Reimagining Mission Work
Mission trips. In 25 years of ministry serving Baptist and United Church of Christ congregations, I’ve been on dozens of them. Like the cold watermelon slices we slurped after painting an orphanage in Miguel Aleman, Mexico, or the water we poured over our heads under a tree’s shade while taking a break from repairing a home for an impoverished family in Livingston, Alabama, those trips always refresh and replenish us in mind, body, and spirit. As one of our teenagers, Alejandro, said about the mission trip our church’s 15 youth and six adults were on in Albuquerque, New Mexico, last week, they are a “disturbance I needed” from the complacency of the world that Paul was perhaps referring to when he wrote to some of the earliest followers of Jesus, telling them to not sleep, but to “stay alert and clearheaded” (1 Thessalonians 5:6).
Something that always rubbed me wrong about some of those trips, though, was the presumptuous position the mission would take over the people it was supposed to love and serve in witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
A trip I led middle schoolers on in Arlington, Texas, one summer had us providing vacation Bible school to children living in poorer areas of the city. As we were preparing to bring games, puppet shows, Bible stories, and art activities to those little ones, a man from the organization hosting our trip gave us a pep talk. When he said that our mission was to get those kids to accept Jesus into their hearts, a 6th grader in our group raised her hand and asked, “What if they don’t accept Jesus?” The man said to the preteen in my care, “Well, you just tell ‘em the truth. Tell ‘em they’re going to go to hell.” That didn’t sound like what she had learned in Sunday school, not like the Gospel message that had raised her, blessed her, and called her to be on that trip in the first place, not like the command Jesus taught her was the most important, superseding all others: to love God with her entire being, and to love her neighbor as she loves herself.
The fear-based answer she got from the speaker was presented as truth—as certainty—but it smacked of colonization. It’s that misguided mission that sees people as “others” in need of correction and presented as salvation that never sat well with me. And it’s a festering bubble under the wallpaper of our country’s history.
Last week, our church’s youth learned about how that history has affected the people they were trying to love and serve, and how it has shaped their community and culture. Through visits to Albuquerque’s Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and the Jemez Pueblo, from presentations given by Indigenous speakers, and with a daily posture of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8), the youth learned about the Paleo-Indian cultures present up to 12,000 years ago in the area they visited, and how the land where they were staying was settled by the Tiwa people beginning around 1250. They learned about the Doctrine of Discovery, how colonizers referred to Joshua in the Bible and interpreted it to see the Indigenous people of that land as Canaanites, as “others,” to be conquered and controlled, and how that concept led to land theft, genocide, and the displacement of millions. They learned about how several Christian churches are now recognizing this sordid past and making it their mission to own that history so that we can repent from it and be about the honest work of reconciliation and healing. They spent a week learning the truth, and, in the spirit of Jesus’ words in John 8:32, that truth set them free with a refining power strong enough to set all of us free in love and service not just toward but alongside one another. That is the mission.
Last Wednesday found our group volunteering at HopeWorks, a non-profit “providing hope to those experiencing homelessness.” The youth sorted clothing donations, cleaned a walk-in pantry, and served breakfast and lunch to over 300 people. They also made flower-shaped cutouts from construction paper and asked people to write their name on them to place on the wall as a vibrant display of who our neighbors are.
While they did this, I struck up a conversation with a man named Jonathan. He was telling me about how he had just gotten a bike that needed a chain when one of our youth, Iris, asked him if he would like to write his name on a flower. Jonathan said yes, and kept talking to Iris and me. Initially, this made Iris nervous, but Jonathan’s kind demeanor put her at ease, ushering in mutual hospitality.
Jonathan shared that he was Indigenous, half Oklahoma Cherokee, half Isleta. Around his name on the flower, Jonathan drew the feathers of an eagle. In his culture there are six directions: north, south, east, west, down, and up, each of which is represented by a different animal, the eagle representing up. Sharing more about his background, Jonathan told Iris, “I’m a friend before anything else. I don’t judge. We’re all equal.”
Later in the week, Iris wrote a poem reflecting on that encounter and read it to our group. She granted me permission to share it with you here:
With Jonathan, beads of sweat dripping down both of us
Five-point Eagle-feather design
Broken bike chain
I was anxious
Five-point Eagle-feather design
I was anxious
But he was “friend” before anything else;
before his art,
his broken bike chain.
“Friend” before anything else
With Jonathan, beads of sweat dripping down both of us.
As Jesus instructs us to not be anxious in determining who our neighbor is, but to focus on being a neighbor, Jonathan showed us, the missioners loving and serving him, what matters most: to not judge who is worthy of our friendship, but to be a friend. That is the mission.
Upon first encountering the people he called “Indians” by incorrectly believing he had landed in India, Christopher Columbus wrote, “They are so artless and free with their possessions that no one would believe it without having seen it. Of anything they have, if you ask them for it they never say no, rather they invite the person to share it.” Within 100 years of that encounter, the Indigenous population in the Americas had shrunk from 100 million people to ten million, and within 25 years the entire population of Hispaniola had been exterminated. This remains the most massive genocide in human history, and it was justified by the Doctrine of Discovery.
Imagine what our country, what our community and culture, would be like if Columbus and those after him had met the hospitality of Indigenous people with mutual neighborliness? Imagine what being a follower of Jesus would look like if his followers understood repentance to be about addressing past sins of ethnocentrism and turning away from it by being neighbors who seek and speak truth that honors and authenticates our faith? Imagine what being a Christian would look like if Christianity’s mission were to be a friend, to be a neighbor, before anything else, and to work alongside all of God’s children to dismantle any doctrine, system, or power that sought to oppress them? Mission work would look a lot different than it has in the past, God’s kingdom would come more quickly on earth as it is in heaven, and, like the Prophet Isaiah pronounces that “the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain,” the bubbles in our wallpaper might finally be smoothed out to the glory of God in witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.