D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Tag: short-term missions

War Photographer: Sarah Bessey

Whenever I just want to be done with the internets for good, Sarah Bessey is what changes my mind. She has been doing her own thing in her corner for a long time, and her writing is beautiful, aching, honest, and more poetry than prose. She is supremely talented at both being an advocate AND creating safe spaces for dialogue--all the while moving you to tears. I am more than honored that she is sharing in this space today. What she writes here is very near and dear to my heart, and is a game changer for describing how we ought not use others for our own purposes. Please check out her gorgeous blog (and get ready for her book, which i can't wait to get my greedy little hands on). 




In which I am (not much of) a war photographer

It's been more than ten years since I was introduced the terminology of "missional church." Hey, what do you know? we are meant to live out the Gospel in our daily, walking-around lives, as missionaries in each and every context. Amazing, right?

As a refugee from the mega-church movement of modern church life and fame-seeking Christian celebrity marketing, the missional living conversation was a timely lifeboat for my journey. I loved Jesus, I struggled with the circus, and this was a call out of a churchy-ghetto, and into the real world with a message of Love. Now my life, even here in a prosperous corner of Canada, is a missionary life, a life of embodying God's hope and good news. Justice and mercy, hope and goodness, love and peace, are desperately needed. My friends were not going to church and were suspicious (even hostile) of labels like "evangelical" but I was going to my friends, and so the idea of missional living made sense in my context.

I was reading books from seminary academics and interacting with emerging church thinkers and theorists. But it all felt rather like an ivory tower to me, divorced from real-life application and living out. I often thought to myself, well, that sounds great but what does it mean in my real life?! At the time, there weren't a lot of bloggers writing about missional living (well, in those days there weren't so many bloggers, period), story-telling hadn't become the saturated scapegoat medium of Christian writers, and the terms "ordinary radical" and "missional" hadn't jumped the Christian publishing shark.

So I decided to start writing about how this whole "missional thing" actually looked in my life, right here, in Vancouver. I was full of ideas - I would write stories about my interactions with my neighbours! with my co-workers! with my friends! with strangers at the park! with the poor and marginalised in my city! I would be the "voice on the ground" from the front-lines of this whole missional life, these stories would be valuable and needed. I could share real-life conversations with real-life people. Church people would learn from my arguments disguised as stories. I had an agenda for justice! and maybe I could be, like, the VOICE of missional living in real life! People would learn and understand how to actually apply the theories now!


Clearly, I had missed the point. But I wrote a few posts over the period of a year or so. Then I stopped writing those stories. I ended up deleting every single post.

The very nature of arguments require simplification. When we are arguing, we go to our base lines. We turn people into props, interactions to proving grounds, theology into theories, because we have a point to prove. We make arguments for good reasons - I have no doubt about that.  And arguments have a place, perhaps. We have an end game in mind: we want to raise money, we want to do good, we want to change the world, we want to make a difference, vivé la revolution of love! But agendas turn our lives into arguments and proof-points, instead of invitation.

Arguments and agendas require simplicity. Relationships make room for complexity and nuance.

Arguments and agendas require a clear story arc: setting, conflict, climax, resolution. Relationships allow for ebb and flow, for intimacy and redemption, for non-sexy work of showing up over the years, for the working out of God's goodness already worked in. How does it glorify God or embody the Kingdom of God to use people as props "for the greater good."

I deleted those essays because the more enmeshed I became in the actual "living" part of the missional living theories, the more I realised one thing: these are my friends. These are my neighbours. These are my co-workers. I loved them. And when I loved them, I didn't want to use them as props anymore.

I hadn't written anything terrible, anything revealing. But I had written about them as if they were props, I had used them to make an argument. In my rush to tell stories about missional living, I had dehumanized my friends and my neighbours.

Talk about missing the point of the Gospel.

I remember the day someone found out what I had done. She came across my blog by chance. She was devastated by my "stories" from the "front-lines" recounting our conversations. Understandably, she felt used and she felt betrayed by me. And she has never forgiven me. I lost a friend. I still can't think about this without a deep sense of guilt and grief. I was absolutely in the wrong.

