I work at a school in Guatemala that sometimes hosts American missions teams. Though I’ve only been here for a year and don’t claim to be an expert on everything that goes on here, my students have some thoughts they have shared with me over the past few months about the parade of well-meaning Evangelicals who have come and gone over the years.
First of all, they’ve dealt with a lot of crazy. They’ve seen people come down here trying to cast out demons in the name of Christ. They have learned to speak in tongues. They have been told that if your physical ailment isn’t miraculously healed, then you don’t have enough faith.
Two years ago, a team came down who conducted a week long workshop for the middle and high school students on sexual purity. They learned about the dangers of plunging necklines and tight jeans, and participated in an activity where they all had to demonstrate appropriate side-hugs, because you know girls, when guys hug you from the front they really just want to feel your boobs. They told me how at the end of the week, the guys felt like they were mindless creatures who only think about sex, and the girls felt like they were promiscuous if they didn’t prevent it. “It’s like they thought we were all bad, and the Americans were responsible for making us good,” one of my students said.
It reminded me of something I had heard when I traveled to Kenya a few years ago. The family who hosted us told us about how in their culture, they have come to believe that black is bad, and white is good. And even while praying for Jesus to make their sins “as white as snow”, there is this idea that they will never, truly be good because they can never, truly be white.
While I do recognize that missionaries have done a lot of good over the years, In many cases, the Gospel of Christ is brought to the rest of the world with a heaping dose of good, old-fashioned American legalism.
On my trip to Kenya, I remember being confronted by one of the leaders of our team for creating disunity. I wouldn’t preach about moral values. I wouldn’t say that drinking alcohol was sinful. I brought it to their attention that a puppet skit we were doing included some truly horrific racial stereotypes. I only begrudgingly participated in a human video set to a Carman song from 1985. While I probably could have tried a little harder to go with the program, in some ways, I felt like we were exporting the very worst of American Christianity to the other side of the world. My friends in Kenya now read books by Joel Osteen and believe that if they could only have enough faith, they too will be able to buy a big house in Texas.
And what I’ve concluded from both the giving and the receiving end is that these sorts of short-term visits are more beneficial for the missions team than they are for anyone else. The teams who visit us in Guatemala may not know our students—they may not know where they are at or what they really need to hear, but they can still walk away feeling like they made a difference.
I teach at a private Christian school, and while our students may not be technically underprivileged or particularly in need of evangelism, I promise you they will look cute in your Facebook photos. And if you ask them to raise their hand if they accepted Jesus, I promise you they will all raise their hands. (Or at least the ones who are seven and under, who are all looking around the room through squinted eyes to see if their friends are doing it too.) I hear that will look really good in your church bulletin—”Because of your generous financial support, 98 little children in Guatemala accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.”
However, sometimes I wonder. Would my students trust me more if they hadn’t come into contact with so many Christians who are just there to save their souls and then go home? And when their eyes glaze over during our school’s weekly chapel meeting, would they be more receptive to what we have to say about the teachings of Jesus if they hadn’t previously associated them with so much legalism and bad theology? Sometimes I really don’t blame them for throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In a lot of ways, I have too.
Some people might read this and dismiss me as just another angry millennial who is stirring up the pot, criticizing White American Christianity and all that it stands for. And if you want to dismiss me, go ahead. You have my permission. But please don’t dismiss them. Please don’t use my students as pawns in your culture war. Because years later, they still remember you.
I don’t have the answers, but I know this isn’t working. I know we can do better, for their sake as well as our own.