“Our missions work has lacked the diversity necessary for it to be as effective as it could be. There is a dearth of leaders of color, voices of people who are living in communities that are being ‘served.’ The intentions for most are rooted in a strong sense of call, but we have to correct this void.”
As a public health nurse working with underserved communities in Massachusetts in cancer prevention, I’ve been greatly challenged as we look at racism and inequality in communities that we serve. We are doing this because the evidence of health disparities in non-white communities is overwhelming. One of the ways to begin to address this is by seeing our programs and communities through the lens of racial equity, looking at why, historically, these communities have had worse health outcomes. Studies show that much of this is a result of prejudice and bias on the part of health care professionals; some of it conscious, but much of it unconscious.
It is hard, hard work. Like looking into a mirror and seeing the flaws on my skin, I come face to face with my own prejudices and my own wrong beliefs. I have continually had to confront my deep need for forgiveness and healing.
In every area of life, racism, prejudice, and bias exist – and that includes missions. We are an incomplete body when all we see is white leadership; when our missions conferences are overwhelmingly led by speakers who look like we do. We are a crippled group if we are only led by those who look like us, think like us, and act like us. And we are desperately in need of grace and forgiveness if we think this is okay.
In writing about racism and prejudice, I must first acknowledge my own inadequacy in talking about these things; there are far better and wiser voices, but in obedience I’m opening the door to a conversation that I pray will lead to something good. I also must admit that it is not an easy conversation to have, but it is too important to avoid.
I grew up as a privileged, little white girl in a country where people had varying shades of brown skin. It took me a long time to recognize my prejudice and even longer to be aware of my privilege. Some of my recognition of this came when I began to write. The more I wrote, the more I articulated my perspective, the more I was reminded that that’s what it was – my perspective. I viewed the world through a particular lens and that lens affected all my experiences.
As I moved on to writing Passages Through Pakistan, I realized how my childhood was affected by growing up in a land where colonization ended only 13 years before I was born.
“There was a darker side to high tea I would only confront much later. This pleasure that so delighted me as a little girl was a survival of Pakistan’s colonial past. The “British Raj” era, or the era of British rule, lasted for almost 100 years. It included the entire Indian subcontinent. Pakistan was born in 1948, and my parents arrived only five years later. I was completely blind to my privilege as a little, white, English-speaking girl. I cringe now at what I took for granted.
Those who were white and English-speaking went to the head of the line. Those who were white and English-speaking could casually criticize Pakistanis without thought. We traveled where we pleased, we went first class or third class on trains –it was our choice. We were educated and would have a world of opportunity. I thank God for parents that had the conscience and determination to discipline me and teach me in various ways that I was not better than those around me. Still, with a strong personality and ego to match, those lessons sometimes fell on ears unwilling to listen and a heart that would need continual reminders that privilege is not something I earned or deserved.”*
When I went back overseas, I was no longer a child. As an adult I had to confront some of my ugly and just plain wrong thoughts. Among them were these subtle, and deeply dangerous thoughts:
“They” aren’t as smart as I am.
“They” aren’t as honest as I am.
“They” need Jesus more than I do.
“I” am probably God’s favorite.
Wrong thinking and distorted theology needs to be confronted and confessed; only then can we move forward in truth and light. Here are some of the things that have gone into my journey as I confront my own heart, my prejudice and bias, and seek to see changes in the way I look at missions from inside out.
- Confession – I had to begin with asking God to heal my thoughts and my eyesight. It was and still is hard.
- Learn to recognize and confess my own bias. None of us is without bias and our bias comes from many things. But we can be crippled into wrong belief when we don’t recognize and confess it.
- Develop real friendships with national staff and those who don’t look like we do. So many things are challenged and changed through friendship and real relationship.
- Be willing to put ourselves under the leadership of people from the countries where we live. Always, whether in leadership or as a follower, have a posture of humility and willingness to learn.
- Be prepared for that leadership to look different – leadership is culturally based and may feel uncomfortable for a while.
- Be willing to be shaped by the culture of the people we are living among
- Read and listen and learn. Let me say that again: Read and listen and learn. Then read and listen and learn again. Here are some voices that I’ve been listening to: Christena Cleveland, Eugene Cho, Archbishop Sebastia Theodosios, Elias Chacour, and Ramez Attalah. They each offer different perspectives based on where they are from and where they live. I have been continually humbled as I read perspectives outside of my own and outside of the conventional missions dialogue.
- We may get it wrong. Our proverbial old habits die slowly and often painfully, but if we remain open to correction and change, to true repentance when we hurt others, to not letting pride block us, we will continue to move forward.
I am learning through my workplace that this is a long journey in the right direction. I’m learning more about empathy and standing beside – not in front of – people. Most of all, I’m learning that this is critical to my faith and my belief that we are all made in the Image of God, Imago Dei.
I will end what is a hard and heavy topic with some quotes by those far wiser than I am.
“As a white person, you don’t have to have control. You can enjoy following. Know that God cares for you and that people of color care for you. They are good people who have a different perspective, but they genuinely care for you. There are many people of color who are not angry, who understand and love all people, and who can understand and love you.”
“Missio Dei is not a call to culturalize and patronize nonbelievers; rather, it is delivering the Gospel without judgment or cultural bias. A decision to devote your life to missions means you agree to represent the heart of God as best you can and as accurately as you can.”
“Missions is living the way things should be. Missions is a way of life devoted to making justice, equality, and grace prevail in broken lives, including our own. It is making shalom reality.”
And these beautiful words from a member of our own community at A Life Overseas, one who has experienced bias and racism:
So I write this to bring awareness to the marginalization that many people of color experience within the sphere of Western missions. I write this as an unveiling of tender wounds. I write this, not to point fingers, but to ask you to suffer with us.
Resist the desire to defend. Reject any shame you may feel. Refrain from problem-solving prematurely.
These will only prevent you from truly suffering together with us.
Instead, listen to our stories and our pain. Step into our shoes. Grieve with us.
By acknowledging the disparity, empathizing with our feelings, and understanding the injustices we have to endure, you begin to replace the damaging messages we’ve received.
Instead of invisible, we begin to feel seen.
Instead of ignored, we begin to feel known.
Instead of being silenced, we begin to feel heard.
Perhaps this simple act of com-passion — “suffering with” — will be the very thing that sets us on the path toward greater unity and healing.
As for this community, may we ask for God’s help and grace in our individual and collective journeys toward confessing any existing prejudice and seeking reconciliation and justice in the missions community.
Quotes from Leroy Barber in Red, Brown, Yellow, Black, White—Who’s More Precious In God’s Sight?: A call for diversity in Christian missions and ministry
- from Passages Through Pakistan © Doorlight Publications, March 2017