Don’t Call Me “Missionary”
A heavily tattooed woman with short hair and work boots walks down the street confidently as you brush shoulders with her while passing in the opposite direction. “Must be a lesbian,” you think to yourself.
We all categorize people we don’t know. It’s a survival tactic. We need to know how to appropriately socialize with strangers. Despite our potentially good intentions, however, there are two fundamental issues with thinking this woman is a lesbian.
1.) The woman might not be a lesbian.
2.) The woman might indeed be a lesbian, but she is not only a lesbian. Whether you morally affirm her sexual orientation or not, your shortcut labeling is reductionistic, and therefore dehumanizing. I am a straight man, but that is not all I am, nor do I consider this facet of my person as central to my identity as an individual or as part of the human family. Likewise, this woman, despite perhaps being a lesbian, might prefer to describe herself as a mother, a friend, a farmer, a Celine Dion enthusiast, or a Christian.
Surely you’ve felt misunderstood at some point, whether it’s due to your economic class, skin color, musical preferences, faith tradition, inability to physically function in a certain way, or maybe because you lit up a cigarette in public. Often, I feel misunderstood because I have lived in Africa. I say “Africa,” rather than “Uganda,” because most well-meaning American Protestants that I have met look at someone who has been to Uganda, Benin, South Africa, or Eritrea the exact same way. If you’ve ever seen somebody react to the realization that someone has lived in “Africa,” maybe you could also see the kinds of assumptions spelled out in their amazed facial expressions. Here are a few examples of common reactions to the discovery that I have lived in Africa:
– The eyes get wide, eyebrows are raised, and the mouth opens anywhere between 0.5 and 3 inches. This look means that they are shocked I have lived there, and their follow-up question to this paralysis frequently relates to safety or physical well-being. For example, “Well, how could you eat when you were there?” or “Wasn’t it rough over there?”
– The above expression occurs, but with a slight turning of the head toward my direction. This look means that they are very proud of the great thing I have done: living in Africa. Often there is no follow-up question, but rather an appreciative comment, such as, “You must have a heart for the gospel!”
– On some occasions, I will receive a look of utter confusion. This typically occurs after I have already been socializing with someone for a while, and then it comes up in conversation that I have been to Africa. Their responses to this newfound knowledge seem to suggest, “Wait a second – I thought we were just relating to each other really well, but now you drop this piece of news on me?!” Knowing someone that has lived in Africa but can still relate to them like a next-door neighbor is baffling to some people. Sometimes it results in a whole worldview shift.
The experience of feeling the weight of peoples’ assumptions pains me, and I know that none of the hurt is intentional affliction. But it still hurts. Naturally, I don’t like it when people make assumptions about me without getting to know me. I don’t feel unique in this way; I’m sure you feel it too.
For some folks, all it takes is for me to mention that I have been to Africa and the automatic assumption is that I am a missionary. Others know I have affiliations with churches, community-based non-profits, and activist groups, so they feel even more confident in calling me a missionary. After all, I am a young American guy who tries to make the world a better place, so why shouldn’t they call me that?
Well, I don’t identify as a missionary for several reasons:
1.) I was born and raised in Pennsylvania. When I moved to Harrisburg to live with and serve the poor, nobody praised me for it. Nobody gave me any kind of pious title, and I didn’t campaign at any churches for financial support. Moreover, I invited faith groups from outside the city to come into the city. Very few did, despite the low expenses and geographic proximity. Many of them prefer organizing complicated fundraising events to send their youth to spend a week in fancy hotels in Africa (or more popular these days, Haiti). No one would give them the religious thumbs-up if they developed a deep, long friendship with one of their neighbors living on their own local streets. But going to Africa for a week…yeah, that’s great.
2.) Uganda is at least 85% Christian. America is…not at least 85% Christian. Missionaries are associated with evangelism. The idea their supporters have is that they will go and save souls so that more people can go to heaven (whether or not this is actually what they are doing). Never mind the fact that our most popular and “effective” forms of evangelism today are violent ones. Never mind the idea that evangelism may not be inherently good. Let’s just say from the perspective of evangelism, statistics show that Uganda doesn’t need any outside help, but America might.
