Is Missions a Joke? Answering the Critics

Editorial note: A Life Overseas is a place to share stories and have conversations about cross-cultural missions and international living. In this space we avoid personal attacks. The following piece is a critique of ideas currently being circulated among the missions crowd. It is not a personal attack on anyone whose words are quoted here, and personal attacks of any kind will be deleted from the comment section. Thank you in advance for honoring this request.  ~Elizabeth Trotter, Jonathan Trotter, and Marilyn Gardner

I came off the mission field with a new mission which is to burn down missions. ~Jamie Wright

You come [to the mission field] with the veil of, ‘I’m called, not qualified’ and then when everything falls to s*** and you decide to go back home, it completely negates the authority of the God you said called you in the first place. And it’s just a damaging cycle that just goes on and on. ~Emily Worrall

Missionaries are trying to save themselves. There’s this sense of ‘God is going to come through for me.’ So you have a lot–a lot–of addiction…tons and tons and tons of sexual sin. Deeply wounded people who need help, who need therapy, who need support systems. But we give them permission to leave all that behind and go to a foreign country where it is all exacerbated and everything gets way worse. It’s a rampant problem in long-term missions. ~Jamie Wright

The long-term missionary lifestyle is almost, like, insidious. Because long-term missionaries are the ones really using the manipulative language. They are really misrepresenting their purpose and the necessity for them to live in these other countries. Or they are hiding information about their behavior or the things they are doing. It’s just not good. There are so many people living abroad on the church-dime who have no accountability. It’s really ugly. ~Jamie Wright

Corey Pigg: They [our organization] were sending us out to the 10/40 window.

Jamie Wright: Yes, the 10/40 window. Everybody loves that.

Corey: They felt it was imperative that we went to closed nations to be superheroes. Because those are the last places that need to hear the gospel.

Jamie. Which is hilarious. ……All that matters is that you use the lingo.

Corey: That’s what sells, right?

 

Hi, I’m Amy Medina, and I’m a missionary.

I was a missionary kid in Liberia and Ethiopia for six years of my childhood. I’m now 41 years old and have been living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for fourteen years as an evangelical Christian missionary. My husband trains pastors and I am the elementary school principal at Haven of Peace Academy. We’ve adopted four Tanzanian kids.

We live off of the financial gifts of churches and friends from the States. We write newsletters every month. We use phrases like “fruit of our ministry” and “unreached people groups” and “discipleship.” I blog. And my blog header has zebras on it. And a rainbow encircling an orphan.

So is my life a joke?

I’ve been mulling over what I read in Jamie Wright’s memoir, The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever and what I heard in the “Failed Missionary” podcasts with Corey Pigg, Emily Worrall of Barbie Savior, and Jamie Wright. I’ve known all along that some non-Christians scoff at my life as a misguided, ridiculous attempt to “save the world,” but I must admit I was surprised to find out that there are some of “our own” who feel the same way–and are loudly proclaiming it.

Ironically, I actually agree with a lot of what these critical voices have to say about missions. I believe that “calling” can be misguided and even idolatrous. I believe that missionaries need to be well-vetted, well-trained, and held accountable. I’m confident that there is a temptation among missionaries to hide their struggles and beef up their successes. I believe that the “white savior complex” is real and sinister, and I definitely hold that Americans need to stop shipping stuff overseas for poor people. And I do think that missions in general, but especially short-term missions, can often bring more harm than help.

So I don’t believe we should write off these critical voices. If we stand against them with scowling faces and hands over our ears, angry at their profanity or their bluntness or their criticism of our sacred cows, then we walk right into the realm of the Pharisees. I’m not saying we have to agree with everything they say or how they say it, but we need to listen.

The truth is, it’s not a bad thing to knock missionaries off those pedestals. And it’s not a bad thing for us missionaries to ask ourselves the hard questions, or for those who send us to ask those questions of us.

Why did I really become a missionary?

Was I running away from something? Was I just looking for more meaning in my life? Was I thinking that missions would elevate my life to a higher spiritual level?

Does my dependence on financial support make me cover up the truth or portray myself as something I am not?

Am I afraid of what would happen if people could see bank records or my internet history, or if they saw what a day in my life really looked like?

Am I really the best person at this time and in this place to be doing this job? Am I submitting myself to accountability? Am I humbling myself and my ideas to the local people?

Almost my entire life has been devoted to missions, in one way or another. And I’ve seen what these critics are talking about. I’ve seen terrible short-term teams who offend the local people or steal jobs in a struggling economy. In rare instances, I’ve known of missionaries who preach the gospel on Sunday and have affairs during the week. More commonly, I’ve seen ignorance and arrogance and racism among missionaries–including myself.

But my conclusion is different. I don’t believe missions needs “gasoline and a match,” as Jamie writes in her memoir.

Really what it comes down to is this: Do we have a message worth sharing?

The data suggests we do. Robert Woodberry has done extensive, peer-reviewed analysis of historical data that demonstrates that the impact of the gospel is overwhelmingly positive. In “The Truth About Missionaries,” Hugh Whelchel writes, “[Woodberry’s] research finds that where Protestant missionaries had a significant historical presence, those countries on average are now more economically developed. These countries have comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in non-governmental associations.”

In fact, Woodberry’s research shows that contrary to popular belief, protestant missionaries often stood in direct opposition to white colonialism. He writes, “[M]issionaries punished abusive colonial officials and counterbalanced white settlers, which fostered the rule of law, encouraged less violent repression of anti-colonial political organization, and facilitated peaceful decolonization.” Andrea Palpant Dilley, referring to Woodberry, concludes, “In short: Want a blossoming democracy today? The solution is simple – if you have a time machine: Send a 19th-century missionary.”

These missionaries weren’t just do-gooders who were looking to make the world a better place. They were “conversionary Protestants” who, frankly, were trying to convert people to Christianity. Christian missions, when done correctly, is “both/and” when it comes to sharing the gospel and helping to effect social change.

