Life is changing drastically for me in the next few weeks. I will be joining my fiancé in Swaziland doing work with a church in the town she lives and works. I was speaking to a gentleman at church this past Sunday saying that in the life of discipleship, we don’t chart our own course, but the way is well worth it. Perhaps there is a way for me to be useful; maybe my passions will meet opportunities to help others in ways I wouldn’t expect. Whatever the case may be, isn’t it the drama of life to “wait and see”?
I am a student of history. In 2012, during my last semester at George Mason University, I read Orthodoxy by Chesterton and The Cross and the Lynching Tree by Cone. That was the turning point for me which has led to who I am today, more or less. As I’ve been preparing to enter a new world in a different part of the world, I am drawn to the history of the place and the practices. In “world history time,” South Africa just got out of apartheid; affectively, that means the effects, memories, scars, and hopes from that time are more fresh than, say, those from Jim Crow segregation (in some ways. Unlike America, South Africa doesn’t have a doctrine of exceptionalism/manifest destiny which precludes an honest view of national history).
There is also a history of mission work in Africa generally, and in Southern Africa specifically. I was born and raised in Kenya before my family and I immigrated to the States; basically my whole family is in Kenya. My parents have shared with me stories from the days when the missionary and colonizer were two sides of the same coin, and the deep wounds my ancestors bore in the name of “religion” and “civilization.” One fruitful aspect of missiology studies which I was fortunate to encounter at seminary is the coming to terms with the duplicitous nature of global missions particularly in the “age of discovery” as well as the age of revolution during the twentieth century. Such is not a moral claim but rather a descriptive one: non-Western missions has a troubled past.
What I have noticed is that although the colonizer spirit is by and large extinct from the ethos of missions, both academically and among the laity, there still persists a spirit of paternalism towards Africa especially. Africa remains the perpetual hungry child in need of a meal, shoes, a bible, and a book. I was teased all the way from middle school to my college days about being a compassion child. Africa is still “backward” in many respects. It is still an exotic land that is ripe for the saving. These dispositions are dangerous even if the effects may be positive, e.g. schools, healthcare, churches and training resources, etc. It is true that pastors and churches are in need of resources, materials, and money; but let it be said that the continent of Africa does not need–or want–to become like America.
Paternalism is a condescending attitude, and truthfully, is a motivating attitude in mission work. The facetious “missionary Barbie” is a caricature of that attitude. The people who wander on short term missions just to take photos with black babies with no respect to their personhood. The person who thinks that missions “out there” is worth more than the hungry man in their city because people live in “huts” out there. In short, there is glory in paternalism. There is a savior in the paternalistic ego.
I am going to help the church in Swaziland the best I can. I am entering missions with a dialogical perspective, where I and thou are transformed by our mutual encounter with each other.