It’s a normal day on Facebook : presidential commentary, comical videos, cute overloads and friends’ baby uploads. Then, almost as if it were radiating straight to your pupils, you see that one friend’s updated profile picture in a field with a slew of African children holding American keepsakes. (Let’s call this friend ‘the missionary’).
You stop and recall the winter email blast requesting donations. Your mind goes one of two directions:
- You get a good sentimental feeling about his willingness to help others (a solid non-judgmental reaction), or
- You are compelled to question his motives behind the profile pic (a thoughtfully probing reaction – which I also appreciate)
Find me a 20-something middle-to-upper class American who hasn’t experienced this and I’ll find you an American politician who doesn’t want votes.
On a serious note – let’s first play devil’s advocate and entertain option b. Undoubtedly, the “industry” of taking American 20-somethings to Africa is a big one – and far too often meant to serve well-meaning, but misguided interests of the volunteers (‘the missionaries’). Gifting American gadgets to African children and posting a profile pic drives the perception-oriented problem with missions from the modern West because the count of individuals holding such a profile pic far outnumber those that practically seek social justice in their local day-to-day lives (upon return from a mission trip).
But on the other (option a) hand, this friend could be turning over a new leaf following a life-altering event – profile pic serving as evidence. For all we know, the mission re-directed our friend from a self-serving, ‘holier-than-thou’ orientation towards a one more genuinely contemplative and grateful for the mission opportunity.
However, I propose we ‘step outside the box’ with a third reaction: one that doesn’t imply the assigning of these roles:
- The missionary as benefactor and/or giver
- The subject as beneficiary and/or receiver
Within these presumed roles lies the first point at which we have lost our way in missions. This subtle implication (assumed by above reactions a and b) is where missions have become disconnected from their core and roots because it naturally (and subconsciously) follows that those roles restrict how much giving can be done in the mission experience – who, what, how and in what capacity. Primarily, it hinders the subject from giving and, in turn, the missionary from receiving like they should.
To be clear – there still exist some good truths in the way we view, approach and speak of missions. But the underlying principles that should guide our hearts to missions have become blurred; and because I’m a huge proponent for them, it saddens me. I want missions to serve the purpose for which they are divinely intended. I hope to initiate a small step towards re-invigorating missions by clarifying three misconceptions which, if rightly understood and acted upon, have the potential to re-orient missions for the missionary, and hopefully, beyond.
Misconception #1: “I’m going to help those less fortunate than me.”
‘Those less fortunate’ are only less fortunate in a material capacity. Have you ever offered food to a homeless person only to be declined because they ‘have enough for today’? It’s a confounding response to someone with a steady job, a home and a pantry – but maybe not for the reasons that immediately come to mind. Sure, they don’t have a means for the following day’s meals – and to us that is beyond scary. So to decline food at any moment while homeless (even for the following day) would seem irrational – because they are essentially relying on daily miracles to survive.
But that’s where our notion of the miracle at hand is misguided. Impoverished people carefully and consistently care for their neighbors. They nearly always direct missionaries to others in need before taking for themselves. When the poor decline food, they are actually offering a gift to the missionary – a beautiful gift of abandon before their creator in the form of trusting divine intervention for their daily well-being. God rewards this trust and abandon with a spiritual and emotional peace that most well-to-do people never experience because of their incessant grasp at controlling their own means and well-being (and conversely, an inability to fully rely upon a creator for every need). Truthfully, the missionary is the one benefiting from the interaction with someone who is more fortunate emotionally and spiritually, in most cases. And this is the actual meaning of the often misunderstood words of Jesus of Nazareth in the Bible:
“For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him” (Matthew 13:12)
He wasn’t focusing on tangible materials as he spoke this – but rather on the paradox of releasing control of providing for our own needs and relying on God to offer them as he sees fit. He implores us to give away our lives – to him and to others – because one’s life increases in the measure by which he gives it away. And this truth illuminates how we may truly find life to the fullest.
This misconception also underscores the importance of caring for the mental, emotional and spiritual needs of the subjects. The physical trials of being homeless are nearly always outweighed by the struggle resulting from social excommunication. And attention to these capacities, for both the missionary and the subject, is critical to the true success of the mission.
Misconception #2: “The people I’m going to serve are in so much need.”
I cannot say anything more succinctly or effectively than the Italian religious educator St Angela Merici:
“Reflect that in reality you have a greater need to serve the poor than they have of your service”
I once heard a second hand story that provides beautiful clarity to this idea – and perfectly reset my gaze on the truth. It tells of a girl who took vows to become a nun with the Missionaries of Charity – let’s call her Elizabeth. She was so fortunate as to be placed in Calcutta, India to serve alongside Blessed Mother Teresa.
By all accounts, Calcutta is home to one of the poorest peoples human eyes can ever see. And despite some common portrayals, the Missionaries of Charity’s work is some of the least comfortable imaginable. A large portion of their work is carrying the dying homeless (suffering from countless forms of disease) in from the streets to perish with dignity and receive a relatively proper burial.
