The Common Good
November-December 2002

A River of Crocodiles

by Jo Ann Heydron | November-December 2002

What's the real purpose of 'mission trips'?

On my way to El Salvador last spring, I spent an hour in the Houston airport. I quickly discovered that I wasn't the only Christian headed south that day. Three groups of 20 or 30 marched past, each dressed in matching T-shirts with a Bible verse on the back. One lined up to go to Quito, Ecuador, another to Guatemala City. I didn't stop these missioners to read their T-shirts, but if they shared the philosophy expressed on the countless church Web sites I've visited recently, the verse may well have been Matthew 28:19, often called the Great Commission: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations."

In practice, however, evangelism usually takes a back seat on trips made by members of both conservative and liberal churches. Most missioners I've talked to, regardless of their fundamentalism or lack of it, can afford to look askance at the white American pastor of Barbara Kingsolver's novel The Poisonwood Bible, who tries to coax terrified Africans into a river full of crocodiles to baptize them. Some may think evangelism should take a front seat when they board their planes, but on most trips other purposes quickly become primary: building schools or delivering medical care, learning, giving back, being transformed. Often the missioners themselves are the converted ones. We learn from the poor of Latin America important lessons on how to live in community, depend on God in a daily and radical way, and preserve hope.

The group I met and traveled with doesn't even call its trips missions but instead conceives of them as solidarity visits with friends, as accompaniment of people struggling in poverty to maintain their dignity. Our leader was a woman making her 18th visit to our rural partner community since the Salvadoran peace accords in 1992, our facilitator was a smart and sensitive man from an organization called Voices on the Border. Democratically elected local leaders proposed ways for us to give aid; we continue to fund leadership and teacher training along with health care and irrigation. Increasingly we give help in the wider area so as not to set one community against another.

One long-time worker among El Salvador's poor made a strong impression on me. Jesuit Miguel Ventura, a priest formerly in the department of Morazán and now director of the Segundo Montes Foundation, spoke to my group about the Salvadoran people's "historic project" to analyze their reality and make change. What, he asked, did we believe was the historic project of citizens of the United States?

What worries me is that, unless the actions we Christian travelers take when we return home speak otherwise, our historic project may turn out to be evangelism after all—evangelism for the U.S. government and global capital. Our very munificence may proselytize for Bush's foreign policy, which seems to amount now to two things: free trade and the war on terrorism.

WE GO TO VILLAGES where there may be no potable water, but there is often electricity—and television, whose main message is American-style consumption. This spring, programming was often interrupted by a static shot of the American flag blowing in the wind. "The Star-Spangled Banner" played in the background while a deep male voice announced the "glorious" visit of the "magnificent" president of the United States set for March 24. Bush flew into San Salvador for five hours that day to stump for the Central American Free Trade Agreement. This happened to be the anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero's assassination, a coincidence Bush failed to mention.

We need to find out why most of those on the receiving end of free trade, in Latin America and elsewhere, believe that it props up existing power structures and discourages the development of programs that would alleviate popular misery in the long term, programs for which no number of two-week mission trips can compensate. We need to see connections between cold-blooded military arrogance and economic control. We should not assume that what works for us (in the prosperous communities from which mission trips tend to originate) necessarily works for others.

Let's be fed by these trips, and when we get home, let's use that energy to make ourselves heard.

Jo Ann Heydron traveled to El Salvador with a group from South Bay Sanctuary Covenant, based in Palo Alto, California. She was working on a novel titled Rescue Me, in part about missionary impulses, when this article appeared.

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