All of these things were in my mind when I was invited to join the Help One Now blogger trip to Haiti last year. Too often, we bloggers and writers use the excuse of storytelling to advance our own agendas and arguments. That feels false to me, both as a writer and as a follower of Jesus. We can all tell the difference between a real story and a creaking morality tale: we can all tell the difference between a friendship of mutuality and a clumsy attempt at following the agenda. There really isn't a way to make someone feel loved and valued while simultaneously using them as a prop for a purpose.

I was afraid of extreme poverty, afraid of leaving my family, but mostly I was afraid of screwing up and hurting someone in my heart to do some good. It seemed easier to do nothing, than to risk damaging the dignity of Haitians. Yet I felt very clearly and strongly that God had wanted me to do this thing. So I went but I went in "fear and trembling" with a tremendous desire to honour Haiti, and a cautious sense of calling. I was committed to people, not arguments, even for a good cause. I wanted to learn from them. I knew the likelihood of my return to Haiti was small but that didn't give me an excuse, not anymore. Even if my new friends in Haiti would never read my blog, even if they never saw a picture I took, even if they never heard a speech I gave on their behalf, I needed to write and blog and talk about them like they were sitting right here in the front row.

No more two-faced storytelling for the purposes of argument. That excuse won't fly anymore.

I don't know if I did a good job. Only the people of Haiti can tell me that. But I tried and I wrestle even now with relating these stories because aren't I doing this very thing again? I don't know. I tried to figure out how to do some good and even build a school from the standpoint of relationship instead of argument and agendas. I've learned by now that God is just as much concerned with the means as the end.

Even now, six months later, when I write about Haiti, or I write about Mercy Ministries of Canada, and particularly when I write about my own small life here in British Columbia, I wonder: relationship or argument? It's a cheap use of my stories - let alone my friends or my family -  for the purposes of arguments. These are lives, not theories; souls, not vehicles for setting, conflict, climax, and tidy resolutions. I don't always get it right. I make apologies often.

I want to be faithful to nuance and complexity, to the light and the shadows, in both relationships and story-telling. I am still learning to embrace wandering truth in favour of crisp arguments. I want to make it my ambition, as Paul admonished the church in Thessalonica, to live a quiet life of profound consequence, focused on embodying God's kingdom way of life here and now and loving others well.

Because the very nature of missional living is indeed the embodiment of the Gospel. And the Gospel is good news, the news that God is for us and God is with us and God is Love and Life. So our living out of the mission needs to reflect the heart of our Sender: it needs to look like respect, like secret-keeping, like relationship instead of arguments, to even begin to hint at the vast love and affection of our Father towards us.



Sarah Bessey 300x200Sarah Bessey is a writer and an award-winning blogger (www.sarahbessey.com). She lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia with her husband, Brian, and their three tines, Anne, Joseph, and Evelynn. Her first book Jesus Feminist will be published by Howard Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) in 2013. Sarah is an editor at A Deeper Story (www.deeperstory.com), and a contributor at SheLoves Magazine (www.shelovesmagazine.com). She is a happy clappy Jesus lover, a joyful subversive, a voracious reader, an unrepentant hashtag abuser, and a social justice wannabe.


(psssst, Sarah's book can be pre-ordered here. Yay!)





The War Photographer series seeks to ask and somewhat answer questions of representation. How we go about sharing stories that aren’t our own–specifically the hard stories? How do we put a spotlight on some of the forgotten stories of our age while still giving dignity and respect to the subjects?

For more in the series, please click here.


