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.
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.
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
(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.)