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An Ongoing Struggle to Redefine Mission

There’s been much in the news recently about the group from Idaho, Baptist Christians, who decided to jump-start a program for orphans in Haiti . They flew in and gathered 33 children, including a few who still have parents, and apparently planned to settle them at a temporary orphanage in the Dominican Republic, whence they could be adopted by families in the US. The New York Times reported Friday that the group members are being charged with child abduction and criminal conspiracy, though not with the worse crime of trafficking.

The group members have acknowledged that they broke the law, but insist that they are innocent of any wrongdoing; one said that, “our hearts were in the right place”. “We simply wanted to help the children”, said the leader of the group.

The members of the group are referred to, by themselves and others, as “missionaries”.

Let’s assume that the whole thing is a series of honest mistakes, and that there was no intent to separate children from their families. The fact is, the project did not go wrong when the group started taking children who still had parents, it has a questionable beginning.

The “missionaries” from Idaho were not short on good intentions, but they were lacking a few things that are essential for mission. Their case speaks volumes as to why just having one’s “heart in the right place” is not enough.

Firstly, we must ask the question, “What is mission?” to fairly critique the Idaho group. In the U.S., ours is a culture that places emphasis on “doing” rather than “being”. In fact, if we are not doing something, we’re wasting time and resources–maybe we are seen as being lazy. Mission, though, turns our North American ideal of “doing” on its head. When we enter other cultures, it is more important for people to see us, get to know us, and to be known by us; this is the essence of Franciscan “ministry of presence”. True mission occurs through partnership and cooperation with the poor. Rather than coming with the intention of implementing program after program, missioners who engage in the ministry of presence spend time with and listening to people, creating a partnership. The Idaho group’s avowed purpose was simply to rescue children and leave.

Secondly, they lacked cross-cultural training and sensitivity. They seemingly had made no attempt to understand the needs of the Haitian people; they disrespected the population they encountered by assuming that their children would be better off in an orphanage than with their own people. In training, our missioners are reminded again and again of the importance of becoming aware of and respecting local ways of life and methods of problem-solving. They are advised during their first year of mission to keep their “eyes and ears open and mouth shut”, to avoid judging their adoptive culture by comparing it to their own. The Gospel message, conveyed in our words and actions, is not confined to one cultural method of expression. Cultural sensitivity goes hand-in-hand with the ministry of presence, and is essential for authentic, compassionate mission.

Finally, this group lacked a commission from the Church. Doubtless their home churches in Idaho would disagree, but though the call to mission is universal, to witness to the Gospel in a foreign country as an identified representative of the Church requires more than a good will. A person must be formed and sent, not on a whim, but with extensive training and the full support and backing of a faith community. A quick “in-and-out” is contrary to everything meant by the name “missionary”.

That name has fallen into disrepute over the last few centuries because of the mindset and actions of many of those who went on mission. They assumed that the people they were going to “save” were naturally inferior, and would benefit not only from the Gospel, but from being forced to adopt Western culture as well. The missionaries had come to teach, and therefore the “natives” must be there to learn.

This “us-and-them” mindset unfortunately survives in the attitude to charity and social action that many of us in North America take. We go in looking for problems, intending to solve them with our superior resources and abilities; we expect to fix everything. We take it for granted that there is a one-way relationship between those helping and those being helped.

When we do this, we overlook people. We avoid actually interacting with our fellow human beings, and avoid recognizing the good that they can do for themselves, and for us.

The Catholic Church teaches that there is an innate dignity in the human person, especially of the sick, the poor, the marginalized. It teaches that people are not props to be used when others want to play the role of hero; we are all children of God, and because of God’s love we have a value that no situation can diminish. Indeed, most often the orphans, widows, and aliens have more to give us than the other way around.

St. Francis understood this as few others have since. He saw that the Christian call to service does not make sense as a sort of divinely-ordained balancing act whereby those with gifts redistribute some of them to those without; the call to service makes sense simply because all people are eminently worthy of service. St. Francis embraced the leper for the same reason he challenged the sultan: he recognized Christ in each of them. He fell down before his fellow man as he did before his God, for he saw the latter in the former.

May we all come to understand as he did. May the way of Francis be the standard for all missioners.

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We prepare and support lay Catholics for two-year international, one-year domestic and 1-2 week short-term mission service opportunities in solidarity with impoverished and marginalized communities across the globe.

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