War Photographer: Tara Livesay

Tara Livesay is my real-life hero (she will throttle me for saying that, but still--it's true). She is a killer writer, thinker, mom, missionary, midwife, and long-distance runner. I love her because she is so honest, so in the thick of everything beautiful and awful about our world, and she can be absolutely hilarious in the midst of it all. I beg of you to check out her website, where you can learn all about her fabulous family and their life in Haiti. I have been looking forward to this post for a long time, and it dropped the hammer, just like I knew it would. Tara and her family are truly people who ask the question: how do we share these stories well? Because they must be told. 

photo by Troy Livesay

A young couple moves into a new neighborhood. The next morning while they are eating breakfast, the young woman sees her neighbor hanging the wash outside. "That laundry is not very clean; she doesn't know how to wash correctly. Perhaps she needs better laundry soap." Her husband looks on, remaining silent. Every time her neighbor hangs her wash to dry, the young woman makes the same comments. A month later, the woman is surprised to see a nice clean wash on the line and says to her husband: "Look, she's finally learned how to wash correctly. I wonder who taught her this? " The husband replies, "I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows." And so it is with life... What we see when watching others depends on the clarity of the window through which we look.–Author Unknown


When one of the poorest countries in the world happens to be positioned a mere 700 miles from the southern tip of one of the richest countries in the world,  short-term and long-term missions abound. I am citing no source but I’d venture to guess this is the most visited, blogged about, and photographed “mission” destination on the planet earth.


The convenient 90-minute plane ride from Miami means an estimated 200,000 people per year come to Haiti. Many seem to think that their group or purpose or trip is a one-of-a-kind and are incredulous when they hear how frequently large groups of matching T-shirts arrive here with similar plans. Additionally, there are thousands of longer-term workers sprinkled all across the island.


It is common for these expats to arrive thinking of people as projects.


As we are all prone to do, people show up here having already decided things about Haiti. They hear the tag lines and have watched or read the mass media news stories and they build their image of the country and her people and what they need before they ever set foot on Haitian soil. Wherever they hail from, they seem to arrive having heard about vodou, poverty, danger, an earthquake, and orphans.


For whatever reason there is a movement among evangelical churches and faith-based organizations that markets mission trips in such a way that it casts the missionary as a hero and those on the other side are in dire need of their help. This means that in addition to what the prospective visitor has heard and decided about Haiti, they are also being told that in one or two weeks they might be able to make a significant impact.


For an extended time, our family has been learning and growing and being uncomfortably twisted and molded by living in this land that so many visit. During these years we’ve learned about our own pride, our own soul poverty, and our preconceived ideas. (Related: We have become cynical and skeptical and things we don’t like too.) We now better recognize the ways in which we have painted this place with a broad brush and forget that individual souls created in the image of God should not be reduced to our small-minded descriptions or looked upon as a project.


As a body of believers called to bring the justice of Jesus and the Kingdom of Heaven to earth it does little good to arrive with anything decided. Each one of us is wonderfully complex and unique and we would do well to remember that is true of everyone, everywhere. Media reports and the State Department don’t have the ability to summarize hearts of people. Churches and mission organizations should not market with the “go save them” narrative.


In our time here, working with and observing different organizations, we’ve had an opportunity to witness many visitors. Perhaps the marketing of short-term trips feeds the problem. When cast as the hero, you are bound to come in with an air of superiority.  That to say, at times we cringe over things said and done.  The cringing comes partially from a place of our own guilt, in knowing we once said and did disrespectful things; in knowing we probably still do sometimes.  Other times we gasp at the disdain some ‘heroes” carry with them.


It is not at all unusual to hear visitors botch something up they are working on and say, “Oh well, it is good enough for Haiti.” I confess that it is those people who I want to follow home with a gallon of ugly colored oil paint and an old tattered brush and walk into their kitchen to show them what my “good enough” looks like at their house.


On occasion our second daughter agrees to translate for teams.  One such medical team was performing minor surgeries.  One of the surgeons brought his fourteen-year-old son on the trip.  The son observed the surgeries and occasionally held a tool or handed his father something.  At one point in the week the father asked his son if he would like to do a spinal-block.  The Doctor stood nearby as his son performed the block.


I am certain the doctor didn’t necessarily mean harm, but when a well-trained, perfectly able physician allows his fourteen year old to stick a needle in someone’s back it says,  “This is good enough for a Haitian”.  As my daughter told me this story I wondered if the physician would appreciate a rookie shoving a needle in his child’s back.


