I Get to be a Missionary (Eat your heart out!)
Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico, September, 1989
There are advantages to being a missionary. For starters, you have the opportunity to broaden your perspective about the world and life in general. In our case, it has contributed to a gradual diminishing of a nationalistic spirit.
We are not among those who equate the United States with paradise. Nor do we assume that there could be no better place on earth to live. We have consistently shied away from the US tourist traffic in Cancun, partly because of the condescending attitude of many. It's as if they were saying, "We all know, of course, that the US is best and that is where everybody would live if they only had the chance." A missionary with that sort of an attitude would never feel comfortable in the land of his calling. Furthermore, no people is going to warm up to a superiority complex.
Since it has nothing to do with an act of volition, who should be unduly proud or ashamed of his race or nationality? Among my kind we agree, for example, that no one is morally obligated by promises made for him by sponsors when he was "baptized" as an infant. One can be responsible solely for decisions of his own making. How then am I obligated to sing the praises of my nationality to the point where it becomes exclusive and offensive to others? What I owe Caesar is cheerful submission to civil authority and taxes lawfully exacted. But my citizenship is in heaven.
An exaggerated spirit of nationalism stems from a narrow perspective. It is arrogant, disrespectful and divisive. I try to envision the Apostle Paul heading up a God and Country Rally at Antioch (or Rome, maybe?). The idea does not mesh with the emphasis and direction of ministry in those days.
Relating this to the missionary, many do not escape the comparison trap. Every encounter with foreign ways... even an unfruitful trip to the grocery store... can trigger frustration. Hearts too fond of paradise (the good ol' USA) have a harder time being content and appreciative where they serve.
Confrontation with another culture and a new way of life can be a positive challenge and maturing experience. It is even possible to prefer aspects of the new culture over the one that has been left behind. Wouldn't it be better for all concerned if the missionary actually enjoyed living in the land of his calling? Survival depends on learning to respect differences and avoid snap judgments based on our own narrow, inexperienced perspective. Our less-than-respectful attitude can raise barriers not easily broken down just when gaining people's trust is crucial to the effective propagation of the Gospel.
Another broadening effect is an increased ability to objectively analyze convictions and traditions imposed by the status quo. We tend to be denominational in attitude, clannish, and quite dogmatic about how things ought to be done. Many convictions which are perceived as absolutes turn out to be absolutes only in a particular region or among a select group of churches. The missionary becomes increasingly aware that Christianity was not first an American phenomenon, set in a progressive, fast-paced, materialistic environment. Therefore, spreading the Gospel should not necessarily include the transference to another culture of Americanisms superimposed on Christianity.
In theory, mission work is not colonialism. But often, that is what it has turned out to be. Some mission work, so called, is little more than a projection of the US-style welfare state. Propagandists here accuse foreign missionaries of destroying indigenous cultures and jeopardizing national sovereignty. Cutting through the rhetoric, what they usually mean is, "we don't want to see any more of our people getting converted." However, I, for one, hope that the charge could never honestly be laid against me. Christianity supersedes culture and nationalism. The Gospel's call to repentance relates to that which is sinful and against God in every human being, regardless of race or nationality. It does not represent the threat of one culture attempting to replace or dilute another.
I'm glad I get to be a missionary. We prefer serving the Lord in Mexico over having to live stateside. The US stopped being paradise for us a long time ago. We do not want to be ensnared in the comparison trap and become another statistic. We are grateful for what we gain from each encounter with a different culture, both in knowledge and perspective.
That is just one of the perks that we would not have with any old nine-to-five job in the States!