Why is that? Because a person who has truly been transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t just trying to earn gold stars for converts. That person has had an entire shift in worldview–a worldview that values all human life as sacred, understands that sin has broken the relationships that mankind has with himself, others, and creation, and that redemption in all of that brokenness starts with a relationship with Jesus Christ. So despite how missionaries over the centuries have royally messed up a lot of the time, their success was based on how well they embraced a biblical worldview, and how well they shared it with others. History shows us they have been surprisingly successful.

Nancy Pearcey writes, “That’s why C. S. Lewis calls Christianity ‘a fighting religion.’ He means that disciples of Jesus are not meant to passively allow evil to flourish on earth, while looking forward to escaping someday to a higher realm. Instead they are called to actively fight evil here and now. The doctrine of the resurrection means that the physical world matters. It matters to God and it should matter to God’s people.”  

According to the critical voices, our message should be–and only be–one of love. Jamie writes, “Let’s agree to write an epic of love to the benefit of others.” She wants us to make missions not about ourselves and how it makes us feel, but about what’s best for others.

I wholeheartedly agree. I’m just not sure we would agree on what “love” actually looks like. Emily Worrall says, “Basically what the [Great Commission] boils down to is ‘kindness.’ That’s something that I don’t see a lot of in the mission field. Period.”

Point taken. Missionaries–or Christians in general–often should be reminded to get in touch with their kind side. The gospel is not about forcing rules upon others. It’s not about molding others into our image. But does ‘love’ start and end with only kindness? What makes the gospel so transformative is by recognizing the depth of our sin, the rampant effects of that sin, and how surrender and faith in Jesus is the means of redemption–and our only hope of heaven.

That means that loving others isn’t just standing by and allowing people to self-destruct in the name of acceptance. It doesn’t mean being okay with others’ futile attempts to work their way to heaven. There are times when love needs to confront sin–whether that be the sin of an individual or the sin of a culture. That doesn’t mean we should be arrogant or unkind, but it does mean that we say, “Look! This is why we all need Jesus!”

As an American, I’m certainly not insinuating that American Christians have this all figured out and are the only ones who should be going out to “save the world.” This notion is there and it’s sinister, and it’s not okay. But as God’s Church becomes more global, I think that all of us, from all nations, can take a posture of humility in learning from each other–including and perhaps especially the people who we may be evangelizing. And therefore, the Global Church, under the authority of Scripture, should be working together to bring the gospel to those parts of the world where it’s never been heard. And that’s exactly what’s happening! I see this right here in my corner of East Africa. A cross-cultural global group of Americans, Europeans, South Africans, and South Koreans are working alongside Tanzanians to bring the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth. It is an amazing, beautiful thing.

Are missionaries a joke? Sometimes. People are sinners, including missionaries. Please, by all means, let’s topple missionaries off of our pedestals. Let’s remember that missionaries are just as much in need of the redemption they preach to others. Let’s hold them accountable. Let’s redefine “calling” to include gifting and training. Let’s be wise and sacrificial about how we steward God’s people and God’s resources. Let’s examine ourselves to make sure the mission isn’t all about us.

But is missions a joke? God forbid. Missions exists to elevate Jesus Christ above all, to bring glory to him in places and among people where he is not known. If he really is the Son of God, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the First and the Last, the Redeemer of Mankind, and the Light of the World, then let’s go out….and make his name Glorious.

 

Embracing Life From the Second Row

by Kris Gnuse

I was not just upset;  I was upset with myself for being upset.

After years of “maybe someday,” I had finally auditioned for worship choir. Kick your thoughts of robes and high sopranos to the curb. This group was cool.

I stepped onto the risers that first Sunday, trembly with nerves. My heart was full of prayers to open the heavens. My head was running harmonies, timing changes, and bridge lyrics. My pride, the tricky beast, was bumped by my spot in the second row.

Until that moment, I hadn’t known how much I wanted to be seen. 

The leadership wisely put anchor people in the most visible places. When the spiritual climate of a thousand is at stake, holiness trumps height. My 5’2″ stature had always placed me front, if not also center. This group was different, arranged by experience and anointing.

The veterans in front of me topped my height by inches, even with the riser’s help. I could still open the heavens—through the small window between two heads and their nearly touching shoulders. My expectations had been widescreen. Bump.

How could my compass be so stuck on me when I was there specifically to point heavenward? I muscled my attitude back in line with devotion and invited the Lord’s presence into the morning.

It was glorious.

Moving to our mission country provided a similar bump to second row. We were shocked to hear children must be 18 years old to be left unattended. Our uber-responsible, babysitting-aged daughter could not legally watch her younger brothers here. A family four houses down was reported to child protective services for the latchkey schedule of their son. Our neighbor had to choose between employment and motherhood.

My window to serve went from panoramic to porthole.

Gently, the Lord drew me back from widescreen expectations of work projects alongside teams and cradling each child at the home. My ministry GPS reconfigured, abandoning the scenic route but not the destination. I point heavenward through food and words shared, prayers on my balcony, and databases current with ways to connect. I wrestle our daily routine in line with devotion through the frame of homeschooling and cross-cultural living.

I have learned anew the simple beauty of well-sung backup harmony.

It’s still glorious.

I will probably always want to be seen. More than I like to admit. Yet, this is holy ground here in the second row. The heavens are open.

 

Have you ever spent time in the second row?  What was your experience like?

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Kris Gnuse is a living testament that the Lord gently leads those who have young. In 2013, she said “I will,” to the Lord’s call for their family of five: to serve at a transitional children’s home in Costa Rica. In the crossroads of hosting short term mission teams and loving little ones who weren’t safe at home, she has a stand offering cups of cold water. You can follow her journey at www.thegoodnewsfamily.com

If I’m competent in culture, do I show God’s power less?

by Tamie Davis

One of the hardest things for me about Bible college was discovering that I was good at it. I won awards, and was publicly recognised. Far from being an achievement to be celebrated, this made me intensely uncomfortable.

