A few days ago I went to a lecture by John Pavlovitz. He spoke passionately about the church’s need to embrace an expansive hope, to keep extending the table, because the table belongs to Christ, not to us. I think a lot about extending the table, in part because I drive past a restaurant renovation every day on my way to and from town. The restaurant will be called “Sawhorse” because the new owners grew up in a family that used sawhorses to expand the table, to welcome guests for any meal. It’s an approach to hospitality and abundance that is inspiring. After the recent General Conference vote to add more punitive measures to LGBTQ exclusion in the UMC and the mosque shootings in Christchurch, NZ, I needed to hear words of hope and inspiration to continue living into the way of Christ the peacemaker. I’m grateful for the work and ministry that John is doing.
One thing he said caught my mission-oriented ear however, and it is an all-too-common thing I hear from people who have been on mission trips. “They had nothing.”
Pavlovitz was describing the joy and warmth of the young people at a school in Kenya, where he and his wife were visiting. By the way he described it, the village must have been in a rural area and likely one struggling with poverty. It is shocking to US citizens who travel to discover the depths of poverty that affect the majority of the world’s citizens. It is shocking for US citizens to discover that poverty affects so many people right here in our own country. Sometimes it takes a short-term mission trip to push us beyond our familiar streets, neighborhoods and stores to see the reality of poverty and how it affects our neighbors. Yet, we can be restricted in how we view our neighbors because of our perspective.
Our perspective is the set of unconscious lenses we wear when we look at the world. Dr. Cate Denial is a historian who recently described an exercise she used to help her students understand the perspectives they bring to the study of history. She had students pair up, with one describing a set of objects to another whose back was turned away from the objects while they drew what was described to them. Student pairs were scattered around the room, with the objects on the desk at the front of the room. They shared their drawings and discussed the differences between them. Great questions were raised about primary sources (the persons who were describing the objects) and perspective. The students began to consider other lenses that affect our perspective - cultural background, education, ideology.
In short-term mission, our perspective is impacted by the unconscious lenses we wear. Our cultural background affects how we think about money. Our education colors how we think about other people and governmental systems. Our own political views are a lens. When we travel, we bring our perspectives with us, and these affect how we think about and talk about our neighbors in other places. The common phrase “they had so little” or “they had nothing” can be a perspective that comes from our affluence. We may not realize that we understand “what we have” in material terms, while the people who are welcoming us understand “what we have” in terms of hospitality.
When Pavlovitz visited Kenya, the young people who greeted him likely welcomed him with joyful songs and cheerful smiles. Their perspective was that they offered him their best hospitality, which is what they had in abundance. What if when we return home from mission trips we talked about our hosts in terms of what they had instead of what they lacked, which came from not unpacking our perspective? What if we took off our lens of materialism and consumerism to see that our humanity is what we share and judge people from a perspective of hospitable generosity? Then we can say “they gave us their very best”.
Unpacking our perspective and understanding the unconscious lenses that we wear on mission trips is important, because how we talk about our neighbors matters. How we talk with them matters. How we talk about them when we return home matters. The concept of Ubuntu means “I am because We are.” I am more fully human, more fully who God created me to be because we are in relationship. I am, because we are. How we talk about our neighbors matters, to us and to our shared humanity in Christ.