06 September 2018

Jamie Wright's challenge

You have this big evangelical church claiming to be Christ's ... Christ-related, claiming this God as their own, which is just such bullshit, and so, you know, when people kind of experience that pain of going like "This is garbage, like what are we doing?" and feel the rejection of the church, it makes perfect sense to me that many people just choose not to participate in the church OR a life of following Jesus, because they think it's completely connected, but it's not, it's not -- well, it hasn't been for me.

You can always count on Jamie Wright, the Very Worst Missionary, not to sugarcoat her observations! The example above is from her conversation with Peter Enns and Jared Byas on their "Bible for Normal People" podcast. She appeared on their episode 51, "Jesus, Justice & the Mission Field."

Much of that podcast conversation reflects the experiences that fill Jamie Wright's recent book, The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever. I read her lively book with groans of recognition, bursts of sympathy, and (I admit) a certain amount of defensiveness.

Maybe you'll understand my defensiveness if I add that I've worked in two Friends organizations where missions (cross-cultural ministry) were major programs. I was the head staffer in one of them. So my natural inclination is to say, You might be right but ... we Friends avoided those mistakes! We're obviously more progressive / spiritual / authentic / superior. We don't even use the word "missionary."

Some specifics:

In her memoir (or whatever), Wright is scathing about the lack of quality control in the missions recruitment process that she experienced. Neither technical qualifications nor cultural intelligence seemed to have been taken into account in her cohort of new mission appointees.
In the process that led us there [to Costa Rica], we had often been advised, "God doesn't call the equipped, He equips the called." We had practically congratulated ourselves on being inexperienced and unqualified for the work ahead. But surrounded by a whole bunch of other unqualified/ill-equipped missionaries, I began to question this logic.
She goes on to question whether the missions posting was even appropriate in the first place.
I showed up believing I was called, expecting to be equipped and hoping to change lives, only to learn that Costa Rica didn't really need another missionary. Turns out they already had gobs of their own churches and pastors and spiritual leaders -- they had Bible colleges and seminaries, for f***'s sake. Costa Rican Christians didn't need North American Christians to teach them how to follow Jesus, and Costa Rican people didn't need any more well-intentioned foreigners to come and "help" them.
Consequently, the missionaries were not particularly respected by those they aimed to serve:
As we got to know the players [the football players husband Steve was coaching] better, some of the guys were brutally honest with us about how both long- and short-term missionaries were often perceived by locals, and that was as lazy, spoiled, entitled, patronizing, and just plain annoying. By now this wasn't exactly a shock to us.
In the Wrights' case, the local ecosystem adjusted to the presence of missionaries, but not always in the ways that were assumed by the admiring church back home. In a classic case study, Wright describes how her community in Costa Rica did what was needed to keep a Christian sports ministry on the hook for their annual clinics, for which that ministry brought lots of free athletic gear
...Local coaches and players who'd attended the same clinic the year before took a few minutes ahead of time to solicit volunteers to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. On our team of fifty, the head coach assigned a half dozen guys to raise their hands at the appointed time. Everyone else was urged to play along but not overdo it, so that the missionaries would feel successful and keep coming back.

* * *

"It's mutual exploitation," explained Mateo, who worked for Intel and played tight end. "Everybody wins."
Disillusionment took its spiritual toll on Jamie Wright, to the point that ...
There was simply no margin left in my weary soul for the catchy cliches, false promises, and overspiritualized expense reports that had played such a pivotal role in my life up to that point.
Simply bailing out then was a fantasy but wasn't an actual option. Instead, she became a writer. As she began testing her voice in the blog that became The Very Worst Missionary, she could combine her sharp eye for absurdity with her storytelling abilities (almost as good as Beth Woolsey!), and tell her audience exactly how she felt. She was learning that Jesus, who had changed her life as a young adult convert, and who she thought she had signed up to serve on the mission field, did not require her to sacrifice her brain and her tongue in the service of sanctified mediocrity.

Before I get to the defensive part, I should acknowledge that I've been reading Jamie Wright online since 2010, when her blog was called jamiewrightcr.blogspot.com. In other words, I was a faithful reader for most of the years we were in Russia. (My first link to her on my blog went to this article. Among the other ten times I linked to her, I particularly appreciated her contribution to the discussions of short-term missions.) For me, having spent 44 years in the church world, much of this time on Quaker payrolls, it's extremely comforting to be reminded that Jesus is infinitely more real than a lot of what passes for church culture.
[Sidebar: Wright often uses what Russians delightfully call non-normative language. That certainly goes for The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever. In one of her quotations above, I was the one who added the asterisks. But don't worry, she has you covered. If you buy a copy for someone who might be distracted by the non-normative words, just go to this blog post and scroll down for her instructions and handy concordance.

