and the truth is somewhere in between.

      i guess i do think though, that there was a way for me to be Christ to this man in that moment and i’m trying to pray and discern just what that would have looked like because in the moment – i didn’t have time to think, pray or anything. i simply responded with what was in my heart…

      • You did well in the way you respected him as a person, honored him enough to be truthful and to ask his permission. These things already are not things he would associate with a missionary.

        You can be almost completely certain that his story is true. This is not the first, or even the 20th or 50th time i have heard a version of this type of story from people who lived it. (One of the first ministries I was ever involved in was my with my dad to Native American street kids in Canada.) Parochial schools were horrible, horrible abusive places. The governments of Canada and the US have come out publicly to apologize for the abuses they perpetrated, the deprivation, starvation, physical and emotional suffering they caused. There are even several cases of medical experimentation on Native American children. One older woman in Canada told me about being forced to line up every morning and gaze at a life size mural on the wall that showed all the white people going to heaven and all the Native people going to hell, for half an hour, every single day.

        As someone who has had a lot of time and familiarity with stories like this man’s, and several conversations just like the one you describe to practice and learn what to do, God almost always leads me to do the following. Look him directly in the eye, ask him if I can hold his hands or touch his shoulder as appropriate, there’s something about not being afraid to touch the pain, and say something like, “As someone who loves Jesus, and tries to represent him and the love he has shown to me to the world, and as someone who identifies as a missionary, I apologize to you, on behalf of those other missionaries who hurt you, and caused you and your family lasting pain and suffering. What they did to you was wrong, it doesn’t represent the God I serve, and the Jesus I love, and as someone standing here today in their place I ask you to forgive me, to forgive us, for the harm, both willful and accidental that was done to you and your loved ones. I can’t change what has happened, but I pray that you will allow this moment to be a step toward healing for you and for me, to bring peace between us. And I beg you to pray for me, and for my family, that God would keep us from ever causing another the kind of harm that other missionaries have caused, that we would have wisdom, and most of all love and compassion for those around us.”

        I would probably break down and be already crying listening to his story, and I would probably cry more while talking because that’s who I am, and I’ve learned that’s ok and that God uses it. In fact, sometimes it’s better because it shows that I mean what I’m saying.

        I have actually done this before, more than once. The words are slightly different every time, specific to the person’s story, but it has always been powerful. All a person who has been hurt is wanting in telling their story is someone to see the pain and apologize. And what Jesus is wanting to do in every situation is to bring healing and reconciliation. Giving someone the opportunity to forgive, maybe for the first time ever, that’s a major step toward both of those things.

        • Richelle Wright

          thanks you so much for sharing your experience in this particular area. i do know that these sorts of awful things did happen to many native americans/first nations people… i do believe this man was telling me truth from his perspective… but the lawyer personality inside me really wants to hear from those missionaries, too. and i think a big part of that is wanting to figure out if it was selfish sinfulness… or what, in a sense to me is even scarier because i think it is such a dangerous thing – if they genuinely thought what they were doing was serving and loving and sharing Jesus… and they went about it sincerely but wrong and totally clueless that they were wrong.

          there really are so many people walking around in this world hurt – and it requires discernment and God’s wisdom to know how to best love them in those moments we are given with them. i don’t know, in hindsight, if my response was the best one that could have been given – i have questions that go off in both direction. i do know i did what i thought was right in the moment – and i’m thankful now for this opportunity to wrestle with some of these questions.

          • That’s something I often wonder myself. Did they know what they were doing? Did they justify their actions by telling themselves they were getting souls into heaven so bodies and hearts didn’t matter as much? Did they believe that the evil they were saving them from was so great that it outweighed the pain they were causing? Were they even aware they were causing pain? Were they so entrenched in the racism of the day that it didn’t even occur to them to question it? Were their good intentions being manipulated and used by government and big business to aid in their own agendas?

            I hope you do find someone to talk to from the other side. I would like to know that side of the story too.

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    Just by not being defensive, or too offended or hurt to reply with love, you reflected the heart of the One you serve. Thanks for the post. I’ve had a similar experience. It’s tough to hear.

    • Richelle Wright

      thanks for your comment, Tara.

      i’m really glad i wrote this post… as i’ve appreciated the feedback i’ve received here in the comments, but also some gentle exhortations as to how i could have handled it differently… which might, in fact, be what i share next time i write in this place.

  • Pingback: And then I read “When bad Christians happen to good people…”()

  • Andrea

    I’d like to be more dignified, but honestly i might have just started to
    cry. I have a huge heart for Native Americans (I work in Eastern
    Europe) and a few months ago I watch ‘Into the West’ and was skeptical
    of the events shown, So I researched if these types of accounts were
    true and when i saw documentation the atrocities happening by Christians
    at these schools I did not know what to do but get on my knees and pray
    to God for mercy. That his mercy would cover us, would save us, and
    restore us from the evil things that are done in his name. This guy
    probably would not appreciate my tears, He has experience too much pain
    to be moved by anther’s sorrow, but i would have shed them anyways.

Previous post:

Next post: