A Bit More On The Whole "Missionary" Thing

    I have to confess I’ve been a little off my writing game since my move. Or, maybe it’s not so much that I’m “off” as it is that my energies have been splintered. I wanted to get something up on this blog as soon as I could once we were all settled into the new digs, but I also had a strong sense of inspiration for a different project that I didn’t want to let fade. As such--or maybe just because I’m a bit rusty--my efforts were divided and I’m afraid my last post was not the greatest.

    Looking back through the list I have going of topics I’d like to address here, I realized that I did not get into the details of the missionary experiences to which I alluded the other day. I got all caught up in the story about the book title--a story I happen to like, but still. On top of that, I think I was kind of scared. Maybe you wouldn’t know it from the level of specificity I get into on this site, but there’s still a lot I hold back on. I don’t talk much about how growing up Christian affected my views on and experience of sexuality, and I am often wary of narrating the actions of others because I don’t want to seem mean.

    But someday I’ll have to get into the gory details, right? At some point, the behind-the-scenes stuff I witnessed needs to be dragged out on stage, both for my own processing and for the sake of the others reading this who think they’re the only ones. Trust me, you--whoever you are--you are not going crazy. The church is the thing that’s crazy, and I love you. So shall we delve?

    A fairly common entry-point into the missionary experience for adolescent evangelicals in the continental United States is what’s referred to as “the Mexico trip”. Multiple church-based charities exist in and around Mexico (especially around the border regions) that partner with U.S. churches to bring groups of students of all ages into the country to “help”. The Mexican communities they are “helping” tend to live in poverty, and often have relatively few physical and financial resources at their disposal. The student groups that enter these spaces usually bring with them materials for doing physical repairs around churches and homes, as well as supplies for putting on a “Vacation Bible School” (basically, a church-based after-school day camp) for the local children for a week. The students also have the opportunity to get a glimpse of a different culture, practice another language, and get to know people who might have very different life experiences than they have had.

    I did a few Mexico trips--a couple times as a student, and a couple times as an adult volunteer. They were genuinely fulfilling experiences, but...not really because of the good I did, if indeed I did do any good. They were fulfilling because they involve a lot of creativity, teamwork, and commitment, and you bond tightly with your fellow missionaries in the often months-long process of preparation. It is also, indeed, very enriching to be a guest in another place and culture, and to practice communicating with people whose language is different than one’s own. They were exciting trips and I grew from them. Were they really about service, though?

    You might have noticed I put the word “help” in quotation marks a couple of paragraphs up. That’s because I feel strongly that it’s important to think long and hard, with a very open mind, about exactly how helpful endeavors like Mexico trips truly are. For the people the Christians are going to “serve”, I mean. I once heard a pastor from Mexico being interviewed--I can’t quite remember in which forum--on this topic, and he said that church groups coming down from the U.S. to help his community are very nice and always welcome, but honestly his congregation could do so more with the sum total of the money that was spent on prep and travel and food for the guests and so on. That really struck me. I hadn’t thought about that before. Then I started to think about what other burdens these missionary groups might be placing on the people they aim to serve. There’s the work of translation, for instance, and reminding a bunch of high schoolers of basic Spanish--I’m not sure if any of the locals who host all the church kids actually find that tiresome, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Also, because it is adolescents who have been brought down to do a lot of the work, it is by definition amateur. This is not to say that adolescents don’t do great work (I love adolescents; that’s why I teach them) but it is to bring into question the quality of the gift that is being given, and what that says about what we think--consciously or not--certain groups of people deserve or are entitled to.

    I believe--sincerely believe--that 99% of the people who participate in Mexico trips and similar excursions have every intention of doing a good thing. But, the church in the United States (if not elsewhere) needs to reckon with the extent to which their idea of “helping” is based in colonialism, is self-centered, is not making a new world (a very Christ-like aim) but instead perpetuating the systems and hierarchies that keep a certain segment of the population in need of help in the first place. Are there different ways of doing things? Are there methods that are vastly less focused on what those in service can put into and get out of the mission, and are truly, truly all about sharing resources in the most helpful and sustainable way? Wouldn’t it be great if there came a year when missionary journeys to Mexico were no longer needed? Shouldn’t churches be striving for that--and are they? Are they hoping for the tradition to disappear because it is no longer needed?

    That was only the beginning for me, though, those Mexico trips. Later, after I was done with college, I became even more serious about my missional duties: I joined an actual missionary “school”. Yes, more quotation marks, and these shouldn’t be too hard to figure out. There’s this organization that’s quite well known in Evangelical circles, called Youth With A Mission--YWAM (pronounced why-wam) for short. They have “bases” all over the world. Young people from a variety of countries apply to go to one of these bases for “discipleship training school”. If they are accepted and can raise the money, they spend an average of three months on the base of their choice, taking classes in theology and evangelism and all kinds of Christian stuff. Simultaneously, they do community service for local churches and organizations, and also prepare to set out for somewhere else in the world for the following 2-3 months, where they will spread the gospel and do further service work.

