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.
Posted by MJ at 3:05 PM