Missionary trips. I’ve been on dozens of them.
Like the cold slices of watermelon we sipped after painting an orphanage in Miguel Aleman, Mexico, or the water we poured over our heads after fixing a house for a poor family in Livingston, Alabama, these trips always refresh and regenerate us mind, body and spirit. As a teenager named Alejandro said of the missionary journey that the young people of our church are currently making in Albuquerque, New Mexico, they are a “disruption that I needed” from the complacency of the world that Paul has can -be addressed when he wrote to some of the early Christians, telling them not to sleep, but to “keep alert and clearheaded” (1 Thessalonians 5:6).
Something that always bothered me about these trips, however, was the presumptuous stance the mission sometimes took on the people it was meant to love and serve as a testimony to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
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One summer, on a trip where I was leading middle school students in Arlington, we offered a vacation Bible school for children from the city’s poorer neighborhoods. While we were preparing games, puppet shows and Bible stories for these little ones, a man from the organization who welcomed us gave a pep talk. He said our mission was to get these children to accept Jesus. A sixth-grader in our group raised her hand and asked, “What if they don’t accept Jesus?” The man said to the pre-teen I was caring for, “Well, just tell them the truth. Tell them they will go to hell. It did not sound like what she had learned in Sunday school, not the Gospel message that called her to take this journey in the first place, not like the command Jesus said superseding all others: to love God with all his being, and to love his neighbor as himself.
The answer she got was presented as the truth, but it smacks of colonization. This misguided mission that sees people as “others” in need of correction is what I’ve never liked, and it’s a festering bubble under the wallpaper of our history.This week, the youth of our church learned about the effects of this story on the people they try to love and serve, and how it has shaped their community and their culture.
Through visits to Albuquerque’s Pueblo Indian Cultural Center and the Jemez Pueblo, and presentations by Native speakers, youth learn about the Paleo-Indian cultures present approximately 12,000 years ago in the area, and how the land where they stay was settled by the Tiwa people from around 1250. They learn about the Doctrine of Discovery, how colonizers interpreted Joshua in the Bible to see the indigenous peoples of this land as Canaanites, as “others”, to be conquered and controlled, and how this concept led to the theft of land, genocide and the displacement of millions of people. They learn how many Christian churches now recognize this sordid past and make it their mission to own this history so they can repent of it and do the honest work of reconciliation and healing. They learn the truth, and that truth sets them free with a power of refinement strong enough to set all people free in love and service not to each other but to each other. This is the assignment.
Our group volunteered at HopeWorks, a non-profit organization “that gives hope to homeless people”. The youth sorted through donations, cleaned out a pantry and served meals to over 300 people. They also made flower-shaped cutouts from construction paper and invited people to write their names on them to place on the wall. While they were doing this, I met a man named Jonathan. He told me that he had just acquired a bicycle without a chain when one of our young people, Iris, asked him if he wanted to write his name on a flower. Jonathan said yes and continued talking with Iris and me.
Jonathan shared that he was Native, half Oklahoma Cherokee, half Isleta. Jonathan drew the eagle feathers around the flower. In his culture, there are six directions, each of which is represented by a different animal, with the eagle representing the top. Jonathan told Iris, “I’m a friend first and foremost. I do not judge. We are all equal.
Later that week, Iris wrote a poem reflecting this encounter. She allowed me to share it with you here:
With Jonathan, drops of sweat run down both of us
Five-point eagle feather design
Five-point eagle feather design
But he was “friend” above all else;
“Friend” before anything else
With Jonathan, beads of sweat ran down both of us.
As Jesus asks us not to determine who our neighbors are, but to be a neighbor, Jonathan showed us, missionaries loving and serving him, what matters most: not judging who deserves friendship, but be a friend. This is the assignment.
On his first encounter with the people he called “Indians” in the mistaken belief that he was in India, Columbus wrote: “They are so naive and free in their possessions that no one would believe them without having seen. Of whatever they have, if you ask them, they never say no, rather they invite the person to share it. In 100 years after this encounter, the indigenous population of the Americas had dropped from 100 million people to 10 million, and within 25 years the entire population of Hispaniola had been exterminated. Justified by the Doctrine of Discovery, this remains the most massive genocide in human history.
Imagine what our community and culture would be like if Christopher Columbus and his successors had met the hospitality of indigenous peoples with good mutual neighborliness? Imagine what it would be like to be a follower of Jesus if his followers understood that repentance was about addressing the sins of ethnocentrism and turning away from it by being neighbors who seek and tell the truth? Imagine what Christianity would look like if its mission was to be a friend, to be a neighbor, above all else, working alongside all of God’s children to dismantle any doctrine, system or power that seeks to oppress them?
Missionary work would be very different, the kingdom of God would come more quickly to earth than it is to heaven, and, as the prophet Isaiah states that “the uneven ground will become a level, and the hilly places a plain”, the bubbles in our wallpaper could finally be smoothed out as a testimony to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Reverend Dan De Leon is pastor of Friends Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, College Station.