Part of that is cultural. In Australia, we have this thing called ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’. We value egalitarianism, and so we cut down those who are successful. High achievers learn to cover their tracks as a means of self-protection.

But it was also theological: Was accepting the award allowing myself to be recognised, rather than insisting that any competence comes from God (2 Cor 3:5-6)? If God’s power is made perfect in weakness, what does that mean if you have strong skills?

It was also missiological: I began to look forward to working cross-culturally, where I would be incompetent and a baby, so that I could show that God’s all-surpassing power doesn’t come from me (2 Cor 4:7).

And yet, I had plans to work hard at language study, and to throw myself into understanding culture at a really deep level. Would this be a liability? I wondered. What happens when you get some competence in the culture you’re working in? When you start being able to communicate, when you actually know what the unsaid expectations are? Are you then relying on God less, or showing his power less? Are our latter years of cross-cultural ministry somehow less glorious than our early ones because we know what we’re doing a bit more, or do we simply expect to continue to be incompetent?

In order to answer my questions, I embarked upon a study of 2 Corinthians. The first surprise for me was learning that Paul – the same one arguing for weakness – actually wrote 2 Corinthians using very convincing persuasive skills. His rhetoric in 2 Corinthians is not the highest form of argumentation available in the Greco-Roman world, but it’s getting up there. At the very least, it’s far from incompetent. I started thinking that perhaps the ‘weakness’ which showcases God’s power wasn’t about having inadequate abilities.

I had always assumed the jar of clay image in 2 Corinthians 4 to be about weakness or disposability. After all, in the verses that come after, Paul highlights his own fragility. However, to the Corinthian mind, this is not the most natural reading. Corinth was known for its bronze industry and, in particular, the ornamentation of vessels ranging from trays to vases to mixing bowls. Corinth was known for its superior work craft that was pleasing to the eye and made with rare material. Both clay and bronze jars were practical and adequate vessels for storage, but the Corinthians took great pride in their splendid bronze jars. To the Corinthian mind, then, the notion of a plain, common clay jar is much more likely to be perceived in terms of its un-impressiveness than its fragility. Paul’s point is not that jars of clay are breakable rather than durable, but that they are plain rather than ornate. The image here is one of status, not practicality or usefulness. It is its humility which emphasises the glory of what it contains.

Even the list of his hardships (2 Cor 11:23-30) is a picture of Paul’s wretchedness when viewed by worldly standards, designed to lower him in the eyes of his listeners, as he carries around the death of Christ in the body. Beatings were shameful. Perhaps even as shameful as admitting to being illiterate in today’s world. Neither beatings nor illiteracy make you an inadequate minister of the gospel, but they sure do decrease people’s opinion of you, depending on which century or culture you live in. For Paul, these are his ‘weakness’, the things that lower his status in the eyes of others.

So what then for the high achieving Bible college student, or the experienced, knowledgeable missionary? How might we pursue this kind of status? Another story from Australia has been instructive for me.

Arthur Stace was barely literate and worked in menial jobs his entire life after being born into poverty, and living half his life in drunkenness and crime. During the Great Depression, at age 45, he walked into a church to sit through a sermon so he could get a free meal at the end. There he gave his life to Jesus. Two years later, in a different church, he heard a sermon where the preacher cried, “Eternity, Eternity, I wish that I could sound or shout that word to everyone in the streets of Sydney.” Stace took the preacher literally, and for the next 35 years, he would rise early each day and spend several hours chalking the word ‘Eternity’ on Sydney’s streets.

The response was electrifying: Who was this anonymous artist? What was the meaning of the word? Why was it written in such an ephemeral medium as chalk? Countless discussions about eternity were started, and when Stace’s identity, background and story of redemption became known in 1956 (after 25 years of chalking the word!), his place in Australian history was cemented. During the New Year’s celebrations of the year 2000, Eternity was written in lights for the fireworks on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The man whose preaching originally converted Stace was Robert Hammond, one of the most respected Australian Christians on the 20th century. From a wealthy family, well-educated, a football star, and an ordained Anglican minister, he was everything Arthur Stace wasn’t. The preacher who spurred Stace to start chalking ‘Eternity’ was John Ridley, a military cross winner and war hero, a far cry from the weak Stace who had been medically discharged from the army for a weak chest.

These men are far more like myself than Arthur Stace if I am honest. We are educated, wealthy, privileged, respected. Of course, before God we are all lowly, but in worldly terms, we are the people of high status. If we are jars of clay, it is not immediately apparent how. Now, God uses such people: he used them to convert Arthur Stace, and to propel him into ministry. Yet, it has been observed time and again in Australia that though these men preached eloquently to hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, Arthur Stace’s one word was seen by millions, and created a stir like no other. Here is an example of God using the one of low status: uneducated, poor, low-born Arthur Stace.

If we are the Robert Hammonds and the John Ridleys of this world – educated, wealthy, privileged, respected – the question for us is whether we will look for, recognise and support God’s work through the Arthur Staces of the world.

Hammond and Stace’s story continues after Stace’s conversion. Hammond also provided him with employment and housing. Yet, Hammond never considered Stace in his own debt, or himself as benefactor. Hammond had the opportunity to meet some of the most powerful men in Sydney at that time, but he considered supporting Stace one of the great honours of his life. To speak of himself as in the service of Stace was far below his status in worldly terms — but then, Hammond could see the treasure in the jar of clay.

For those of us who are high achievers, like the apostle Paul, like Hammond, the question is how we will leverage our skills and privilege for the sake of others. If we have brilliant insights into culture, how will we use these to point away from ourselves? And if we have excellent ability with language, how will we use this to shout far and wide of the wonders God is doing through those who might otherwise be despised?

