When I turned 18, I decided to be a missionary.
Well, I guess it wasn’t so simple. I grew up in a missional church, and one of my favorite aunts was a missionary. And when I looked into her eyes, and when I saw her come home from long trips out of the country in her Birkenstocks and her battered up guitar case, and she brought me a small ceramic dish from Turkey, I felt her commitment to God, no matter what.
I wanted her commitment to the lord, but it was all mixed up with my colonial gaze.
So when I graduated high school, I decided to go YWAM, an acronym that stands for Youth With a Mission. They had a program where for three months, you pray and study with other young people hoping to go into missions under the tutelage of more seasoned missionaries, and three months you went on an “outreach,” where you do charity work and preach to people in another country.
And what a complicated experience that was.
Each week, someone new would come to talk and teach us classes for a week. Some of them seemed to worship the strange and playful and compassionate god I wanted to believe in so bad. Some of them worshiped the controlling, bleak, and confusingly rule oriented god I feared as a child, the one that threw me into many deep depressions when I was young.
And I had a lot of questions. Can it really be just or compassionate to bring jesus to people who have their own gods that help govern their spiritual lives? I knew plenty of people who weren’t christian who seemed plenty just, spiritual, kind and connected. So what was the point of bringing them jesus if they already lived like they knew him?
And I didn’t really have the words for it then, but going to a different country to teach people how to be christian sounded an awful lot like the awful ways christians treated the people indigenous to the land I was living on.
I asked people these questions. And the missionaries I worked with invited them.
But it always boiled down the same thing– from the social justice missionaries who went to different countries to teach about permaculture, and only jesus is explicitly asked, to the old school evangelists. Missions was ultimately about conversion to christianity.
Specifically, about American and European missionaries converting everyone else to christianity.
And I bought it. I wanted to serve god, and I thought this was how. So I studied. I evangelized. I pushed my conscious and the holy spirit’s leading down and engaged in the filthy work of colonization.
One day when my missions team and I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, we brought a truck with a loudspeaker to a factory where women sewed clothes together all day and preached a sermon. Before it was my turn to stand on the bed of the truck and preach my sermon, the person who led my missions group asked me if I would lead the sinners prayer. You know, the one where you ask Jesus into your heart so you can receive eternal life.
But I had been talking the whole three months of prayer and study before I left the United States to go to Thailand with my team about how we thought conversion to jesus was complex. Relational. Ongoing. Anything less than that is a means to control behavior through fear.
And I told the woman leading me in missions that I didn’t really believe in that prayer. That this didn’t feel good to me.
Part of YWAM’s ethos was the pentecostal practice of listening to the spirit. And I was listening. And I knew she didn’t want me to do this. I knew this wasn’t true, or restorative.
And I can’t really remember what my team leader said. But she said something that made my face go hot with rage. And for some reason, I lead that god-forsaken prayer anyway. I got on the back of that truck and lead a group of working class women in a controlling prayer I didn’t even believe in.
In that moment, I turned away from god. I aligned myself with the enemy.
I often repent of my sins as a white colonial missionary and ask god for forgiveness. For not listening to god when they told me to respect their presence in all of their children. For twisting god’s message of freedom and mutuality and divinity, of the anti-imperial resistance of jesus, into one of an interpersonal control and systemic destruction.
And I know that that’s not enough. My repentance means nothing if I’m not actively working to dismantle systems of colonialism every day. If i’m not actively paying material reparations to colonized people.
Repentant christian missionaries, may our prayers turn to actions. May god have mercy on us.
Posted with permission. Original found here.