Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Missionary-tourism A Personal Perspective

Over the past year I’ve been working on a project where I’m trying to create a clinical rotation site for PA students in the developing world. At first I tried very hard to create this situation in the Middle East. I’m about to give up on that area for several reason. Now my focus is Nepal. If this is successful, later I would add other (physician) medical students and nursing students. I would handle all the US logistics; however I need to partner with an indigenous group on the ground.

The interesting thing, and this should be no surprise, is that there is a notion of medical-relief-tourism or maybe what I could label philanthro-tourism (which is much broader). The people in the developing world are figuring out that there is a big business in giving Americans the opportunity to unload their guilty consciences.

The different indigenous groups, which I’ve been working with, fall at various places along this continuum between true philanthropy and tourism. For example one Egyptian group seemed to only be interested in the tourism end of the spectrum. They said something along the lines of, “Sure Meekeel, we would love to work with you. We can take your students to the Pyramids, the National Museum, a boat ride on the Nile . . . oh of course we could take them by a clinic where poor people come. They could have their pictures made there. They can pose with sick babies. We can do all of this for only $4,000 in US dollars of course.”

But my program must meet the requirements of a clinical-educational experience of the different medical schools so it MUST be on the other end of the spectrum. A week-end raft trip (in Nepal) is fine . . . but they must be helping and treating real patients for eight hours a day during the rest of the week.

This got me thinking again . . . this time about the whole philanthropic paradigm . . . including Christian missionaries.

I know that I may sound paranoid (and probably am, and would fit into some DSM IV category) but I must add my disclaimer again. Christians get uncomfortable when I sound critical. But this is not the spirit in which I do this.

My muses are really deconstructions of what we Evangelicals think are true . . . down to the honest reality . . . applying it to myself as well. So as I try to unscramble the motives of the evangelical missionary experience, I will remind the reader that I, too was a missionary overseas and I was guilty of these things.

But my real point isn’t how bad evangelicals are (or I was) but simply, in the human condition, we are on the same page . . . and there is nothing wrong with that. I am only suggesting that we be honest about it. It’s fine—in my book—to go overseas as a missionary with an assortment of motives. My wife and I support several missionaries right now. I know of at least one that has confined in me the he is a missionary because he couldn’t find any other way to support his family in the U.S..

The error is the Evangelical myth of the “pure motives.” When I was an evangelical, we would often confront one another about, “Did you do that with pure motives?” There is no such thing, not with Billy Graham, or any with anyone. We are humans first, Christians second. There is no escaping our nature. So in everything that we do, there is a smorgasbord of motives at best and “pure motives” is elusive and nothing more than window dressings.

When I went overseas a missionary, I went from church to church (raising critical money) saying the same thing . . . “God called me to go to the mission field.” That was it, pure and simple. I was called by God, so I must obey and go, or live my life in sin.

I thought about ranking my reasons for going here, but that would be impossible. The ranking drifted from day to day, maybe from hour to hour. So I will put the motives in a pile of words.

I honestly wanted to find God’s pleasure (which I rarely did). I wanted to feel the pleasure of my Christians friends. I wanted to bring pride to my family. I wanted to hear my mom say, “That’s my son . . . the missionary.” I wanted to see Muslims become Christians. I wanted to be known as someone who had helped Muslims to become Christians. I wanted the adventure of traveling and living in exotic places. I wanted to be my own boss, where money (donor’s money) came in on a regular basis and I could do what the hell I wanted each day. I could spend the day in the park with my kids. I could sit and read books. I could go out to the bars with my Muslim friends (juice bars). I wanted my wife to look up to me, “He’s my husband, the missionary.” I wanted to walk into any church in American and immediately be respected as a spiritual person. I wanted to help someone who was poor and sick to get better. I also wanted to be seen helping someone sick and poor getting better.

I think you get the point.

My wife and daughter are going to Kenya this summer to work in an orphanage. I have the gut feeling that virtually all those motives above apply to them and I am still proud of them.