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Tamie Davis is an Aussie who lives with her husband and two sons in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. They partner with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students and blog at meetjesusatuni.com.

When Christians Think Like Elijah

By Tamie Davis

Recently a church from another state in Australia decided to do a church plant into my home city of Adelaide. In their fundraising video, they described the church situation in Adelaide as rough, desperate, and crying for help from outside, because there was no church in Adelaide that could viably look outside of itself enough to plant another church. They, on the other hand, had a ‘bold new plan’, and under their leadership the church in Adelaide had started to realise that it has a future.

Watching the video I felt quite taken aback: Christianity in the Adelaide I know may be small, but it is vibrant, and has seen the establishment of several thriving church planting movements in the last 10 years!

Now, at one level when they speak of the weakness of the church in Adelaide, they were just talking about their own denomination, but it felt like they were overlooking the gospel efforts of so many in my home city who have been faithfully serving Jesus and proclaiming him there.

I get that they need to raise money, and to do so they need to make the need clear. I’ve been there; no doubt all missionaries have. But I wondered, ‘If they can’t raise the money, is that it for gospel-centred churches in Adelaide? Is all lost?’

And then I read 1 Kings 19. It’s the famous ‘still small voice’ passage, where God appeals to Elijah who has fled into the desert in fear for his life from Ahab and Jezebel. Elijah says:

“I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.” (v.14)

Sounds desperate, right? Rough. In need of a bold new leader who can re-direct people from their apostasy and their apathy.

Except Elijah is not actually the only one left. There’s Elisha who will be come his successor, and 7000 other Israelites “who have never bowed down to Baal or kissed him!” (v.18) Whether this is a literal 7000, or symbolic of a body of Israelites is beside the point. It tells us that there has been resistance and faithfulness, and Elijah in his fear and his self-importance has missed it. Though it was not apparent to Elijah, God had been at work in Israel. After all, he was the one who has preserved these faithful ones (v.18).

Whether from self-importance or lack of research, Elijah overlooked this. Watching the video I wanted to say, “We are the 7000 Elijah ignores!”

I think it’s very healthy for me as a missionary to have this kind of experience. I have been on the receiving end of well-intentioned but possibly misguided people coming from outside to help and do God’s work. Yet, I am normally the outsider, and we are here in Tanzania because we have answered a need. So how will this experience shape my own mission practice?

First, I must assume that God is already at work in my context. This is particularly true in contexts with churches that are already established. But even in places without, if we believe in a missionary and creator God, we will be looking for how he has preceded us, and where the people of peace are. Where there is an established church, it is often easy to see its shortcomings, and be tempted to ‘fix’ them. Yet, whatever work is still to be done, it is the Holy Spirit’s work, in his time and in his ways, not ours. And so we must seek to slow down and delay judgement, to ask whether there’s another angle on the thing that seems so corrupt or superfluous or shallow or wizened.

Second, I choose to communicate God’s work apart from me to my supporters even when fundraising. I don’t want our co-workers or other Christians in Tanzania to be invisible when we speak to our Australian partners. There’s more money in sounding like we’re the answer to the Tanzanian church’s problems. And I don’t want to give the impression that we’re wasting people’s money by being here. But I want to communicate that we are one part of a puzzle. If we are to honour God’s people here – to honour God, really – we must acknowledge the whole body, not just the foot or the lips or the elbow that we happen to be.

Elijah ends up looking ignorant or naive at best, and foolish and self-important at worst. None of those seem like good options to me. But I’m not only concerned for my own integrity or reputation. And I’m not only concerned about being fair to those who have come before me and continue to strive in faithfulness. I’m concerned for the glory of God. Let me not be the one who obscures his work, or fails to report on it!

 

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Tamie Davis is an Aussie who lives with her husband and two sons in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. They partner with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students and blog at meetjesusatuni.com

When Missionaries Think They Know Everything

A few years ago, a video started making its way around my Facebook feed–shared by lots foreigners who live in my part of Africa.  The video showed two African men shoveling sand.  There was a very large pile of sand to their left.  The two men were shoveling the sand into a wheelbarrow, filling it up, and then dumping it…two feet away.

The person filming this video obviously thought the men were complete idiots.  “Watch this!  Wait for it…wait for it…” she gleefully exclaimed.  And when the men dumped out another wheelbarrow of sand just inches away, she could be heard bursting into giggles.

By the time I saw the video, it had over 13 million views and 300,000 shares by people who obviously thought the men’s idiocy was equally hilarious.  I didn’t share it, but I had to admit that it did seem pretty amusing.

That is, I thought it was funny until two African friends set us all straight.  They explained:  While making concrete, in the absence of a cement mixer, a builder will use a wheelbarrow to measure.  One part cement, two parts sand, three parts gravel.  These men were not idiots.  They knew exactly what they were doing.  They were using the resources they had to do something that was actually quite rational.

Oh.

Oops.

I was terribly ashamed.  Not just for myself, but for the millions of foreigners who come to Africa and think that we know everything.  That one little video made me re-evaluate how I view my host country.  It made me wonder how many other times I had the same attitude of condescension about something I knew nothing about.

There was a tag on that video:  #TIA:  “This is Africa.”  This is a common hashtag in my part of the world, but foreigners often turn it into something demeaning.  For example, “Spent all day waiting for my car to be fixed, and then realized they ‘fixed’ the wrong part.  #TIA.”

But let’s step back a minute and take a look at that from a distance.  What is “TIA” communicating in this instance?  That everything always goes wrong in Africa?   That no one knows how to fix anything?  That we should have the expectation that everyone in Africa is an idiot?  What would the mechanic think if he read it?

As Christian missionaries, it’s easy to assume that we are above this kind of behavior.  After all, we’ve been vetted, interviewed, and scrutinized more than most people will be in their lifetime.  We’re supposed to be godly, right?  We’re supposed to love the nations, right?   Missionaries could never be racist….right?