After her flight to India, Elizabeth gazed from the cab en route to the Missionaries of Charity residence. She was emotionally stricken by the scale and pure intensity of the poverty, especially coming from a life of relative comfort in the United States. The number of homeless and sick in the streets brought her to tears as the extent of the work laid out before her sunk in. Upon arrival, she quickly dressed in her habit and skipped unpacking her bags, as she felt so compelled to immediately begin her work. Her heart was already drawn to the dramatic needs of Calcutta’s impoverished. But when she was so fortunate as to meet Mother Teresa at that moment, she received a beautiful reality check. With a heartfelt excitement, Elizabeth expressed to Mother Teresa her anxious readiness to serve, in any capacity, those who were in so much need – all the way from cleaning human excrement to carrying the dead from the streets. Mother Teresa looked at her soberly and lovingly and offered her an exhortation similar to the following:
I am so happy that you are here, and have heeded the call to serve. However, you must understand that the poor people of India don’t need you. And God doesn’t need you to help any of his children either. But he has chosen to give you this opportunity to do his will. Please always humbly remember what an honor it is to be here.
The true missionary mindset is one of gratitude ( for the opportunity to serve (much more than for the means they’ve been given). For in reality, the missionary is simply cooperating with God’s plan to love another of his children. And God could help any of his children in any manner he so chooses, but he graciously offers missionaries the chance to participate because it actually benefits them. Therefore, a missionary approaches his or her work with deep humility – a humility derived from the fact that God loves the poor beyond our understanding. And a missionary seeks to love the poor in that same manner – even so far as to have ‘a preference for the poor’ to which we are called (Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium).
Misconception #3: “The suffering they endure is so senseless.”
The deepest of these three misconceptions places me at the front door of one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated concepts in human history: suffering. It can appear, especially in the modern Western world, to be relatively infrequent and without value – a passing struggle to be gritted and endured by the impoverished and the diseased. And recognizing the poor’s physical suffering in the form of starvation, disease and discomfort is a critical first step to understanding its role in the story of humanity.
However, to isolate it to certain persons, times and places is naïve and short sighted. Every human, if willing to truly probe themselves, will find a relative form of suffering in their own lives – whether it be mental, emotional, spiritual, or otherwise. The struggle in how to define self-worth, substance abuse to deal with internal issues, and demons propelled by scarring past events are just a few examples. Further, the argument that these non-visible forms of suffering are more trying than physical suffering is a strong one (for another post). Saint John Paul II says it best in his Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris when he calls suffering “a universal theme that accompanies man at every point on earth; in a certain sense it co-exists with him in the world.”
Suffering, in its omnipresent nature, suddenly demands of us a compassionate and respectful regard – one that prohibits ignoring and enduring for no end purpose. To simply allocate suffering the meaning of a divinely appointed punitive measure as ‘karma’ implies is overly simplistic; the numerous suffering (children) innocent of wrong are too numerous. We owe it more than a sentimental form of pity – rather an attempt at relative understanding.
As it turns out, suffering is often precisely the point of entry for divine goods and virtue: growth in self-discovery, justice, and most importantly, love. As shocking as it seems, suffering very often elicits love that may not have otherwise been expressed, in two ways.
The more visible way lies in suffering’s ability to invoke love amongst humans, in a capacity that we would not be otherwise capable. I can only begin to imagine all the doctors, nurses, mental health professionals and missionaries who have contributed “Good Samaritan” acts of love throughout history – prompted by the incessant suffering of humanity. Undoubtedly, many such acts of love would not be possible without the inevitable and ongoing suffering in the world.
Secondly, suffering makes us more like our creator. I can only imagine a creator’s anguish as it gazes over this world to view where we have fallen. And that creator found, just like a good parent, that downfalls and frustrations can serve as a great way to draw us back to its own heart.
In fact, these two ways also testify to suffering’s contribution toward discovering human dignity, rather than hiding (or even diminishing) it. All persons were created – not to satisfy any type of selfish need of a vain or fickle creator – but rather in and out of infinite love. Thus, human value and dignity are not based on an individual’s welfare, actions or contributions – but rather, purely in one’s existence as an individual and irreplaceable person. And receiving gifts in the form of reliance on the divine and compassionate care from fellow humans actually enable the suffering individual towards recognition of their own dignity in an unexpected way. To clarify, this should not implore anyone, in any capacity, to perpetuate or elongate suffering. However, it does alter our view of and approach to it for the better – to increase the reverence for its subjects throughout the world and across time.
Suffering was inevitable once man turned away from love, instead tending towards selfishness and self-reliance. But in human history’s greatest miracle of self sacrifice, suffering has been appointed with potential for good – for love.
But before I get too caught up in the reason behind it, I have to remember that suffering cannot be approached with a final goal of complete understanding. Understanding is not the end goal of mission work, though it can be a good ‘side effect’, of sorts. Events that appeal to human perception as purely evil are rarely ever such; and likewise with seemingly, purely good events. To judge events and phenomena as good or evil from a singularly human vantage is like judging a 1,000 page book by a single line from a single page. It ignores the beautifully compelling context that gives that line existence in the first place. Rather a true missionary accepts the mystery of suffering with a humble, open and simple heart. He makes no dishonest attempt at explaining the suffering, either to himself or others. He therefore is thankful for the love it provokes – in himself, in those subject to it, and even in its source. And this establishes the connection to the ‘opportunity’ to approach those more fortunate and ‘need’ to serve mentioned above. Only when this connection has come full circle does the missionary gain the full benefit of his opportunity.