I rarely listen to Christian radio, however, I’m driving my wife’s car this week and she keeps it on a praise channel. I heard an ad about an adventure trip for Christian high schoolers. It was a four week trip in the wilderness with the title, “Encounter God in the Mountains.” Without sounding too cynical, I will say that this group is just a business like any other business but who’s clients are evangelicals. Evangelicals often feel guilty about doing any kind of trip unless they can spiritualize it as some great thing they are doing “for the Lord.” I was pleasantly surprised when I sat with a guy on a plane flying from Tennessee to Denver recently. He was on his way to lead a Christian group down the Grand Canyon. He was very honest saying, “It doesn’t pay much . . . but where else can you get a job doing what you love to do anyway, fishing, hiking and rafting?” He didn’t try to spiritualize it at all.

The same is true for short-term missions trips that are popping up everywhere. I think I have about 4-5 nieces or nephews at any one time who are overseas on a mission’s trip. We get a constant stream of cards asking for money. They get to raise the money to support their efforts. They are doing good deeds and that’s great. But I’m also saying, they are doing it for the adventure and the fun and there is nothing wrong with that. The non-Christian who backpacks through Europe wishes they could send out donor cards too. I hope the Christian students are not doing the mission trips to feel more pleasing to God . . . or their Christian friends. Jesus said something about living water, which you can drink and never thirst again. I know that I’ve spent too much of my Christian life thirsting for God’s approval . . .and the approval of the brethren.

The photo above is when I went to Pakistan three years ago to help after the big, and horrible, earthquake. Why did I go? The adventure. My honest concern for the sick and injured. To look like a hero to my family and friends. To get attention in my church. To meet new and interesting people. The list could go on.

I’m not saying that the dishonesty in motives is a Christian phenomenon. I went to Pakistan with a secular group. They had a lot of mix motives as well. A big one was for the glory. They had already been on 60 Minutes (in a previous trip). We took with us a writer from People Magazine and a documentary movie maker. The movie maker was going to film us for a program on the Discovery Channel. There was a lot of glory to be had. I wasn’t camera shy either. But, I never made People article and the Discovery Channel program never made it to the little screen.

But in the rubble of Pakistan I saw a lot of mix motives among the stench of rotting children’s corpses. The Pakistani army was in town (for the first time ever) to get more control. Muslim groups were coming from the Gulf, in to prove they are good Muslims. Con artist coming in to con what was left from the poor victims. We saw a lot of Pakistani politicians (escorted by beautiful women with TV cameras) taking pictures of them holding babies . . . then flying off in a helicopter. The cost of one helicopter could have bought 50 bulldozers. One bulldozer could have saved many lives. Oh, the Pakistani doctor that I’m picture with . . . his motives were simple. He had been ordered to the area by the government. He couldn’t have cared less about the local mountain people. The survivors could have rotted for all he cared. He kept zipping up our treatment tent so the patients couldn’t find us . . . so he could play Mine Sweeper on his cell phone.

But that’s the human condition.

Back to my story. Why am I trying to create this overseas clinic? I will rank this in order of how I feel at this moment; 1) The adventure, 2) To be seen as a teacher, 3) To help the poor, 4) To get a break from seeing self-absorbed patients in the US (those who go from imaginary illness to imaginary illness). 4) I hope that some day the tuition will pay for my chance to travel to exotic places. 5) Oh yeah, to share Christ’s love to those in need.


Hope T. said...

I loved the honesty in this post!
I would feel better about supporting missionaries if they were all as honest about their motives. To my mind, if the motive was a totally single-minded one - that of converting people- then it would be much more efficient to stay in the states and work with non-Christians in urban settings, rural settings, in a university with international students, etc. There is plenty of scope for conversions in those settings if that is truly the goal.

This morning was kind of a bummer for me (plumbing problems, always a flood, this time the dishwasher) but this post brightened my morningdue to your willingness to tell the truth. It also strengthens my resolve to do a much better job with truth-telling .

Anonymous said...