Call it racism, stereotyping, or ethnocentrism, but one thing we need to get really clear is that it dwells in all of our hearts in some form or another.  If we’re really honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we really do think we know what’s best.  Our way of doing things is really the most effective.  Basically, I am better than you.  Or at the very least, my culture is better than yours.

We assume that we could never be that person, yet that’s just the problem.  We ignore the fact that despite the pedestals we have been put on, we actually aren’t saints; that signing on to missionary work didn’t actually get rid of our sin.  We are, by nature, prideful and arrogant.  Insisting that we aren’t just allows it to come out in unintended ways.  The first step to rooting out sin in our lives is by acknowledging that it’s there—in all of us.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that we put on rose-colored glasses and pretend that our frustrations don’t exist.  Inefficiency, foolishness, and downright evil exist in every culture, in various forms.  I’m saying we need to check our attitude towards these things.  Are we holding ourselves above the culture as if we’re better than it, and insisting we have all the answers?  Or are we sitting down in the dust next to our local friends, learning to love the things they love and experience the frustrations they feel within their culture?

Marilyn Gardner writes, “Cultural humility demands self-evaluation and critique, constant effort to understand the view of another before we react.  It requires that we recognize our tendency toward cultural superiority. Cultural humility gives up the role of expert, instead seeing ourselves as students of our host culture.  It puts us on our knees, the best posture possible for learning.”

We need to ask ourselves:

  • Would I make this complaint if I knew a government official would hear it?
  • Would I tell this joke about my host country in front of my local friends?
  • Would I write this Facebook post if I knew the pastor of my local church would see it?

And what about my own kids?  How are my children going to perceive our host country if they absorb my attitude about the government, the police, the mechanic, the drivers on the road?  Are they learning from my words and actions to show grace or to display arrogance?

Even if you think you are just kidding around, be careful.  Obviously, even local people complain about certain things in their country and even make jokes.  But remember that playground rule when you were a kid:  It’s okay for you to tease your little sister, but if your friend does it, then “them’s fighting words.”  Even if your local friends disparage or mock aspects of their own culture, that doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to do it too.  We are guests in our host countries.  Let’s be considerate ones.

Of course, there’s a fine line here.  If I see a Facebook post that says, “Saw a baboon on the back of a motorcycle today. #TIA,” well, that’s fun all around.  No problem there.  But keep in mind that it may take you many years before you know where that line is.  And the longer I’ve lived overseas, the further I back up from that line.  I continue to realize how much I have to learn.  As I understand more and more that I don’t have the answers, the more deeply I appreciate the differences that I originally may have mocked.

In humility, consider others better than yourselves.

Even if it means giving the benefit of the doubt to two guys shoveling sand.

 

Come to the Margins

This is a repost, originally published at She Loves Magazine.

It is a poem, of sorts and during these days in which so many, many people seem to be and feel marginalized, I wanted to revisit it.

Come to the margins, to the railroad track where houses were burned down and women are rebuilding with planks of wood, flattened powdered milk cans, and used clothing.

Come to the clinic and listen to the stories of grandmothers, of when they were nomads, of before the city was a city. Hear the heritage of folk tales and history.

Come to the elementary school and tutor the kids who strain to keep up in a language they don’t quite know yet.

Come to the stadium and watch the athletes train, see how their bare feet skim the track, hear how their teammates cheer and congratulate one another. Raise your voice with theirs.

Come to the market and learn how the local woman plants a garden, find out what she knows about seasons and soil and watering and protecting from hungry goats.

Come to the prison and offer a cold cup of water, a smile, an acknowledgement of the dignity of each person, even those behind bars, made in the image of God.

Come to the bank and discover the entrepreneurial spirit of women’s savings groups and small business plans.

Come to the margins and ask those here to pray for you. You can pray for them too but don’t come with the assumption that you are the only one able to bless.

Come, but don’t come to save. Come to be alongside on a journey. Offer your hand and your own stories of your grandmother, the first college graduate in your family. Your experiences of sports training and team camaraderie, your illnesses and academic struggles. Bring your brokenness, your loneliness, your confusion and doubts.

Come to the margins with your songs and stories, painting and photographs, teaching plans, and financial portfolios. Come with all your creativity and labor and insights and experiences.

Come to the margins bringing your addiction to accumulating stuff, the idolizing of money and appearance. Bring your fear of not measuring up, your envy and greed.

Come to the margins and find joy there, creativity, hard work, companionship, forgiveness, and a great sense of humor. Come and join and see the unique strengths and gifts and, if necessary, with humble wisdom, offer a hand. Receive a hand.

Come to the margins, aware of your own poverty and of how it doesn’t define you and of how it drives you to your knees and makes you desperate for God. Come but don’t use the margins as a place to soothe your conscience.

Come without condescension or preconceived ideas. Come without expecting to see nobility in suffering, expect to see pain and healing and sin and victory. Come with a willingness to look beyond what is lacking. Come, not to find a representative story but a precious individual. Come, not to see a saint or a sinner but a complex, three-dimensional person with gifts and dreams and skills.

Come and hear, and then leave without bearing simple answers or soothing platitudes or generalizations. Come and see, and then go and tell, tell the world there is more to Haiti than rape and earthquakes and orphans, more to Somalia than hostage-taking and al-Shabaab and famine, more to Syria than refugees. Come and taste, and then go and speak in a way that doesn’t leave a flavor of pity but of common humanity.

Come with nothing, if nothing is what you have and when nothing is the best thing you have. Nothing in your hands so they are wide open to receive, and to hold. Or, sometimes, come with a piece of bread and a fish and see what Jesus does with it, for all of us, even for you, even for me, here in the margins.

Come, outside the city gates, where Jesus went. Jesus is here, in the margins. He is there, outside the margins too but sometimes it is easier to see him here. Meet him fresh here, take off your shoes here, find yourself swept up in the glorious and global adventure of hope. Here, in the margins.

What do you find in the margins?

