A Response to the Failed Missionary Podcast
“One of the essential things about truth-telling is not to speak until you’ve come to a place of love”--Joy Kogawa
As some of you know, I was a guest on two episodes of the new Failed Missionary podcast (for the 3-part series "Called, not Qualified"). I wanted to take a moment to unpack my involvement with the show and talk about a few issues I had with it. This conversation is important to me, (hello, I wrote a book about being a failed missionary!) and it’s one we need to be having. That being said, the Failed Missionary Podcast is not my project and I don’t agree with all of the viewpoints expressed, hence this post.
First of all, I recorded my interview over a year ago with Corey (the show creator). I have never met the co-hosts nor were they a part of the concept when I talked with Corey (and they are only the co-hosts of this particular series--Corey has said the other series will involve a wide range of hosts and guests). I basically gave a first-person account of my own journey with missions and my thoughts about it currently. To sum up: I no longer try to convert people to be white western Christians, I believe in the authority of Scripture and the Holy Spirit and the liberating work of Jesus and share about all three with my Muslim neighbors, and I think many short-term mission organizations are incredibly disrespectful and cause long-term damage by not being truthful about what they are actually doing (i.e., being a learning experience/spiritual growth opportunity for westerners).
When the podcast was released, I was very surprised by the tone of the show. One thing that has been hard as I struggle to communicate my thoughts is that I never want to be the “tone” police. I have been on the receiving end of that, and it hurts (and is not very productive—“if you had just said it better, you might have convinced everyone!”). At the same time, the overwhelming response I have gotten from people I know and people who follow my work/writing has been how off-putting the tone of the Failed Missionary podcast has been--specifically the cynicism and bitterness that many people heard. The part that makes this tricky, is that to me the hosts were operating out of personal experiences and strong emotions, and they never actually got to a place of real critique. Which is a shame, because the short-term missions machine deserves to be strenuously critiqued.
I don’t claim to have all the answers figured out, but I do know that one thing I keep finding is that I can’t work for justice and righteousness if I don’t have love in my heart. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: I can’t critique the church, or Christians, or missions in general if I haven’t come to a place of love first. I have huge issues that I am working through and grappling with, including the legacies of colonialism and imperialism that deserve repentance and the ways I have absorbed a damaging savior complex, but I also have love and tenderness for people who are trying to follow God and to be a part of the work God is doing globally.
In terms of the theme of the show—“called, not qualified”, I also feel torn. I believe it’s irresponsible to send people out to do work for which they are not equipped. I mean, I got my degree in missions and it didn’t give me any skills necessary to live and work and be a neighbor in cross-cultural settings (I went back and got my MATESOL, which has been the most practical thing I have ever done). At the same time, I think God absolutely uses the least likely people to accomplish God’s purposes. I really disagree that just because someone is awkward or doesn’t present as “cool” means they will be terrible at working in cross-cultural circumstances. Secondly, I don’t really know that I believe in the idea of “calling” at all—it seems too convenient, in some ways to me, like it lets us off the hook. Because I think every Christian has the same call—to love their neighbors as themselves. I personally am obsessed with this idea, and I know a lot of others who are too. And sometimes, that means loving our neighbors from far away, loving them in cross-cultural contexts, moving across the ocean to love them, raising support so we can go and serve in ways that are needed to love them.
I did the support-raising missionary thing for three years and had a great experience (InnerCHANGE is the real deal, y’all). I don’t feel guilty about the money I raised because it enabled me to invest heavily in my neighbors. There did come a point, however, when my husband and I realized we could do very similar work while while also holding down jobs. We still make a point to try and support people of color who are in support raising positions, or support nationals in their countries doing work that does not earn them a paycheck. There are some huge inequalities in how important work by Christians is being funded worldwide, and we all need to be aware of that. And yet some of the most thoughtful, amazing, tender, conflicted, broken, loving people I know are those pouring themselves out in contexts very far from the ones they grew up in. I love these people, and I love how following God has brought them to the most amazing places.
In the end, I wish the hosts of the show had gone deeper into the wounds and issues without offering such vague and wide generalizations. I think the situation is far more fraught and far more hopeful than these first two episodes made it out to be. The truth is that white supremacy is real, and has infected western Christian missions from the very beginning. But it will not be dismantled with cynicism. It will be dismantled by shining a light on the truth, and by all of us stepping into the calling of neighbor-love.
I want to end this with a quote from Oscar Romero, a priest martyred in El Salvador, which sums up my hopes and dreams when I think about what Christians are called to do in the world (from the gorgeous new book of his letters/sermons called The Scandal of Redemption):
For further discussion/consideration:
If you are in contact with people involved in missions (either long-term or short-term), here are a few good questions to ask:
1. Who is being centered in the narrative?
2. Is this trip/mission organization engaging in hierarchical practices that encourage colonialism/imperialism mindsets?
3. Where does the money go?
4. Who is being benefited by this endeavor?
And here are a few books that have impacted me personally on this topic:
Speaking of Jesus: the art of Non-Evangelism by Carl Medearis (sums up my thoughts on evangelism!)
Black Yellow Brown or White Whose More Precious in God’s Sight by Leroy Barber
Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World by Amy Peterson
Stop Calling it Short Term Missions --blog post by Craig Greenfield, who always has wonderful things to say about missions
Malevolent in Missions -- thoughtful blog post by Breanna Randall talking about real and specific concerns with organizations and questions to ask.
If you have other questions/resources to contribute, please put them in the comments!