    I did YWAM in New Zealand. To be completely honest--and I know I am not the only one for whom this is true--a huge part of what intrigued me about the program was getting to travel to a fascinating and beautiful new place. I was also missing being in school, so the intellectual stimulation was another appeal. And finally, of course, I was stoked on Jesus back then, and though I never much liked doing actual evangelism myself, I was always down to do some practical service work if there was a need to be met. It was a fascinating experience. I really where we lived, which was basically on a farm, as well as learning about New Zealand and especially about Maori history and culture. Going to classes just about every day was comforting, too, even if I didn’t jive with exactly everything we were being taught.

    About those teachings. As I look back from my new semi-secular perspective (I can never totally divest myself from my Christian upbringing, I’m afraid), I am kind of shocked at the content that was being shared with us and the manner in which we were compelled to buy into it all. It was, in my updated opinion, some serious attempt at brainwashing. Now, I should clarify here that by “brainwashing” I don’t mean it in the sense of a cult leader who makes a bunch of crap up and teaches it to vulnerable souls as capital-T Truth even though he knows he made up because he's a sociopath who just wants to be in control. I believe--or I hope, otherwise it’s pretty messed up--that I was being taught by folks who had sincere conviction about what they were saying. I guess what I mean is, regardless of intention, there was some crazy shit that they said and asked us to do there--things that any non-churched person would probably laugh out loud at--and I’ve only recently realized how crazy it actually was.

    There was one class on spiritual warfare. I’ve written a bit about the evangelical idea of spiritual warfare before, but this place (YWAM) took it to a whole new level of intensity. We spent a week learning about the literal--if unseen--battles that were taking place between angels and demons and God and Satan, all around us, all the time. I mean, this guy who was teaching us was serious. We learned about strategies for participating in the war, for dealing with invisible demons who were perpetually trying to impede our efforts to preach God’s word, and maybe even physically harm us. Is this Hollywood stuff or what? No wonder I’m still scared of ghosts at 35 years old. But they take this as a grave situation, some evangelicals. And at this “school”, it was not a metaphor. Even if it were a metaphor, what does that say about that brand of Christianity, that warfare, that military-style combat, is their analogy for how they live in and approach the world. It kind of gives me the creeps.

    Another experience from my time in YWAM that I am now somewhat troubled by was this particular gathering we had one evening that was basically a group confession session. All of the students and leaders got together in the meeting hall and formed a big circle on the floor.  When we first walked in the room there was an aura of mystery and wave of curious whispers, but the idea was fairly simple once it was explained: if you are willing to stand in front of the group and confess a sin you’d never confessed to anyone before, one that’s weighing heavily on your soul, then you get it off your chest and make space for God to do more healing in your life. Also, it’s a bit of a trust exercise, what with about 30 people you barely know watching and listening to you as you do it. Technically, divulging was optional, but peer pressure kicks in pretty quick when you've got a large group in a silent room and nowhere to go but to bed.

    Some really dark stuff came out in this...activity. Stuff that I now realize should probably be dealt with by therapists, not church laypeople. Not all of what people said was heavy, but the event itself was. It was manipulative, actually, and again, really careless in terms of bringing things to the surface of one’s (and others’) mind that certainly require more attention than a ten second tell-all. It also created a strange--perhaps false--intimacy in the group that was not based on organically developed relationships but on an I would say inappropriate spewing forth of very personal things. And of course this--and the rest of the “school”--took place in a location that was separated from the general public and any diversity of thought or influence. Maybe it was kind of cult-ish.

    What a weird time I had as an Evangelical Christian, eh? Maybe it makes sense that I don’t want to talk about the missionary parts of my story much. They’re so bizarre and complex, as are my reasons for participating in them. But as I’m writing I’m realizing that I can sense that a lot of the stuff that happened within the church groups was meant, implicitly, to stay within the church groups. The preaching and the serving is public work, but a lot of the other stuff stays hidden--at least in my YWAM experience. In one reasoning this keeps it special; in another, it keeps it from criticism. And in one reasoning, criticism is Satan and his demons trying to hinder the work of the Lord; in another, it’s simply people calling out things they see that might be harmful or wrong. If there are harmful or wrong things going on, I want to be free to expose them because I am under no obligation to hide information anymore. And if there aren’t, then the church has nothing to hide. I guess I’ll just keep writing.