On Missionaries, D-Cups, and the God Corporation

So, I started this blog, feeling like an “accidental missionary.” Sometimes God calls you. Other times, you just fall ass-backwards into ministry. I’m more of the latter. I never would have thought I would be a missionary. Allow me to explain.

Webster’s defines a missionary like this:

missionary (ˈmi-shə-ˌner-ē) (n.) a person undertaking a mission and especially a religious mission

That’s not how I define the term. Instead, my version of missionary is made up of things I’ve learned from reflecting on random church sermons, watching Saturday afternoon movies, and channel surfing past weepy televangelist. Scott’s New World Dictionary defines it this way.

missionary (ˈmi-shə-ˌner-ē) 1. (n.) A guy with an unkempt beard and a slightly soiled white robe, whose neck is draped with a wooden crucifix the size of a Virginia ham, with an accent that blends the best of british aristocrat and the worst of Jimmy Swaggart. 2. (n.) A guy who spends his days reading Bible stories to children who speak no English, folding hands in prayer, and dunking natives in a peaceful river with as much ease as normal people dunk post-worship fellowship hall donuts in coffee. 3. (n.) A guy who has memorized the Bible word-for-word, physically incapable of having a conversation without weaving in a quoted scripture. 4. (n.) Anyone who dies doing God’s work. The lucky ones die of dysentery fairly late in life, within reach of Immodium. Otherwise, the death will likely involve burning, stoning, dragging behind a horse on rocky terrain, or multiple gunshot wounds during a climatic final scene of an Oscar-nominated film.

I am none of these things.

First off, I don’t even own a robe. Not a bath robe. Not a choir robe. Not even a mumu. My theory is this: If the only thing standing between a stranger’s gaze and my “man parts” is the speed and direction of the wind, then such a garment does not belong in my closet.

As for the beard, at 36 years old, I still get carded at establishments that sell “Satan’s juice.” My baby face is incapable of growing any fur. I once tried, and the results were so spotty, it looked like someone had sprayed Round-Up on my cheeks.

And the cross? I’m just not a jewelry guy. Any more than a wrist watch and I start to feel like Flavor-Flav.

Dunking? I grew up Catholic, so my improvised attempts at full immersion baptism would probably look more like a game of Marco-Polo gone bad.

The Bible? Before our time in Guatemala, I haden’t memorized a single scripture in the Good Book. In fact, in an attempt to deepen our faith, Gabby and I embarked on a daily devotional diet. On day three, the reading was from the book of Amos. We both looked at each other and said “There’s a book of Amos in the Bible? Who knew?” Interestingly enough, we also learned that there is a book of Joel, named after one of my best friends, a book of Esther, named for my neighbor’s aunt, and the book of Habakkuk. Sorry, I don’t know a Habbakuk. But I have met a woman named Velveeta. She manages a convenience store outside of Memphis. But, I digress.

Now that I’ve been a missionary, I can over-simplfy the concept for you.For those of you who have played either of these roles, or both, I’d love to get your take on this.

There are really two kinds of missionary. You either work for Jesus’ sales department, or you work in Jesus’ customer service department. Jesus sales is all about spreading Christianity to people who don’t know anything about it, or have heard of it but don’t really care much for it. This is done through translating the Bible into native languages, planting new churches where none existed, preaching about Jesus, and saving souls through prayer and encouraging them to sign up to play for Team Jesus.

Jesus customer service is all about finding some spot on the globe where oppression or poverty has made life a less than desirable product, and trying to “fix” the situation. This is done through raising money, raising awareness, advocating for the marginalized in the political system, or getting your hands dirty by building stuff like clean water systems, schools, houses, or composting latrines. While both have their place in the world, my goal was to be the second kind of missionary.

Frankly, I’ve never been too good at sales. I have a real hang-up about it. I feel like it can seem a little pushy and off-putting. So, I tend to soft-peddle it, and don’t close many deals. My commission check from the Good Lord would be pretty slim. In fact, I’d probably be fired. The service side of the Jesus business just sounds more my style.

Because our missionary year was primarily the service variety, we spent considerable time learning about all the weird things that Jesus’ customer service department has done over the years to screw things up.

Take, for example, a group of U.S. missionaries who traveled to a remote village in South America and saw how poverty had negatively affected the entire community. The youth, without money, jobs, or a sense of purpose, were roaming the streets causing trouble, stealing, and committing violent acts. The missionaries thought, “How about a place for the community to gather, where the youth could enjoy sports and other activities to give a sense of purpose and direction? That could make a huge difference.”

