Short-Term Mission Trips, Protests and Sharing the Narrative

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The first time I went to Mexico was a mission trip. A church youth group. An earnest youth pastor. And boxes of tracts in Spanish.

One purpose. We went with the intention of saving the poor and ignorant. Clearly, they needed Jesus. What was most important to their lives was the salvation of their souls.

Meanwhile, we played, we sang together, we ate and received their hospitality, we toured the area, and we felt like we were doing God’s work. We were their saviors.

II

For five years we travelled to the Dominican Republic to work “hand in hand” with one church community. Mostly youth, but we had parents, older adults, and even children who were on these mission teams. One summer we helped pour a foundation. The next summer we built walls. Always, we ate together, we worshipped together, we lived together. Always, we cried the last night as we held hands during the worship service. Always, we wondered how they would survive until the next year.

Each time we went back it was like a family reunion – we saw Dominican children grow up so quickly, and were amazed that they were able to expand the building and community even more.

Without us.

II

Clarkston.

The largest refugee settlement in the country is in Atlanta, GA. Ghanians, Ethiopians, Cameroonians, Chin and Karin, Indonesians and other South Asians. A local church has provided space for leaders from two of the ethnic groups to gather for worship and build a worshipping community.

We got on a bus with the pastors and leaders, and they took us to the safe apartment complex because the other one had three buildings burned down by individuals seeking retribution. Right around when the local elementary school let out so many children and parents are migrating in one direction. Driving into the community made me flashback to when we would drive into the Dominican community each summer, and the people would stare at us. Curiosity. Anxiety. Uncertainty on their faces. We stopped right in the center, we got out, and in twos, we walked around for about 10 minutes. Some of these refugees said hello, and others ran in the other direction.

Afterwards, we sat in the newly renovated sanctuary listening to the pastor and a young person speak animatedly about the wider impact having this space was making for their community of refugees from the Republic of Congo. This beautiful African refugee boy had a smile that lit up the room every time he shared stories about his friends coming to the church with him.

And all I could think – I kept praying, “Please God, please God, please God, keep him safe. Keep him safe and alive.”

II

We aren’t missionaries. We aren’t saviors. We aren’t even really terribly necessary.

It’s still hard for me to wrap my mind around whether it’s better for me to show up somewhere or to send money. There are times I criticize upper-class churches who are well-endowed and funded by their community, and all they do is write a big check every year to each of the different service agencies and non-profits in town. Because all the ways that these moments of standing in solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed – being with the Dominicans and Haitians – it has continued to shape me – that’s immeasurable and priceless. I treasure the experience of mutual ministry, and the profound hospitality and compassion that happens in these seasons, and the profound experience of each other’s humanity. To go and listen, and be taught, cared for and loved by these people was a healing balm.

And then I can’t help but cringe at the thought of how much extra work we actually created for our Dominican friends because they would have to stay longer to correct our shoddy brick-laying and building walls. It probably would have been better to just send the money I raised for transportation, airline, and everything and hire more Dominican workers.

We take up a lot of space. Our bodies. Our voices. Our privilege. Do we really understand what it means to walk into a community or tragedy full of our privilege? As much as we want to share, stand, walk with those we’ve hurt with our complicity, do we realize that we will never be totally without or innocent of our privilege? We will never be free of the privilege. We will never be able to totally check that privilege. We will never be free of the guilt of our privilege. And maybe we need to sit – quiet – in that discomfort.

Do we see the possibility that our perspectives and voices are not really necessary? And that if there’s anything that is even remotely helpful it is to stop talking, stop teaching, stop taking over, and just listen, and really listen, listen and point to the others who have been speaking, resisting, and protesting for years?

What if being a part of the narrative means to actually stop being a part of the narrative?

Because we begin to assume the very people who created oppressive institutions will somehow also be the solution. We see a growing number of race “experts” talking about and blogging about Ferguson as if they hold the knowledge and tools necessary to absolve racism–but end up trying to absolve their own guilt and complicity. How many of the people writing about race have never even bothered to organize in their own communities to end violence? How many of these experts will no name state violence, knowing they benefit from the continuation of state power? What does it mean when those we uphold as leaders of the church and leading voices in race politics get their paychecks without having to give up any of the privileges afforded to them by their own status? What we have is an overabundance of people talking about race and injustice, and too few willing to take up the cross. We need to build co-strugglers and not allies. We need to stop talking over those most directly impacted by structures of violence and instead center what they have been saying for years. Especially as middle class East Asian Americans, we need to learn how to put down the microphone.

Let the right people drop the mic.

Ferguson is not a stepping stone to talking about orientalism and the perils of war. Ferguson is not merely a conversation starter to recenter Asian American narratives. We need to understand how we have relative and not comparative histories alongside Black people in America. The reality is it becomes too easy to point fingers at whiteness without realizing how we, as Asian Americans, can often further the chasm between Blacks and Whites. Equality with white people is not equality for everyone. Solidarity with black people is more than an intellectual understanding of anti-blackness. Our politics are who we choose to center, listen to, be in community with, and organize around. We need people to silently stand behind the most marginalized without looking for the glory that comes with visibility and credit for being a follower of Christ.

“Be therefore imitators of Christ…”

4 thoughts on “Short-Term Mission Trips, Protests and Sharing the Narrative

  • August 23, 2014 at 1:59 pm
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    Thank you for your words. As a father of two adopted Koreans 36 years ago, I see much wisdom in what you write. Racism took very different form, but still real.

  • August 23, 2014 at 5:38 pm
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    I totally share your indecision over whether writing a check is better than some organized day of activity – perhaps we feel slightly more valuable actually showing up somewhere, when providing funds and stepping out of the way is more useful to those we are trying to help.

  • August 25, 2014 at 12:11 pm
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    Thank you so much for this. It taught me what I needed to learn today.

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