The truth of the matter is this, somewhere along the line we all became convinced that we are a big deal arriving to a place or a people that need us.  Therefore, anything we do is better than nothing, right? (That doesn’t sound like Jesus to me.) This superiority leads us to think, and even say, “Well, it is good enough for them.”  Casting ourselves as the fixers and heroes and “them” as the project is troubling on many levels.


If we want to let the river of His justice flow through us, we have to arrive aware of how prone to superiority we are, how prejudiced we are. We must examine our motivation and presuppositions in the light.  What window am I looking through when I look at others?  What window am I seeing myself through? I know my tendency is to think I am needed. It is a difficult but necessary exercise to continually spend time asking Jesus to mercifully guide us as we attempt to walk with people in wisdom and humility.


God is not made manifest in our ability to “fix” or “heal” or “solve” anything.  He has not cast us as the heroes. He is made manifest in our humility and in our own need to receive healing.  When I can see my own weakness and pride and my need for grace and healing I am left in a position of having nothing to offer …


And you know what?

When I have nothing to offer, Jesus shows up.

Tara tries hard to learn life's lessons the first time but usually doesn't.  She is mom to a rambunctious crew of kids and is learning and working in the area of women's health/midwifery in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She writes at www.livesayhaiti.com

For more in the War Photographer series, click here.

Jackie Pullinger: Go Write Your Own Books

I'm getting older. I'm due to celebrate my last year of my 20s, and so I am off for 24 hours in a hermitage--just me myself and Jesus for 24 long, silent, electricity-free hours. I know I'm getting older because this makes me positively giddy.  

But for my (early) Monday post I wanted to highlight a book that was extremely formative for me in my growing-up years: Chasing the Dragon by Jackie Pullinger. Pullinger was/is a missionary to Hong Kong, and her story is pretty incredible. In late 60s and 70s there was some pretty crazy stuff going on in that city--opium and heroin being readily available and the inner city being run by gangs. Pullinger lived a life of faith, all the way--she never had more than a few dollars on her, and she just started praying for addicts and watched them miraculously come off drugs with barely a pang of withdrawal. I am not doing justice to the story here, so I will just tell you to get a copy and read it for yourself. Old-school missionary biographies changed the course of my life; Jackie Pullinger is someone who instantly comes to mind as a woman of valor, or a spiritual midwife.

Here's a couple of excerpts from the updated edition of her book, which I thought pertinent to our discussion on this here blog. The first one comes from an additional chapter or two at the end, where she expounds on what happened in her city after she first published the book. Her descriptions of the short-termers who came in droves to see what she wrote about really impacted me:


Over the years we have had hundreds of short-termers who want to get the pictures immediately--if possible, on video--so they can show it to their home church and have an inspired evening. I have begged them to love the people and stay, just like Sai Di did of me 30 years ago. The disadvantage of short-term missions is a wrong perspective based on this generation's need for instant results.

The visitors leave and wonder why it does not work at home. They wonder why everything seems so easy in Hong Kong. At other times nothing goes right, even here. The man who prophesied last night beats up the helper the next morning, or the whole house runs away. Then the visitors leave disillusioned. "It's nothing like her book. We had a hard time." . . .

So the voyeurs leave. They have their video clips, but they never saw. It was either all too good or all too bad, and neither is accurate. We love our people whether they turn out well or not, and the successes do not vindicate the ministry nor do the disappointments nullify it. What is important is whether we have loved in a real way--not preached in an impassioned way from a pulpit.


BOOM! This is why I love me some Jackie. In the introduction for the new edition of the book she also brings it, in a different way:

Of course, Chasing the Dragon backfired on me. I had written it in the hope of recording history and inspiring hope. Having disposed of one decade, I had hoped to get on with life. Instead I was invited to retell the story over and over again, whereas I had meant that you, the reader, might see that the same God could impart His heart and His power in your city and write your own books . . .

