Modern Missionary: It’s not what it seems

Modern Missionary: It’s not what it seems

By: Russ Kern : February 07 2016 : () Comments Worship  Outreach  News  Missionary 

This article, written by Allison Westerhoff, first appeared on "Little Ginger Big World, January 13, 2016. You can see the original article here. During Global Missionary Orientation, our group of freshly called missionaries discussed the negative stereotypes about the term: missionary. I often cringe when I’m put into that category and I usually am really selective about what language I use when I describe what I’m doing in South Africa. Family? Safe to say missionary. Friends? Depends…but mostly safe. Church family? Definitely safe, and almost more so a bragging right. High school peers that I awkwardly ran into before I left? Avoid the topic, but if it comes up…avoid the word like demon possessed pigs. What does a modern missionary look like? When I say missionary, my mind doesn’t picture me, it pictures a less informed version of me. It imagines a young woman with sunglasses on her head, hair in a ponytail/braid/bun/action ready-do, denim shirt over a striped tank with a buff somewhere adorned around the neck or wrist, maxi skirt, and Chacos. Yet I own and have worn all of those things. When I say missionary, my mind doesn’t picture me, it pictures a girl with a Northface backpack full of gadgets and “travel must haves” including a e-reader, iPod, travel sized computer or tablet, excellent camera, and Camelback water bottle. Yet I own and have carried all of those things. What does a modern missionary even do? Well, missionaries were planted to spread the Gospel, usually using any means necessary. Culture shaming, fear, and bribery were often used. It’s a gritty and embarrassing past for the church, but without it, I wouldn’t be here. But I also would not be here if I didn’t believe in the ELCA’s missionary vision and mission. I am not here to evangelize or push my culture, but to accompany our partner churches by offering my gifts while connecting my home community with the community I entered in southern Africa. It’s a small form of reconciliation after years of cultural appropriation and influencing. As much as I repeat this to everyone I meet who asks what I’m doing, it still doesn’t change my title: missionary. So yes, I do wear TOMS and Chacos, own REI gear, quick dry pants, have travel sized toilet paper always ready in my bags, and have a lot of gadgets. As much as I’d like to look down on the eager youth I see in the airport with their newly bought travel clothes and luggage locks, I have to remember that I was that person once. I was bright eyed and naive. I still am. Stereotypes can sometimes be true. We put a lot of stock into labeling each other whether it’s by profession, college major, Hogwarts houses, political preference, personality types, love languages, nationality, gender, and/or race. I will always be white, American, and female. But the stereotypes that are connected to those three words are not always true about me. I am an American missionary in South Africa. But the stereotypes that are connected to that label are not who I am. I am proud of some of the labels like: female, California Lutheran University Alumni, former Mt. Cross camp counselor, Switchfoot fanatic, Hufflepuff, ELCA Lutheran. These labels help me relate to others but they do not define where I belong. Here’s the point: Labels can be dividing and/or binding, but they shouldn’t be singular and they shouldn’t be stationary. I am more than a missionary stereotype. People are more than the color of their skin. People are more than the traits of their personality. We all have stories, memories, and purpose. Finally, let’s remember that God calls us to be One. The Gospel and where it calls us may divide us (Matthew 10:34-39), but we shall be One in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). Sometimes we need labels and organization, but if apartheid taught the world anything it was that there needs to be radical one-ness and reconciliation born out of the divide for justice and peace to begin its reign. Of course, South Africa is far from healed but that radical push for forgiveness and acceptance of one another has led the way for true healing to begin. May we search for ways to deconstruct stereotypes we project onto others, and be open towards forgiving those who have pushed labels onto us.
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