So the missionaries returned to the U.S., raised money, and traveled back to South America to build the community center. They sent a team of laborers to build the building and fill it with equipment and supplies. They hosted a grand opening event to celebrate the achievement and hand over the center to the people. The whole village showed up for the party. A year later, the missionaries back in the U.S. received a phone call.

“Your roof is leaking,” the voice said, with heavy accent.

Our roof is leaking?”

“Yes, your community center is leaking,” he repeated. “We thought you should know.”

That’s right. The community center was something the missionaries would have wanted had they been in this impoverished situation. They built it from their perspective. The villagers never actually asked for it. They didn’t have a hand in building it. They were never truly involved in the planning. It didn’t fit in their culture. It was a waste. Like giving your great-grandmother a Bowflex for Christmas.

And there are loads of other stories just like that one. Missionaries designed an elaborate microloan program for impoverished women in Central America to buy and raise rabbits to sell and to feed their families. Fantastic idea. Cheap project. Rabbits multiply like, well… rabbits! Lots of food. Lots of money. The problem?

They don’t eat rabbit.

The project was about as successful as a McBunny value meal promotion at the Golden Arches.

Or there were the missionaries who distributed brassieres to tribeswomen in Africa for comfort and prudence. The Bible says “Clothe the naked,” right?

They returned to the village a year later and find the men wearing D-Cups around their waists.

“Thanks for the wonderful pockets!” they said. “Now we can easily carry our hunting supplies on our hips.”

Note to self: Native rhymes with creative.

So our a lot of our missionary prep was chock-full of learning about cultural awareness, understanding poverty, and understanding ourselves and our American biases and values. It was both fascinating and humbling. Though the learning was intense, those who were shepherding us through the program admitted that it wasn’t really enough to prepare us for the “real world” of missionary life. That would take time. We would learn to be “missionaries of presence.” So what the heck does that mean?

It goes a little something like this. First off, God is everywhere. To say you are bringing Him to a distant land is like saying you’re bringing oxygen to the air. Whether you’re in Jesus sales or Jesus service, your product has already arrived at the destination long ago.

Our job is just to be present with people, and meet with them one-on-one. Sharing the God that lives in all of us. It is through this connection that we can truly transform. Whether that be in helping facilitate a real relationship with God, or serving others to fulfill a genuine need.

So, what do you make of all that? I’d love to get your take.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “On Missionaries, D-Cups, and the God Corporation

  1. Carolyn Thalman

    Amen!!! How long it takes for some of us to learn that….like the church in Mexico that we heard about that had been painted 4 times in one summer….because that’s what mission trips do….

  2. I had heard people talk about “coming alongside” someone to help them, but I really did not get what they meant until I worked at our church’s mission for the homeless there for a while.
    I have started to learn that the act of genuinely showing compassion to people, vs. giving them what I would like to give them so I will feel good, is a challenge and an art.

    For me, it can get really awkward, as the way they reach out is not always the way I am comfortable. It is many times not convenient, pleasant, or interesting for me to help them in the way that they need to be helped. Sometimes I am sure I am not helping anyone in any meaningful way.

    I have learned that what I want for them is irrelevant. They have their own issues, and those are likely not going away. In some cases they don’t want them to go away. My challenge is to show them God’s love where they are right now

    I also am learning that the simple act of getting to know someone can have an impact on their lives. Sometimes, not often, they will see Jesus in what I do. God works in very weird ways

  3. Well said, Tom. God does, indeed, work in weird ways. Sometimes I I see the weirdness as “wrong”, only to learn later that there was a bigger message in it all. Often times, it’s that he uses my selfishness for good. Peace!

  4. Susan Rothfuss

    Beautifully written and meaningful beyond measure. I especially loved the part about Jesus already “being there.” The source of love is endless and always present – we just need to remember to take from it and share it. That’s all. Your understanding and work is a blessing,

  5. Thanks for “sharing the love”, Susan. It’s about the genuine connection, right? Peace!

  6. I love the “Jesus’ sales department” vs. “Jesus’ customer service department”!

    Saying that you’re going to “bring God” to another part of the world is such a very arrogant mindset. You’re so right–God is already there.

  7. thenybergs

    Well put! My wife and I are missionaries in Bolivia, and I actually just had a conversation this afternoon with some others about the book “When Helping Hurts.” It’s a very good book about when the “customer service” fails, and what we can do to make it better, both for short term teams and longer-term community development.

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