3.) Missionaries have done bad things, and they continue to do bad things. Uganda is no exception to this historically global rule. I’m not saying all missionaries are evil. I’m just saying that, from a utilitarian perspective, they’ve done more harm than good. There is no need for me to make further comments on this; the evidence is well-documented, so just google it if you aren’t convinced. Or go stay in Gulu, Uganda for a few months and watch white people plunder it for all it’s worth. Why would I want to associate myself with that? Why would people who label me “missionary” do so as a pat on the back?
4.) There is a religio-cultural “invisible hierarchy” in Western Christianity. Laypeople, especially women and children, are at the bottom. These people can be good spiritual beings, but only at their level. God can use them mightily, but only for things like making meals for new mothers and defeating neighboring churches at Bible-quizzing. One step up from them are people who generally have more money and are more politically influential in the church. These are your elders, deacons, worship leaders, organists, and the like. Above them are the higher-salary big shots, namely the senior pastor. There is a type of spiritual being that is far above them, however. This is the missionary. The missionary fears nothing. When he returns to his home church to raise funds again, the congregation hopes to have the privilege of touching his cloak or passing through his shadow. The missionary is considered greater than the senior pastor in the “Kingdom of God” because he’s the one who has really given up everything, even his comforts, to do God’s work on a 24/7 basis in some far-off Pagan culture.
I don’t subscribe to this unspoken hierarchy. Why am I considered more spiritual than a mother who has never left her own town? She brought kids into this world and raised them. I didn’t. Being a self-proclaimed missionary is like a get-out-of-jail-free card. Mothers generally don’t want others always looking over their shoulders, telling them how to raise kids. But it happens, and they are criticized even when they do good work. Missionaries, on the other hand, can use general statements to silence any potential supporters critical of their work. All they have to do is open up their Bibles and explain they are saving people from their sins.
5.) After missionaries have wooed their audiences to rake in cash (and prayers!), they go “to the field.” This is where they have a comparatively higher standard of living than they did in their home country. Of course, this is justified because it is seemingly lower than their standard of living back home, or at least the expenses are not as high after the conversion rate. Missionaries spend their nights in the finest hotels, but pride themselves because they are now showering with cold water from a basin, rather than hot water from a showerhead. They eat at the most expensive restaurants and meet other local people that also know English. Long-term missionaries, the ones who are really committed, build a house and hire several local girls to cook their food and do their cleaning (but only the ones who know how to cook dishes friendly to the salt-and-sugar-infused American palette). Very few of them live at the level of their neighbors, unless they live in a quiet suburb where kleptocrats and corporate executives also live. I ask, again: do I want to be associated with this?
6.) By calling me a missionary, you are buying into the narrative that the world needs me, or at least that Uganda needs me. Uganda doesn’t need me. There are Ugandans gracious enough to allow me to exist in their place. There are many who extend gratitude and hospitality because I have relocated to their environment, but Uganda doesn’t need me.
7.) Missionaries don’t get it. They typically aren’t critical thinkers. They aren’t sensitive to the people and realities of their community. They can’t communicate well. They effectively reinforce oppressive political systems. Their religious views are narrow-minded.
8.) A “missionary,” semantically, is “one who has a mission.” This could mean anything. So technically, you aren’t saying anything about someone when you call them a “missionary.” The term is terrible.
“So, Phil,” you ask, “under what conditions will you allow me to call myself a missionary?”
In my (not-so-humble) view, such a question misses the point. We were not created to aspire to become missionaries. We were created to be friends, neighbors, children, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, sisters, and brothers. We were created to be humans.
Despite my combative tone in this article, I am a genuinely likable guy. People tell me I have a nice smile and a cross-generational wit. I deeply understand the worldviews of American Christians because I grew up as one. Make no mistake: I could easily raise the money needed to live as a typical missionary lives in Uganda. But this would be fundamentally un-human of me. It would dehumanize many Ugandans, who would work much harder than me but live a much more subsistence life with no safety net beneath them.
If you think it is a worthy cause to help a man and his Ugandan wife pay off school debts, build a modest home, dig their garden, live among the poor, and participate in civil disobedience, then I’ll gladly accept your financial assistance. You would be supporting a friend, a lover, a student, a teacher, a hard worker, a Christian, a writer, a thinker….a human. But don’t think for a second that you are supporting a missionary. If you are going to pompously proclaim you have supported a missionary, I’d prefer you give your money to the next stranger you see.