I've noted before, with regret, that there's a trend among Christian bloggers to use this kind of language. I've concluded that they know their best-fit audience better than I do, and I'm probably not in it! I can't say I am totally reconciled to what I see as the deflation of strong language (for which there's certainly a time and place), but in the case of bloggers such as Jamie Wright, I'd rather risk the discomfort than not hear what they're saying.]
My main observation on the truth of Jamie Wright's critique of missions is summed up in the last words of the podcast quotation with which I started this post. People think that behaving churchy in the evangelical style and following Jesus is all the same thing, completely connected, "but it's not, it's not -- well, it hasn't been for me." For her ... and who else?

Increasing awareness of the disconnect between genuine faith and absurd practice is the arc of Wright's story. I'm convinced it's not just her story. Years of reading people's comments on her blog, and watching its popularity grow, convinced me, if I needed convincing, that her disillusionment is common. I've done plenty of my own coverage of pious absurdity. It's always fair to point out where the body fails to reflect the beauty of the Head -- or worse, when leaders take advantage of their presumed spiritual authority to further their own unholy agendas.

Not all missions programs have the fatal flaws Wright describes. At Friends United Meeting and at Northwest Yearly Meeting (the sending organizations I knew best), candidates had to undergo careful evaluation. Heroes and messiahs were not welcome. An understanding of Quaker discipleship was expected. There was nothing easy or slick about the recruitment and application process, or the ongoing evaluations, in either organization. I loved the fact that neither organization expected happy-talk reports. Underneath all of these arrangements is an understanding that the appointees are not preparing to import something to the field, but to learn what God is already doing there, and, in prayer and humility, to join in.

However, our recruitment efforts (especially at Friends United Meeting) were in direct competition with other missions organizations, some of whose hoops were a lot easier to jump through than ours, and whose bureaucracies were less transparent. I remember several instances of people we wanted to appoint ending up cutting the conversation short and signing up elsewhere. As we traveled to local meetings to raise funds for existing appointees, we found meetinghouse after meetinghouse flooded with slick promotional material from the larger agencies. Often I wanted to say to our meetings and churches, "Why not support our program? You know us. We're directly accountable to you!"

One part of Wright's critique was directly applicable to FUM, although at a slightly different angle than her Costa Rican case study: why so much effort to send people to places already saturated with Christian presence? The largest part of our missions program involved Kenya, where our work began in 1902. Friends in Kenya had been independent members of Friends United Meeting -- not a mission field -- for many years, and in fact were developing missions of their own. We collaborated on some of those new efforts, but in general we were in maintenance mode rather than opening access to Friends faith and practice among people previously unreached. Complacency and lack of vision on FUM's part arguably contributed to the periodic corruption scandals in East African Quaker institutions. (I mentioned some of these challenges in this post.)

To sum up: Jamie Wright has indicted the missions industry in vivid, blunt terms. Her specific observations may not apply to all missions agencies, or even most of them -- but maybe the programs who automatically assume "We're better than that" are already on a path of their own to stagnation and corruption. Wright's book lists some of the symptoms to watch out for, if it's not too late.

One of the reasons I will always support "missions" in some form or another is absurdly simple: human beings ought to have the freedom to mingle freely all over this planet. It's not that everyone must do so, but there ought to be no artificial barriers preventing that free flow. Nor should we be surprised when some people who wander and mingle turn out to be inadequately prepared or have mixed motives. (One of my former colleagues once said, candidly, "There's more than one reason to be a missionary in Jamaica.")

Some of these wanderers will buy and sell, some will study and teach, and some will yearn to find new friendships. And those of us who believe in a God of love and justice, whose promises are for all creation, and whose followers are agents of bondage-breaking in God's name, will naturally want to carry this good news with them wherever they go. If they can convince their church to help them, so much the better -- then it's up to the church to set up the same level of accountability for those traveling Friends that any shared concern requires; no more, no less.

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A British Quaker, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, wins the Breakthrough Prize for her pulsar discovery ... and decides to donate the money to help under-represented groups of students to become physicists.

How to attract trolls: write about Russian election interference.

... And "prominent Quakers" end up on Fancy Bear's target list.

Jim Kovpak adds some new concepts to his Russian Observers' Field Guide.

Secular courts and religious liberty in Canada.

Flags in space: NASA, politics, films, and the American flag.

Instead of my usual blues video dessert, here's a special audio track from Annie Patterson.

"Never Make Your Move Too Soon" by Will Jennings & Nesbert Jr Hooper, from Annie Patterson's solo jazz and blues EP "Make Your Move". For more info about Annie or to purchase the (3 jazz, 1 blues) EP visit www.riseupandsing.org/Annie.

Vocals: Annie Patterson, Piano/Wurlitzer: Paul Arslanian, Double Bass: Jeff Dostal, Drums: Joe Fitzpatrick, Guitar: John Cabán. Recorded, mixed and mastered by Warren Amerman, Rotary Records, Springfield, MA. Produced by Mary Witt and Annie Patterson. Cover design by Annie Patterson, photo by Mary Witt. Other tracks include: "Isn't It a Lovely Day," "Here In My Arms" and "Slow Boat to China."

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