 

White Privilege in Western Missions

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“There’s really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

– Arundhati Roy

*          *          *

I am an Asian American, born and raised in the States, a child of immigrants. Growing up, my faith was deeply influenced by Western Christian thought, but always experienced in the context of immigrant churches. Ethnic identity, far from being ignored and irrelevant to my faith, was recognized and celebrated.

Then I became a missionary.

And my ethnicity that was once recognized and celebrated within the minority church now frequently left me feeling ignored and irrelevant within the predominantly white missions community.

Something is rotten in the state of Western missions when the very communities that are meant to proclaim God’s inclusiveness seem to make people of color feel other and less than.

I’m not talking about outright prejudice. God willing, we have moved beyond mistreatment that is conscious, deliberate, or blatant. But I am talking about subtle ways that people of color are disenfranchised.

There was that time I heard about an all-expense paid retreat for women on the field. Excited about the possibility of a fun and relaxing trip away, I found the promotional video online and eagerly watched it. But my heart sank as the video only featured frame after frame of white women. I knew immediately that this retreat was not designed with me in mind. I was not even on their radar, much less on their screen.

Then there was the time that our missions agency was considering mobilization of internationals. Leaders from around the region gathered together to discuss the pros and cons of such an endeavor. I and other minority members expressed our apprehension of recruiting locals into a primarily white organization, citing concerns about expansionism and assimilation.  I was thankful that we were given a voice in this decision. But I was mistaken. Instead of hearing our reservations and taking time to reflect on the alternatives that we suggested, a task force was immediately formed at the end of that meeting to move ahead with the plan.

And just earlier this year, I discovered that a missions blogger writing under an Asian pseudonym was actually white. Honestly, I felt betrayed. I had been encouraged by the recognition of this Asian blogger, seeing it as a sign of the strides taken within Western missions to listen to the perspectives of people of color; only to have the rug pulled out from underneath me when I learned that the blogger was not a person of color at all.

I think of my father, who has written countless books about missions, is a sought-after speaker for conferences, and has five decades of ministry experience as a missionary, pastor, professor, and mobilizer. Go anywhere in the world and ask any believer with my ethnic background, and they probably know of him. Yet very few white missionaries have ever heard of his name.

It’s experiences like these that have taught me …

We are invisible.

Our perspectives are ignored.

Our voices are unheard.

Instead, we are replaced by those with power and privilege.

Even (and perhaps especially) in missions work, the resources that are used, the ideas that are disseminated, and the methods that are implemented are most likely created, introduced, or advanced by white men.

While their intentions are undoubtedly benevolent, this comes at a cost. When those with white privilege are the only people with influence, people of color inevitability feel stripped of power. When theirs are the only voices we hear, people of color feel unheard.  When there is a lack of representation and diversity within the missions community, people of color feel dismissed.

These seemingly benign acts of commission and omission seem trivial taken on their own, but when experienced day after day, what we hear is “I don’t need you.”  The message we receive is that we are weaker, less honorable, and unpresentable.

“But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:24-26).

As a member of this body, my responsibility is not only to honor others, but to call out dishonor when I see it. I am not only to care for others, but to bring awareness when there is division. I’m not simply to rejoice, but to invite others in when I suffer.

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.

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Grace Lee (a pseudonym) is a California native who is church planting in Asia with her husband and two kids.

My Liberation is Bound Up With Yours

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A lot of people move to Africa on a mission. Some of them classic religious missionaries and others compassionate humanists who feel called to serve, to care, to give.

I came here under that banner, thinking I was going to help to pull people out of the mire of poverty. I came here with dreams of Africa on its feet, of people with dignity and strength. I thought I was here to give something, something that wasn’t here already.

I fell in love early in my journey on this continent. I was drawn in, and I didn’t really know why. I just knew I wanted to be here, wanted to be part of this.

I have lived here in Tanzania for over 3 years now and for close to a decade traveled the countries of East and Southern Africa. Until very recently, I still thought I was here to help.

That was before I read this quote from Lilla Watson. Watson is an indigenous Australian, and when I read her words, something in my soul stirred, like a light switching on.

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

There are times when you read things and it feels as if they punch you in the gut. You breathe in a sharp breath and utter some kind of profanity in your mind. This was one of those moments. I had missed it, missed the point entirely. Missed the connection between my liberation and that of the people I am here to work with. I came to help them. I came with awareness that I was broken myself but not seeing anything that they had to offer me. I was a fool.

I realise now that my liberation is tied up deeply with theirs. I use words like dignity, freedom, and self-reliance to define what I see as the goal of development work and more specifically of the work I do. It is, at its base, about reducing poverty, but I don’t really see that as the bottom line. I want to see people able to stand on their own two feet, to take care of their own, to have the freedom to explore opportunity, creativity, leisure, family, and community.

Ask me what I need most in the world? Ask me what I most crave? To stand on my own two feet, to have the strength to take care of my own, to have the freedom to explore opportunity, creativity, leisure, family and community.

I have been looking in the mirror and failing to see my own reflection. I thought that it was them I saw when I looked, that it was them I needed to help, that it was they who needed saving.

It’s been me all along.

It is so painfully cliché to admit this; the words are coming out of me with a deeply uncomfortable cringe. “I went there to help, but it was me who was helped” is a phrase used so often it has become tired and more than mildly annoying.

But it is common because there is truth in it.

Living here in Tanzania and travelling to different parts of this great continent has offered me olive branches all along the way. It has tried to teach me what I most needed to learn. Looking back I see the same lessons over and over again, and I see myself missing them each time.

Until now, that is. I now realize that my liberation is entirely tied up in theirs. As I see more and more people, especially women, standing on their own two feet and forging a new path for themselves, I am given the courage to do the same. I am equipped by their bravery to step into my own story, to find my own capacity and power to stand in my own truth. I am given the opportunity to find my own dignity again as I let go of the pressure to please others.

