During one very hot Texas summer many years ago, I went with a group of high school students to Harlingen, Texas for a mission trip. Every day, we gathered supplies from a local warehouse piled high with the discards of several grocery stores (the mission center organizers assured us that “expiration dates didn’t mean much anyway”), and loaded old school buses to cross the border into Matamoros, Mexico. We would stop the bus on the US side and get out to pray for safe passage before crossing the border, because you just can’t trust a bunch of ne’er-do-well white teenagers with WWJD bracelets and David Crowder T-Shirts.
Matamoros is a border city. In the rural area where we were, the locals leave the rebar poles sticking out of their homes because if they finished their houses, then they would be taxed at a higher rate, and many of them simply could not afford it.
Our main mission was bi-fold: to build a church, and to convert locals through a VBS program and handing out food.
I say it was the beginning of my doubts about “destination evangelism,” eg: going into communities that you do not know for the sole purpose of making converts. It started when I overheard a local who translated for us talking to another resident. The issue at hand was whether or not to put walls on the tin building. Matamoros is hot during the day, and there was no way to run electricity out to the glorified shed, so several residents wanted us to leave the walls off. The mission leadership insisted that it absolutely had to have walls (and a locking front door and several double-paned windows).
The second instance happened while we were painting a man’s home. He didn’t want his house painted, but we were there to “do good,” by golly, so he became the next unsuspecting victim of the “do good squad.” While we were painting, I noticed that by his front door, he had a Mary statue. I asked his daughter who spoke a little English if they went to church. “Si! Si!” She enthusiastically responded. In as much as we could communicate, I learned that almost everyone in the area was Catholic.
The day before, we ended the afternoon VBS and Bible study like we always did, with an altar call. While the mission organizers would not say it outright, we kept the food for distributing up front, so if you wanted food, the only way you could get it quickly and then get on with your day was to come forward. As I stood there talking to this middle schooler while her father looked painfully out the window as we vandalized his home in the name of Jesus, I realized that we had missed something. I had missed something. I was talking with a leader later who said that it was “Okay, because Catholics do not see Jesus as their ‘personal Lord and Savior,’ “ a concept with which I take great umbrage because it is just downright wrong.
The personalization of Jesus, the “individual wrapping” of the one who is more expansive than time itself, One with God, the Logos- the making of the Christ to be akin to a fun-size candy bar often undermines any actual work we can do in our communities.
When Jesus is mine, when I own my relationship with Christ, then it really doesn’t matter what your context is. I get to swoop in and tell you how to make Jesus yours! For free! (I’ll even throw in an expired can of beans!) However, if on the off chance that I have no ownership over anything (much less the God who created the universe), then it becomes imperative for me to at least listen to your story. Christ becomes a person and not a commodity, and you become a person and not a customer.
If I could go back and redo anything, I would listen more. I want to know what these people believed, how they worshipped, and what was important to them. I want to know how God was already at work in their community. I want to know, had we asked, what they really needed. What did the community need that we could have partnered with them to achieve? Maybe something as basic as helping a woman hunt down her missing chickens (because that was definitely a real thing that happened). Maybe it could have been something as real as building a pavilion that could be used for community gatherings, or installing new rollers to keep the neighborhood donkeys out of the road. I wonder what stories we would have learned. I wonder what God would have said to us all had we not been so busy handing out LifeWay tracts and building a church with double-paned windows and a locking door.