The error is the Evangelical myth of the “pure motives.” When I was an evangelical, we would often confront one another about, “Did you do that with pure motives?” There is no such thing, not with Billy Graham, or any with anyone. We are humans first, Christians second. There is no escaping our nature. So in everything that we do, there is a smorgasbord of motives at best and “pure motives” is elusive and nothing more that window dressings."Love this.

Jaimie said...

The sooner people realize there is no altruism but God's altruism for us, the better off everyone is.

MJ said...

I got to go back and read this after posting it late last night. I think I am ready for bifocals . . . found a lot of typos.

One of the problems that I see, is the evangelical culture forces you to plan the game if you want their financial support. Years ago, I contemplated going back overseas with a mission board. But now, I could never do it. You can not give a talk to a donor church and be honest . . . if you do, they won't support you. They expect a glorified reason for going and nothing less.

I remember having dinner with a TEAM missionary in Paris. He hated being a missionary more than anything on earth. He hated Paris. He loved his home of Alberta, CA. He had been hospitalized twice, in France, for depression.

I asked him, point blank, "Why on earth are you here?"

His first answers were the company line, "God wants me here and I must obey. It is Satan that makes me depressed because I'm doing such important work here. Satan would like to see me fall."

As the evening went on (and we were doing the traditional French meal thing, one course at a time for seven courses, he became more candid.

Finally he told me that there is no hope for him going home. Why? His father and mother had been missionaries, until they were force to return home to Canada (before he was born, I think the reason was a war or China closing its doors or something like that). His father then became a pastor of a large church. His father, from the time he was a little kid, held over his head, the aspirations of him growing up and being the missionary that his father never got to be.

So, poor guy, was trapped. I was still an evangelical then, but starting to see the light. I told him, if I was him, I would can it and go home. Daddy would just have to deal with that.

But can you imagine if he stood up in front of a donor church and said, "Please support us. I am obligated to go to win my father's approval."

Hope T, sorry about your plumbing. That is the one job I hate the most. It often creates strife in my home. My wife is from a stoic family that didn't believe in raising your voice for any reason. When I'm doing plumbing (especially late at night when the hardware store is closed) I've been known to scream. Not profanities . . .but things like, "STUPID FREAKIN PIPE . . . STOP LEAKING!!!!!"

Don Hendricks said...

I am with you in this, and kind of unwilling to turn the spotlight on my 32 years of being a pastor, but I wonder if some organizations and some people have motives consistent enough to get the jobs done. I saw a documentary dramatization of the days after the Tsunami and the chaos of the aftercare, which would argue for your point. But then I kept hearing that the Christian organization kept coming back long after the cameras and interest went elsewhere. Keep up your dirction in all this, its powerful.

Don in AZ

Anonymous said...

Btw, I piggy-backed off of this post and put up some musings of my own on my AinM blog (which I've revived for the summer, anyway). Thanks for stirring the pot. :)

MJ said...


Nice. You write better than me and with far less typos. I really liked this thought, very insightful:

"It’s always fun when people take a personality trait you were born with and turn it into a spiritual movement, because then you can feel really important and gifted because you already have this thing that other people have to work really hard to get, which indicates your superior spirituality and . . ."

Alaska? Anchorage? If so do you know Pastor Don and Mary Lou Bowery? Mary Lou was in the Navigator ministry that I was in in college. We almost died in a blizzard together once.

Anonymous said...

Impure motives or not you are there doing a job I wouldn't do. I'm a scaredy cat. I admire people doing mission work who are actually meeting life needs (medical, food, shelter, water). Our church sent a bunch of teens on a mission but I think it was just a bunch of rich kids going on a site seeing tour of the poor. I don't think they impacted any lives and much to the disappointment of the parents, they didn't magically change themselves.

MJ said...


I have a social anxiety. I had more fear speaking to groups about my experience in Pakistan, than when I was there . . . being awaken in the middle of the night by our body guard, telling me that where I was camping, some Taliban is going to come in and cut my throat with his knife. I was able to roll over and go back to sleep. But I couldn't sleep the night before a talk.

MJ said...

Don, I just saw your comment. You are right. Along that line of motives, some only want spotlight and others have more of a mix of the self-less and a little touch of the selfish.