The M Word

Missionary.  The term sends chills down my spine.  In general, I dislike the term, but when it gets associated to me, I especially despise it.  That doesn’t mean that I hate missionaries.  I have a lot of good friends who proudly welcome the title and I respect the work that they do in this world with a high degree.  I personally, however, would prefer not to be put in that same category that they put themselves in.  And yet, it seems that others have a tendency to put me in that category over and over again.

I don’t know why, exactly.  I have never told anyone that I am a missionary.  I have never filled out the occupation line on any form with that word.  But because of where I come from, or what I am perceived to believe, or the people that happen to support what I do, that is the box that many people choose to put me into.  That mixed with the current situation that I choose to live and work in and people’s limited understanding of what that life and work encompasses, causes for a lot of false definitions to be applied to me.

It’s one of those terms that tends to draw unnecessary lines between Me and You.  The word itself implies that I’m doing something that You couldn’t do, that I have something to give that You need whether You asked for it or not.  For many the word conjures up images of the missionary hopping off the plane with a puffed out chest, hands on hips Superman -style, a cross necklace around his neck, and a cheesy smile on his face that says, “Everything’s going to be okay now, I’m here!”  Now, I know that the reality is that this is not how most missionaries operate these days.  Many missionaries have adapted to changing cultures and thus adapted their methods of serving those they’ve been sent to serve with a sense of humility and an effort towards learning to live in solidarity and communion with those who are culturally different than they are.  But whether it’s a missionary that fits the offensive cliché or one that has found new ways to make a respectable difference in people’s lives, it’s still not me.

Everyone comes into this country with intentions of “mission” “helping” “service” “ministry” “aid” and all of these mindsets keep drawing the dark, insurmountable lines that separate us from each other.  The ones providing the service and the ones being served are clearly not in the same category.  There are always “those less fortunate” and those with “something to offer”.

I try to be about something different   I’m not all about mission, or social justice, or aid or relief, or doing unto the least of these.  I’m just about living my life with other humans.  I happen to live that life in a place where the people around me have had much different opportunities than I have had from birth and face much different struggles from day to day.  As an artist this means that my artwork takes a much different route than most as we all search for beauty to communicate and a space to communicate it in.

I think that this world needs fewer missionaries and more humans living life with other humans.  Fewer humanitarians and more neighbors.  Fewer aid workers and more friends.  I know this seems like a point of view of someone who lives with rose colored glasses glued to his face, that we could ever actually exist in this world without looking so much at our cultural, racial, ethnic, religious, and other barriers.  But let’s be serious, isn’t it the only way we’ll ever make any progress together?  Help does not equal Progress.  Coexistence might equal Progress.  If you’re going to play the missionary game, and you want to help people find the Kingdom of God, that’s never going to happen by me showing/telling/giving you what I perceive you to need.  It’s going to happen by me walking alongside you as we both struggle to discover the beauty within life in this big old messed up world that we find ourselves in.

Some of my supporters in their churches back in the states who sometimes write out checks for mission purposes for me, who’ve heard me speak in their services after their pastors have introduced me as a missionary, like to say that I am one because God has clearly called me to do this work here in Haiti.  That makes their mission monies justifiably used on me.  And maybe it’s true, that God called me here, but I don’t feel that that makes me a missionary.  God called me to be an artist.  And that’s what I’m doing.  I’m just doing it in a place that has historically been a target for missionaries.  I’m an artist who bought a plane ticket but buying a plane ticket doesn’t make me a missionary either.  I don’t think that God put any of us on this earth to be missionaries, humanitarians, or aid workers.  He put people on this earth to be artists, and rappers, and fashion models, and actors, and doctors, and farmers, and pastors, and teachers, and secretaries, and engineers, and businessmen, and whatever else; it’s up to us to discover the environments where we can be those things in a way that makes the most use out of their potential.  For me, as an artist, at this moment, Haiti is that environment.  From there I can use my art to search for souls to invest in.  I think that’s the challenge that we each face no matter what we call ourselves or where we find ourselves geographically.  Discover what we were created to be and then be it, boldly, fearlessly, dangerously, to everyone we meet.  Invest in their souls and just live.  Just live, just be, and quit doing.  That’s my mission.

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3 comments

  1. As a “missionary,” I got a surprise one Sunday soon after I got here. I was asked to introduce myself at the end of Mass. The priest – 83 years old at the time – noted that we are all missionaries. This is very clearly the case in this area of Honduras where the people have a strong sense of mission, “being sent,” to be good news to the poor. (Or as I prefer, good news “with” the poor.)

    The most important part of my mission is accompanying the people, being with them.

    There’s also this quote from John Taylor that I’ve used for many years with groups going on immersions –

    Our first task in approaching
    another people,
    another culture,
    another religion,
    is to take off our shoes,
    for the place we are approaching
    is holy.
    Else we may find ourselves
    treading on another’s dream.
    More seriously still,
    we may forget
    that God was there
    before our arrival.

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