Certain pills are tough to swallow.
You look at the thing and it’s just plain huge. Like the antibiotics the doctor sometimes prescribes for that acute case of sinusitis. It seems impossible that the pill could ever make its way down your throat and into the stomach to dissolve, and then catalyze very specific biochemical responses that can treat what ails you. It simply looks too big, like it’ll get stuck somewhere on the way down and block your air passages and make you gag and need to run over to someone who can perform the heimlich maneuver. Not so pleasant.
Certain topics come up when we start having conversations around what healthy mission practice looks like that appear kind of like that pill. Pretty big and burly, like it’ll get stuck on the way down. That it won’t contribute to our health but make us sick and confused, wishing we never put it in our mouth. I’ve had to swallow a lot of pills of recent years, not many for sinusitis luckily, but a good amount of the ones relating to how I have engaged in global mission.
Here is one of those pills:
Mission trips are mainly about the people going, not those being served.
When we talk about going to serve the economically marginalized, we often speak about our willingness to suffer on behalf of the suffering other, to sacrifice our lives for those who live in the anguish of poverty. This is indeed a profoundly holy desire. I would even argue that it is rooted in that which is paradigmatic of the gospel—healing, setting the oppressed free, abundant life. Yet, the means by which we seek to fulfill this end always carries a shadow side. It is this shadow with which we must engage if we are to participate in cross-cultural work in a mutually transformative way.
To get to that place we must engage our own stories and look at our deeper motivations for doing what we do.
Witnessing poverty and disease and oppression affects us, all of us. The most common experience is a sense of compassion for the individuals who are encountered living in squalor and inhuman conditions. Often this feeling is combined with a strong desire to do something, to alleviate some of the suffering. These emotions and the desire they give rise to are a very good thing. The desire to bring justice is a profoundly sacred desire that wells up from deep within. They can lead to acts of mercy and a commitment to expand one’s concept of the truly cruel nature of many people’s existence. This is the very spot where the issue I am seeking to engage with becomes pertinent: the energy moving within the “helper” to alleviate suffering, though good, most often turns into an action that unwittingly results in two consequences. First, it may unintentionally create harm to the vulnerable population. But it does more than just that. At a psychospiritual level, participating in mission relieves the helper’s guilt, and sets their own psyche free through the declaration that “I did my part. I helped someone who needed it badly. I bought medicine for a sick man. I bought a meal for a beggar. I held babies at the orphanage. I helped build a house for a poor family.”
It is all about “me”.
The helper is now free from a psychological standpoint. They feel good about themselves. Their ego is satisfied. Back at home in North America, they are wondering when they can get their next week off of work or when their next church mission trip is, so they can go back to Nicaragua or Kenya and see the people who they “fell in love with”.
This has been a tough pill for me to swallow.
It took some deep wrestling and struggling on my own and with my wife, in therapy, and with conversations with friends to come to grips with the fact that a lot of my hidden needs were being met by living overseas, participating in humanitarian aid and community development projects. But I am so glad I swallowed that pill and entered deeper into the journey of coming to know myself more fully. The real me. The light and the shadow.
If we can swallow some difficult pills by asking ourselves hard questions about the unspoken ways in which we benefit from mission, shifts begin to occur inside of us. Space opens up. We inhabit our own selves with a bit more truth and honesty, and take a plunge deeper into the gospel. We begin to see how we can participate in mission in ways that are mutually transformative, that heal us as well as those we want to help.
Thoughts? Feelings? Reactions? As always I would love to have you engage further with what I brought here. Please add your voice to the conversation by commenting below.