Sunday, February 02, 2020

Musings about Missions and Me

We were nudged toward missions from an early age.

Mom introduced us to missionary biographies such as Through Gates of Splendor and The Triumph of John and Betty Stam. I still remember that glossy black and white picture of the Stams and the story of the baby left in the house while they bravely went to their deaths.

When we didn't appreciate the unusual foods that Mom served and Dad loved, such as corn bread with goat broth, Dad would say, "Oh, but you might be missionaries someday!" In other words, if you can bravely chow down this today, you'll be able to casually pop grubs in your mouth in New Guinea twenty years from now.

Mom had great respect for her friend Bertha who was a missionary in Somalia for many years. Dad taught us Spanish words at the supper table.

Eventually, my sister worked overseas for many years. Paul and I worked with a mission in Canada for eight years, served on the board for a few missions in Mexico, and did short-term work in Thailand and Kenya.

There's no question that missionaries had a revered status in the North American church for hundreds of years. Lucy Maud Montgomery's books mention talks by returned missionaries who were welcomed as honored guests. The Young Pilot magazines of my childhood implied their super-Christian status. In Paul's years at a Wesleyan Methodist college, foreign missionaries would come to speak and urge the students to feel a call to missions.

At some point, however, we got a look behind the honorable aura. The internet and social media facilitated those revelations. We also got to know many missionaries personally and heard their stories. Then there were books and articles by the emotionally abandoned children of missionaries and news stories of the horrific cases of sexual abuse that have come to light in recent years. Finally, there was re-connection with people who were the "natives" we and our fellow missionaries had gone to "reach." We heard stories that made us see the experience through their eyes and sit silent in shock. How were we so blind?

I don't want to be cynical about missions. Sharing the good news of Jesus is a basic tenet of Christianity. God didn't commission a fleet of sky-writing angels to let everyone know. He assumes that people will tell people. If that was God's strategy, we assume it to be the best one.

I've met many missionaries who seem to get it right. They seek anonymity rather than platforms and power, speak the local language like they were born into it, and serve with grace and humility and skill.

This isn't about them.

When I look at our experiences in Canada and also the most notable cases of missions gone wrong, it seems that often things go awry when a system becomes more important than individuals. Not that a system is unnecessary--it makes sense to have mission boards to coordinate, recruit, train, and place missionaries. Imagine each of us, individually, trying to arrange visas, housing, transportation, language learning, donations, and support staff.

Like so many missionaries, we were young and idealistic when we went out into the isolated reaches of northern Ontario to work at a boarding school for high school kids from the northern First Nations reserves. Paul taught science and math classes.

In addition to the culture shock of moving from civilized Oregon to a compound of about 100 people over a hundred miles from the nearest town, I was facing the personal identity shock of being a new mom. Only months before, I had been a college student, involved in all the extracurriculars I could get my hands on--busy, productive, successful, fulfilled.

Now, I was the mom of a fussy, demanding baby who took all my time. While everyone else was busy getting ready for classes to start, I was marching up and down the lane with a crying baby in a stroller. The school needed an English teacher and an advisor for the newspaper. I had to say no. Mothering came first.

I remember feeling troubled, a few months in, about the culture of the school. It seemed we had created a little American Mennonite enclave, and the students were the outsiders. Food, language, dress, rules, consequences, entertainment, concepts of time--"they" were expected to conform to "our" ways.

Some of these things were decided by the leadership of the school, but many were decisions handed down by the mission directors hundreds of miles away. The directors' decisions were increasingly dictated by the churches even farther away who supported them financially. One night, months of frustration resulted in violence as the students attacked structures and staff on campus.

Things got sorted out, sort of, and we were there for a total of two years. Paul enjoyed teaching there, we made lifelong friends, and we both grew up a lot. But I felt that, as a young, inexperienced woman without a specific task on campus, I had no voice to express misgivings or to effect change.

I couldn't budge the system.