I came here to help, to try to serve. But I have been called to shut up and listen, to pay attention, to recognize the incredible privilege of being allowed into the stories that I hear and for God’s sake, to start learning from some of those stories.

We all walk among those we perceive as weak, as in need of help. Sometimes people genuinely do need help and sometimes we are asked to be that support. Other times, we have just focused on the wrong things. We have missed the strength, the courage, the ways in which they have overcome, and we have failed to notice how much we have to learn.

People think Africa is full of poor people who are helpless and broken. The truth is the world is full of broken people, each in our own way. Some of our cultures and countries portray an illusion of progress; some portray an illusion of helplessness. Neither of these portrayals are really true. The truth is somewhere in the middle, in the space in between victory and defeat, where most of us walk, where we encounter each other’s stories.

May we all find the freedom to live in our own dignity, to explore our creativity, to enjoy our leisure and to love our families, our communities, our own and may we all listen to those who are teaching, even if they are not who we expected to learn from.

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photo-shannon-thomsonShannon Thomson is Canadian-born, of Scottish heritage and currently lives in Mwanza, Tanzania. She works for an international development organization focusing on community development. Shannon is married to Amani and they are expecting their first child in November. She is a keeper of chickens and stray puppies, loves yoga and good coffee. She blogs at Musings in Mwanza where she seeks to tell her truth about relationships, family, living overseas and personal wellness.

But I’ve done all these good things . . .

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The question came as Jesus was beginning His last journey to Jerusalem. It came as He was heading toward His most heart-rending task, as He was starting the long descent toward death: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

We all know the story. A young, rich, religious man calls Jesus good and then asks Him how to achieve eternal life. Jesus first scolds him for calling anyone “good” but God. Then, feeling genuine love for the man, Jesus tells him to follow the commandments and proceeds to list several of them.

The man defends himself. “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young,” he says. But Jesus informs him that there is still something he hasn’t done – namely, to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. The man’s face falls when he hears this, and he goes away sad, for he was a very wealthy man.

I’d always glossed over this incident, thinking it might not apply to me. (I’d also neglected to notice until now that it occurred just before Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time.) But this month as I again worked my way through the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, it suddenly struck me: the story of the rich, young ruler is my story.

“I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young” — once upon a time I said those words out loud, too. I’d just been confronted by my own sin, and I was shocked. I remember protesting, “But I’ve spent my whole life trying to follow God!” My statement was just another version of the rich, young man’s statement; it was just another version of pride.

And like the man, my face fell too. When I saw my attitude for what it was — sin — I did an abrupt U-turn. I interpreted my sin as the worst of all sins and became very depressed. My sin wasn’t a sin that could be forgiven, you see. A sin like mine didn’t deserve God’s grace and forgiveness. Where before I had thought I was better than others, I now thought I was worse.

I rolled around in my sorrow and self-pity until a friend gently pointed out that I was exhibiting reverse pride: the kind of pride that says my sins are so bad they can’t be forgiven. I had flipped from the regular old pride of thinking I was a good person to the insidious, upside-down version of pride that said I could never deserve God’s forgiveness.

But my goodness was never good enough anyway, and reverse pride is a sin to repent of, too. So Jesus basically said the same thing to me that He said to the young man: “There is something you still lack.” That something was a humble awareness of grace. Because in the end, Jesus didn’t ask me to give up all my possessions. (Moving to Asia isn’t the same thing.)

What Jesus has asked me to give up is the idea of myself as someone who has done good things. He’s asked me to give up the idea that I’ve followed the commands well. Because I haven’t. And He’s asked me to give up the idea that any sin is beyond His reach, including the prideful belief that I have no (or very small) sins.

As Jesus watched the man in this story walk away, He explained to His disciples how difficult it is for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of heaven. His announcement left the disciples wondering who in the world could be saved – because to a certain extent, we all trust in both riches and our own good works.

But here is where the story gets good, because Jesus told His disciples that “What is impossible for people is possible with God.” And He kept walking toward Jerusalem to make the impossible, possible. He kept walking toward Jerusalem to make the man’s question irrelevant. He kept walking toward Jerusalem to demonstrate His genuine love for us and to give a very un-good humanity the goodness that belongs to God alone.

Whether we’ve done “all these things” since our youth or not.

People are not our Project

As a zealous, young missionary I seemed to make  the same mistake over and over. Now as a veteran, I find the same never-ending truth must remain continually before me.

People are not our projects.

 

We never set out to do this intentionally. Our mistakes are made in ignorance. Our desire is to do good, to help others, and to bring change.

Even with these godly desires, we must remain ever careful to not walk in superiority and arrogance.

The message “I have something to give you” may be true, but must be balanced out with a healthy dose of humility and a learning spirit.

Because the truth is, we all have something to give each other.

Examine these two statements. Although similar, they can create two completely different perspectives.

“I have walked with so and so for this many years.”

and

“We have walked together for this many years.”

The difference is subtle.

If you are working in an area where colonialism has been present, these subtle differences can be interpreted in ways you would never desire.

As we walk with different people in various cultures, humility requires us to be willing to receive and learn from others.

One particular young man and I have now journeyed together for nearly ten years. The other day we went for a meal and he insisted on paying. Even though I consider him a friend and not a project or my ministry, I could feel some push back in my heart.

Must I be in the place of power, being the one who pays? Do I allow myself to receive…or only give?

I received his offer to pay, and we had a wonderful meal together. But in this event I saw  I must still constantly be aware of this subtle form of pride which creeps up; even after all these years.

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Let’s ask ourselves a few questions:

  • Can we receive from those we work with?
  • Do we learn from the culture we are working in, or is our way always better?
  • When is the last time we were taught at a local church service rather than a podcast or blog post from home?
  • Do we feel uncomfortable when we find ourselves on the receiving end of generosity?

