While I have not posted much about the content of the training we're having here at Bethany, there’s been some very thought-provoking discussions and topics. One of the trainings discussed the “spirituality of fundraising,” viewing the relationship between missioner and donor as more than a one-way flow of funds, but rather a partnership where BOTH individuals are participating in mission. The discussion for the day focused a lot on the writings and thoughts of Fr. Henri Nouwen, a name I had heard but someone about whom I was largely unfamiliar. Henri Nouwen, though not a Maryknoll priest, worked with Maryknolls and he published his journal about his time in Latin America entitled Gracias!.
We read several excerpts from this book, but the one I picked up struck me as very profound. The quote discusses the motivations for why an individual would choose to be a missioner (more on the quote in a minute). This is a question that is not always easy to answer. As one of our leaders mentioned today, there’s something that certainly draws us to living in a certain ‘intensity” by living overseas; if we want to serve others and follow Christ’s teachings, we can do that HERE in the US. There’s some other draw that makes us give up our lives here and move to unfamiliar cultures and learn a new language and get sick and move to potentially dangerous areas. Something about that scenario speaks to us. It will be different for each of us.
There’s been quite a lot of discussion about motivation during the trainings, and actually some debate over whether one can have a pure motivation or whether we are each a tangle of different (and sometimes conflicting) motivations. I think the latter concept certainly describes me; I know that I am answering a call and feel driven by my faith, but I know there’s a lot more motive mixed up in there, and not all of it is good.
For me, there’s a lot in my head, certainly more than I have unpacked and understood, but today I gave this some thought. Certainly, my driving motivation is to live in solidarity with the poor, to live my Christian faith, but in a really extreme way. I have a hard time disconnecting from my normal routine and “living mission” here at home, so the act of uprooting myself and immersing myself completely in mission is appealing to me- but on some level, it’s a cop-out. Why can’t I do that here?
Well, another motivation is that I want to live in Africa. This to me is a very pure motive and yet one that is solely focused on MY desire. Yet it is one that I can easily merge with the mission call. Africa interests me, and I want to go there and experience it, the beauty, the struggles, the happiness and sadness, the overwhelming joy and the unbearable pain. I want to live in solidarity among the people and seek to better understand what it is to be a part of this world.
Another motivation is a little harder to admit because it is rooted in pride, but here goes: at some deep down, subconscious level, I think I want to do this because it seems to impress people. I come from a small Mississippi town, a place that does not exactly spur within people the desire to head to far-off lands. When people hear what we are doing, people seem impressed, or people think we're crazy, and both are OK to me. I want to live an interesting life so people will say “Man, that Chris Reid. He certainly did some amazing things!” This desire to “be impressive,” to break free of the shackles of a small-town life- is both arrogant and insulting to the people of my hometown. The desire to look “cool” in comparison to other’s lives is about as UN-Christian as one can get. I’m not proud of it, but I will at least own it and acknowledge it as one of the darker aspects of my self.
So back to Henri Nouwen. In the quote below, he discusses two dangerous motiviations for choosing mission, and both resonate with me. First, the quote (emphasis added by me):
The two most damaging motives in the makeup of missioners seem to be guilt and the desire to save. Both form the extremes of a long continuum, both make life in the mission extremely painful. As long as I go to a poor country because I feel guilty about my wealth, whether financial or mental, I am in for a lot of trouble. The problem with guilt is that it is not taken away by work. Hard work for the poor may push my guilt underground for awhile, but can never really take it away. Guilt has roots deeper than can be reached through acts of service. On the other hand, the desire to save people from sin, from poverty, or from exploitation can be just as harmful, because the harder one tries the more one is confronted with one’s own limitations. Many hard working men and women have seen the situation getting worse during their missionary career; and if they depended solely on the success of their work, they would quickly lost their sense of self worth. Although a sense of guilt and a desire to save can be very destructive and depressive for missioners, I do not think that we are ever totally free from either. We feel guilty and we desire to bring about change. These experiences will always play a part in our daily life.
–Excerpt of Henri J.M. Nouwen’s March 5 journal entry from ¡Gracias! A Latin American Journal (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1983)
This text really speaks to me: if you are going to atone for guilt- your own guilt, or guilt from a unjust history that has provided you benefit- that guilt is only going to get worse when you immerse yourself in the pain and poverty of another nation. If your wealth or power makes you feel guilty NOW, wait until it appears in such stark contrast as to make it inescapable. The desire to save- that’s also a hard one that challenges my social work instincts. Now, this does not mean we cannot work for change, but it does remind us to know our role. WE aren’t saving anyone. We’re going to accompany the poor and marginalized, to listen to their stories, and assist how they want. But we need to know that we may not leave with a resume of amazing accomplishments. Hopefully we will leave with new friendships and with a sense of gratitude that we have been able to be a part of these people’s lives.
Fr. Nouwen continues on to say that whatever the motivation, all missioners lives should work toward being Christ-centered. That’s the crux of Henri Nouwen’s thought here: live in humility and in gratitude. Gratitude that we have the blessing to serve others in solidarity. I cannot be the savior; that’s not my role. But I can be the hands and feet of Christ, and for that I am thankful.
One last thought on my personal motivation: another reason I want to go overseas is to grow in my faith. I’m not going over to convert people. I’m not going over to teach people about how to be a good Christian. I’m going to Tanzania to let the poor and disenfranchised show ME what it truly means to follow Christ. I’m not serving as a missioner because I'm a good Christian; I’m serving because in many ways I don’t think I’m a particularly good Christian at all. I have a lot to learn.