An uncomfortable truth is that, in a technical and legal sense at least, we were part of Canada's unspeakably evil residential school system. True, Stirland Lake was probably the last such school, and one of the best. It wasn't an arm of the Catholic or Anglican churches, the students weren't kidnapped off the reserves, and there was no mass grave in the back yard. But Paul and I were part of a school that is on The List, and that is a truth that deserves to be wrestled with.

After that, we spent two years at the mission headquarters, where Paul managed the office, and then we embarked on something very different. A chief on one of the isolated reserves was determined to establish a Christian school in his village. Two other couples had helped to get it going. Could Paul, as an experienced teacher, take over? We said yes.

We lived on that reserve for three years. It was hard, lonely, cold, difficult, inconvenient. . . and wonderful. We were the only family from our mission, so instead of living in a little American Mennonite pod with others like us, we were the anomalies and outsiders, endlessly watched, talked about, and chuckled at. The first year, we had three little children in a tiny little house with no running water. The temperature dropped to 50 below.

But it felt right. We were still under the mission system in terms of finances, emotional support, and transportation, but in most other ways we answered to the chief and the local school board. We did things their way. Promptness wasn't important in that culture, so Paul was flexible with what time the kids showed up at school. Tea was important to them, so Paul fixed a big kettle of Red Rose tea for their morning break. Discipline issues were brought to the parents and the school board and handled according to cultural customs, which were very different from American Mennonite customs.

I stayed home with the children and served countless gallons of hot tea and truckloads of homemade cookies to people who stopped by.

I have no idea if we did any lasting good, and I'm sure we got lots of things wrong. For example, I took pictures of people in the village and let the mission use them in their publications, and I didn't ask the subjects' permission. I regret that. However, I don't think we made heinous blunders that brought trauma or deep loss to anyone, and whatever mistakes we made were ours, not the edict of a faraway supervisor that we felt obligated to obey, despite our misgivings. 

Maybe that's the way to do missions: a system to coordinate and facilitate, but most decisions left to the wisdom and good sense of the people on the ground.

I know there are missionaries who have enough freedom to do lots of damage despite being part of a mission. In the cases I know of, the mission would have had the authority and ability to terminate their service and send them home, but their destructive behavior was allowed to continue for fear that the system itself would be damaged through bad publicity, fewer donations, or work left undone. (Somehow, these rogue missionaries are always the ones who get a lot done without a lot of supervision.)

I still believe in missions as a concept but I'm conflicted about our role in the past and what missioning should look like today. Of course, we look at it from a perspective of years later, knowing all we know now, and of miles away, settled in an American farmhouse.

So I wonder: Is it better to do foreign missions and get some things wrong or to keep farming in Lancaster County or the Willamette Valley and not even make an attempt?

Would it have been better for certain systems or missions never to have begun at all? Do those [in my opinion] poor decisions handed down from high up the ladder, the cultural dominance, the cluelessness, and the times the system took precedence over individual needs and good sense negate any good that was done?

Some of the damage that missions have inflicted is so egregious that absolutely, without a doubt, it would have been better not to ever go anywhere or start anything.

"Meaning well" justifies only so much. After that, "they meant well" or "they had a heart for these people" means nothing.

But then there's "meaning well" with an honest heart. We are called to go and tell, and we go with good intentions. We are fallible beings, sometimes perilously ignorant and naive. We're bound to get some things wrong, but surely if we are walking humbly with God, doing justly and loving mercy, his sovereign kindness will compensate.

Missionaries make lots of decisions in the moment, on the ground, in a foreign culture, with limited information. Those of us observing from 30 years or 10,000 miles away can't fully understand.

However. Surely if we become proud of the system we've built, are too proud of our own culture to learn from another, refuse to adapt or flex, refuse to study methods and history, or use the poverty of another group as an opportunity to exploit and dominate, then we bear the full and terrible responsibility for the results.

In all our online discussions, personal reflections, and refereeing from thirty or a hundred years later, perhaps this quote from Teddy Roosevelt is good to keep in mind, side by side with the caveats in the previous paragraph:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

― Theodore Roosevelt