Resisting the Urge to Perform African Missions

There is a common phrase among certain activist circles that says, “If you really want to discover who a person is, send them to Africa.”

There’s something about coming to Africa that draws out either the very best or worst in a person – or at the least – their truer motives where missions are concerned.

There are a quite a number of foreign missionaries living in this small municipality of 49,000 coming from afar afield as Germany, Austria and America. There are also native South Africans from bid cities like Jo’burg and Cape Town who have settled here in Plett and its environs who function as ministers in various capacities. After Michael and Nicole (temporarily) left the city, we replaced them as the ‘only’ African Americans in town. (I put ‘only’ in quotes, because there’s one other African American gent named Virgil who lives here as well, but he’s been such a permanent fixture for so long that he’s been adopted as a local.)

We haven’t had much opportunity to spend a lot of time with our European counterparts, as frankly, schedules and personalities don’t always align. We’ve spent a lot more time fellowshipping with the other Americans in the area: a family of four and two interns who moved here from Virginia and Tennessee. We spent the 4th of July and Thanksgiving together, as well as some random beach days. As fate would have it, one of the young ladies needed a space to rent and lived with us for 6 months until she found something more permanent. It was in that time that I got to observe her heart for missions and was incredibly touched by what I witnessed.

Let’s be honest: A lot of people – not just Americans – come to Africa motivated by pity. They look at this massive Dark Continent, populated by war lords, starving children and entrepreneurial women who make ends meet against all odds. Spurned by a savior mentality, they hop on the fastest thing smoking with delusions of grandeur. Why, in just two weeks spent as a volunteer shelling out porridge at XYZ shelter, you can transform a whole community! Your American/British/Australian presence alone will make a difference in the life of a man/woman/child enamored by your white skin – or in my case – a cool American accent. Oh…and you’re bringing Jesus to boot!

It’s the big sell. This is the narrative that gets offering plates returned to the back counting office with a little more heft than they would on a typical Sunday morning. The romantic idea that a young man/woman, armed with nothing more than their guitar and a song in their heart can run over to Africa and win it for Christ is a very comforting one. But the reality is much messier. It takes years to make an impact, and a lot of us foreigners don’t have the stamina to see the course to the end. So we fake impact. We fake it by posting pictures of ourselves surrounded by grinning brown children, swathed in dingy brown clothing on Instagram. We fake it when we return to the States with testimonies that exaggerate events in order to elicit an “ooohhh” response from the congregation, further adding to Africa’s alluring mystique and making the returning missionary seem more heroic than he/she truly deserves.

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The reality is that as I am typing this, I am seated in a quaint café, surrounded by the scents of scones, freshly squeezed ginger and hot apple pie. When I return to my car, I will be greeted by a gust of ocean breeze. The reality is, there is very little that the American missionary is doing in Africa that they cannot do in Flint, MI or Ringgold, GA. If you want to make a real impact, take a quick 3-hour drive to Ringgold or Dalton and preach a message of racial reconciliation. Or shoot, stand up to your own racist/misogynist/whatever family and challenge their views at the next gathering. I promise the impact will have an immediate ripple effect. Most of us are too scared to rock that particular boat because the consequences are impacting on a deeper and more personal level. A prophet may not have honor in his own town, but s/he owes it to the town to try to bring the word anyway.

But I digress: Back to this live-in intern, whom we will refer to as Amber* for the duration of this post.

Amber is a white woman in her 20s who has faced a dilemma over how she should present her work in this mission field. As I mentioned before, I am impressed with the integrity she has demonstrated in the process. Like we do, she keeps up a social media presence to let her home church know what she’s been up to over the course of the last two years. In that time, she admitted that it’s been hard to post pictures because, “everything is so beautiful here.” It doesn’t look like true African missions.

“And plus, everyone I work with is so…white,” she admitted. She jokingly added that while she does not post pictures because of the whiteness of it all, she has refused to embellish events or go into the townships and pose with little Black kids, even though she is aware that doing so would likely come with a greater monetary reward at the end.

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Barbie Savior. Source: Instagram

Her apprehension to post pictures of herself in a beach resort town on hikes in verdant mountains with white kids is understandable. That’s not what African missions looks like. To the average believer, that looks like a two-year getaway in paradise. And yet, this is where the Lord has placed her because that’s exactly what’s needed. Her non-judgmental compassion is needed at the pregnancy crisis center where she works twice a week. Her big sister presence in necessary for little girls who need someone they can relate to. Her athleticism lends itself to youth program in a town where the average church attendee is well over 40. (Or still in pull-ups.) And like her, most everyone she ministers to is white. It’s all still “African missions” because like God’s kingdom as a whole, Africa herself is incredibly diverse.

Nevertheless, this concept of performance – and the need to resist it – is something I admit I struggle with as well. Last night we spent 4 hours fellowshipping with an Afrikaaner woman – a single mother of four – who was really going through it. You name it, she’s enduring it: from a broken marriage, to her name being trashed in town as a whore, to facing eviction in a few weeks. Marshall, another couple and I sat and listened to her pour out her heart. She was very frank about how shattered she was feeling, often fighting back tears as she spoke. By the time we finished conversing with and praying for her, she admitted she was feeling a lot better. That night, she left a message with the couple who had accompanied us, telling them how much she appreciated our presence and how she felt like she had found a sister in me. In ME.

Meanwhile, all the while, I couldn’t shake how bizarre the whole scene would have looked if it were a LionsGate film. Here were four people of color here to “save” a white woman in Africa…a woman dealing with all the issues that are typically synonymous with Black womanhood. At least as pop culture is concerned. I felt it bizarre that I was being used in that environment, but we serve a totally bizarre God who does things that defy our reason. I’ve talked a lot about how other people view and perform African missions, but in truth I’m grateful for His shaking up my own prejudices as well.

 

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