I recently heard the story of a friend who was given a rather lavish gift from someone. It is one thing to accept a cup of tea or a meal, but can we receive an extravagant blessing given by someone who hails from culture we serve in?

If people are our friends, and we view them as equal, then we must be willing to receive.

Bishop Desmond Tutu famously says, “We are stronger when we are together.”

This same image is reflected in Scripture speaking of one body with many parts. Different members, yet all essential.

Recently I organized a conference of Bible School leaders from all over the African continent. I was intentional in trying to create an opportunity to learn from each other, not just present one view from the front. We had a beautiful time discussing difficult issues such as finances, tribalism, and injustice we have faced.

We truly were “better together.”

When we do not view people as our projects, but rather see them as equal image bearers of God, remarkable things can happen.

Let’s preach this “gospel” to ourselves each day.

Photo by Eutah Mizushima

Money Gives us Power over People

Last month at A Life Overseas, we discussed the dangerous stories we can tell in order to raise funds.

This requires further consideration if we provide funds, pay national workers, or are just generous in any way. While the debate on this one is hot and heavy, I doubt we can make absolute statements.

“Always and never” are tricky when settings, organizations, and methods are so different around the world.

What I would like to look at is the power money gives us over people.

Even something as simple as “good, ole Godly generosity”; sharing money puts us in the place of power. As foreign workers, we must always be aware of the power we have (real or perceived) over those we work with.

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Here are some things to consider about the power of money:

1. Clogs open and honest conversation. Disagreement or varying opinions might be silenced when a person feels they can’t “bite the hand feeding them.”

2. Puts someone in the receiver position and us as the giver. When possible, I would recommend anonymous giving. Once, I was given a wise suggestion of using an intermediary to deliver the funds. In our case, I used an African who was a peer. This created separation between the giver and receiver which was needed as we worked side by side.

3.Places hurdles in communication. If we offend or hurt someone, it no longer only an issue of confrontation. In many cultures, these conversations with leaders are difficult, but now we have the added obstacle of a being a leader who gives money!

4. Makes us think we have the right to criticize. When giving, it is a small step to feel we have the power to tell people how to use the money. We must guard against criticizing spending habits. There is a place for discipleship and education, but this must come carefully.

I had the biggest fallout of any teaching from a sermon when I spoke about money. I was called a racist who did not want Africans in missions. Ouch!

While painful, these people felt free to express their opinions because I was not personally giving them funds. I never would have seen the delicate nature of the topic if they stayed silent to keep their wallets full.

5. Moves us into a parent / child relationship. Do we prevent people from hearing bad news? “The donor did not give this month”, etc. We can feel the need to protect people from reality to cushion the blow. We cannot take that power, even if we feel it protects. They are not children, but adults.

6.Brings Pride. Being the missionary who gives requires humility. We cannot possibly know all the pressures, demands, and issues built into a culture. We do not always know best.

7.Keeps People in Poverty. If we help people, but only as much as the country’s economics warrant, we may actually pay people less than we should, thereby keeping them in poverty. I’ve seen this happen when NGO’s give people a minimal amount, unintentionally keeping them in poverty.

As you can see there are many issues to consider when money is involved. Money is not evil. The people we reach out to need it.

The real issue is HOW we engage with money. This is something each missionary needs to ask in light of the culture, customs, and situation they find themselves in.

One size does not fit all. But, integrity with finances is timeless.

What is the expression of money with integrity you are called to walk in?

What other resources can you suggest for study in this area?

 

Photo credit: 21 The Coins of the Money Changers via photopin (license)

Afflicted

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Over the years we have tried with patchy success to create a habit of frequently asking ourselves whether the things we are doing make sense and if it seems like ‘God is in it?

 

We hope to avoid getting trapped into routines or habits without truly examining what we’re doing. We desire to be purposeful about the choices we make. It is helpful to examine ourselves to assure that our motivations and attitudes are pure.

 

It is important to step back and look at what stress or fatigue is causing in us and in our reactions to things. If we are driving around and going about our days with an undercurrent of anger or an attitude of superiority toward people we’re here to love and work with then we don’t really belong here. Those of us living here can think of a few crotchety old missionaries that are mean and negative and angry toward this country and all of us can easily become that crotchety old missionary if we’re not careful.

 

In the last several months we’ve had an epiphany of sorts. We’ve discovered that most of us that are here working with “the poor” can and do unwittingly find ourselves in a bit of a distressing position of superiority. It is not a position we knowingly choose nor is it what we want. It just kind of happens when we stop paying attention to our heart attitudes.

 

We don’t know very much, but we do know that Jesus calls us to become incarnate. In order to live that way we need to see ourselves as we really are.

 

We are the poor and needy. We are the afflicted.

 

When I see myself in the women Heartline is serving, when I see my own manipulation and excuses, my own poverty, my own pride  – I am suddenly able to serve and work together with the women with an attitude of humility and grace rather than superiority and judgment. It is the difference between serving from a position of eminence and authority in a top-down sort of way, to serving like Jesus served with a meek ‘power under’ approach.

 

The only way to remain genuinely humble when doing this work is to be perpetually aware that we too are the afflicted ones. There is vulnerability in that, but it is a necessary thing.We are every bit as miserable; our passports and perceived wealth simply mean our misery is better disguised

 

God is not made known in our ability to fix or heal “the poor people”. We are all weak and wounded,after-all.

 

Jesus calls us to stop trusting in our own capacity to do good or make change. If we trust in His ability rather than our own we’ll avoid acting superior. God is made manifest in our ability to recognize that we have nothing to offer apart from Him and that we are every bit as much in need of love, healing, and restoration as the people with whom we work.

 

…Pray for all of us to entirely give up believing in ourselves and our own abilities. Pray for healing, freedom, and restoration for every. single. afflicted. inhabitant of our little island and this big world.

 

Tara Livesay works in Maternal Healthcare in Port au Prince, Haiti

Blog: Livesayhaiti.com    Twitter: @TroyLivesay