So where can you find us today if you visit Hong Kong? Hopefully, in all the streets and blocks. We will probably be unnamed, for we care not to extend our work but rather His kingdom. There are many more adventures to be had.

There are many more battles to be fought. It would be such fun to be a part of them. So go! Write your own books. Go!


I love everything about this. This is the tension I am currently sitting in. I don't want to write books--I want to be living them. And I am.


I'm just going to sit in that for awhile. 24 hours, to be exact.


It should hardly be noted that I don't get money or anything if you buy and read anything I suggest. I just write about them cause they are awesome. 

mission trip

“But I want to go to jail,” he said, not even for one second caring how crazy he sounded. “I want to be persecuted for my faith. I want to be like all of those people in the Bible--Paul, and . . . and all the others.”I looked at him, trying hard to appear composed but allowing my eyes to open wide, mentally imagining them to protrude an inch from my face. It would all be so funny if we weren’t in the middle of Turkey, on a mission trip composed primarily of middle-aged women who were more interested in the spice bazaars than proselytizing. The team was crashed in various rooms of the small and quiet hotel, sweating on ornate and uncomfortable couches, recuperating. I had found myself in a conflict of wills with the team leader: he, the only man on the trip, filled with visions of grandeur; me, barely in my 20s, bewildered at my own unwavering convictions on this point. I said it slowly, emphasizing his altered mental state: “I’m not leaving this room until you promise not to pass out the Bibles”.

“But I want to do something!” He sounded like he was pleading with someone, his ambitions and insecurities sweating out of him, all the slights of the pastoral life catching up to him at the same time. He was only a couple of years older than I, freckled and determined for something big to happen. His wife stood next to him, trying to be supportive but failing just a little. My sister, who had agreed somewhat warily to come along on the trip with me, stood next to me in solidarity, blocking the door. We were all feeling pretty insignificant, for different reasons.

There were the gypsy children, coming up to your tables while you ate your kebab, putting their tiny brown hands under your nose for a few small coins, saying the same words that you don't understand over and over again. There were the crowds of people milling about their everyday life, not sensing your urgency or your desire to help. There was the heat, making everybody listless and angry, the flaws in their plans becoming glaring. There was also the church, the wonderful pastor with his unmovable eyes and welcoming building, the smattering of the dedicated followers. There were the women who loved Jesus, even though it meant losing everything else in their lives. There was you, not understanding how you fit into anything in this situation, but hoping that there would be some redemption somewhere in all of this.

All four of us stood that room, all of us shocked by our convictions making themselves known: on wanting to do something big for Jesus, on our fierce desires to see the shepherd and the sheep of the small church protected. We would stay in that room until he promised me, promised the room, not to pass out the box of Turkish Bibles we had brought. And finally, deflated, we went to sleep.

In the morning, we would go back to wandering the streets with the rest of the team, ushering the women around as they looked for yellow saffron and cold diet cokes. And we were all starting to realize that proclaiming the gospel is much more difficult than any of us would like to admit.


My new post at McSweeney's is up here. I can't believe I only have 3 more to go! This makes me want to cry, just a little. Also, I just read a blog post from a woman who lived in Haiti for a year or two. It is on the whole short-term missions debacle, which I have tried to stay out of for some time now. However, I think she makes a few good points. One, is that we defend our trips overseas because they meant something to us, and we ignore the fact that we are disempowering people all the time (not to mention ignoring missionaries who plead that we just send support/supplies). The other idea is that we don't expect people to care about the poor unless we drop them in the midst of the poor. Is this true or not? I know that I was only awakened from my entitled American stupor as a result of direct friendships with people of a lower socio-economic status. I want to believe that people can care without having to smell the death and desperation of true poverty, but maybe this isn't true.

In any case, just because there are no easy answers on this one doesn't mean it isn't worth wrestling. I greatly identified with the post because every single bloody day of my life I am wondering what I am doing: am I creating more barriers or breaking them down? And honestly, I don't know what the tally is right now. I just know I am supposed to keep going, one step at a time.

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