Let’s first define exactly what Christian missions is, shall we? It is a Christian faith based assignment and vocation, typically to do with travel, but doesn’t have to be, where the main goal for the individual is the spread the Gospel, or the message of Christianity that Jesus calls others to spread in the Bible. It can be done through charitable efforts, through the arts, in medicine, a lot of things.
Bear with me, there is beauty in this. Using missions as an opportunity to engage with people of different cultural, religious, and racial backgrounds can be an empowering way to end cross cultural conflict, and engage and empathize with those different from us. However, when you look at the history of missions work, that has definitely not been the main case.
You have European people traveling to North America with the mentality to try to fix Native American “heathen” culture. Their way is the right way. They are saying to the Native Americans they have harmed, No, I won’t get to know your culture. No, I will not translate the Bible in a way you can best understand, because the white and English understanding of Christianity matters the most. Thus, beginning what one should understand as Christian privilege. Yes, religion plays a role in privileges just as much as white privilege and male privilege.
In the United States, Christians have more houses of worship available to them. Christians do not have to worry about dietary matters when eating out, because Christians have little to no dietary restrictions. Even the symbols in our government and our currency (e.g. the eagle in one of its talons holding an olive branch, signifying peace, like the dove after the flood of the world in the Bible) shows how Christianity tends to be more favored than other faith or non-faith backgrounds.
With this privilege, one would see Christianity as a “white thing.” Who do you see people go on missions trips the most? White people. Who is the group of people spoon fed the belief that they are “fixing” a group of people by having them know Jesus? White people.
I identify as a Christian. Particularly, a Christian woman of color. I was turned off from missions for a really long time.
Growing up, it was unsettling to see advertisements from missions organizations where a white man or a white woman is holding a crying African or South American child in their arms. I don’t like that the people at church I interacted with who said that they wanted to pursue missions to save people rather than serve people. Back at it again with the White Savior complex, aren’t we? With this type of mentality, and this type of privileged mindset, NO ONE is going to want to know Christianity. In fact, for those who already identify as Christian, you’re not going to want to be as open as others about your faith. I know I wasn’t, for a little while.
Because I kept telling myself, “Oh, I’m not like those Christians.” “I’m actually open-minded,” sure, it made me appear as someone better to hang out with, but it didn’t help me from seeing the amount of privileges I still have in my faith background. It didn’t make me any better than other white Christians out there.
It wasn’t until I attended a conference under the Interfaith Youth Core where I saw how Christians must acknowledge their privilege in order to truly get along with others, and engage with others of hyphenated identities well. Moreover, just because we have to acknowledge that, it doesn’t mean we have to love our faith identity any less. It doesn’t mean that we have to be ashamed of the culture that comes from our faith, such as church, and such as missions, even. However, it also doesn’t mean that we aren’t required to change what has been wrong with the way we do missions, as Christians.
There are programs out there now in bible translation that train Christians to translate the Bible in another country’s cultural lens, to do away with the ethnocentric view of Christianity we’ve had for so long. We have conferences like Urbana that stress the need to incorporate social justice efforts into missions work, especially when it comes to acknowledging how the Church has hurt people of color in the past.
I am interning at a Christian missions non-profit this summer that stresses cross cultural work. We are required to study and engage in cross cultural conflict, we are required to study and engage other world religions, and we are required to have effective outreach to a diverse range of people; the efforts’ focus has mainly been refugees for the past couple of years. Their social media displays the beauty of one’s culture rather than exploit them. When the communications director told us on our second day how they will not be posting pictures of crying African children, I was ecstatic. This was a first!
This is not to say that missions is now perfect. No way. We still have individual missionaries and even organizations who use their privilege to say “Oh, God’s not calling us to that right now,” when it comes to reaching out to minorities well. People of color are still not heavily recruited as white people on missions trips. And if recruitment isn’t the problem, not enough people of color are applying for missions trips or missions organizations’ staff positions.
Although my current internship has a diverse international team, at the U.S. site I work in currently, I am the only person with African American descent, one of the only two people who are non-white.
If we don’t want history to continue repeating itself, and if people truly want others to “know Christ,” as they say, the vision of missions has to do a lot better. There’s still a part of me the still squirms every time I hear the word “missions,” and that is not a good thing.