If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, September 27, 2010

Mission as a Form of Exoticism : a personal reflection

*This article was published in the November 2010 edition of The Mennonite: http://www.themennonite.org/issues/13-11/articles/Mission_as_a_form_of_exoticism

Discovering the missional church concept

After 29 years in various pastoral roles within the US context I found myself working as a minister of peace and justice for a mission agency located in the global mission division. In this new role I felt I needed to upgrade my knowledge of mission and did some cursory reading. And although my primary area of responsibility was in peace and justice, I also needed to look at my work and the church through a “missional” lens. By “missional” I refer to the church as being sent by God in all aspects of its life and to all dimensions of the world.

Since Mennonite Church USA had becoming a missional church as a central mandate and my department (US Ministries) began working on the missional church agenda, I had to do a crash course on learning more about the concept. It was also important for me to make the connections between peace, justice, and mission within the agency and the church at large. Among the many things I learned about becoming missional was that this new vision of mission went beyond the old mission paradigm of sending missionaries to convert pagans in the non-Western world. A clear understanding of the increasing secularization of our North American context made where we live as much a mission field as any other place in the global village. I noticed in my reading an emphasis being placed upon mission within one’s own cultural context. Also, in the missional vision the local setting of the congregation received a renewed focus for mission.

Exoticism in mission

With this missional vision swimming in my head I began looking at our denomination, congregations, mission agency, and peace and justice work through a missional lens. I started noticing certain tendencies within the church toward what I will refer to as “exoticism.” In the 19th century exoticism, particularly in art and music, was expressed as the “charm of the unfamiliar,” a fascination with anything foreign and “other.” The expanding Western missionary movement during this same period did not remain immune from the virus of exoticism. The wider culture caught the exoticism bug and the church sneezed. The church was entranced by images, artifacts, and stories brought back by the missionaries they had sent to exotic lands. Mission was understood and practiced primarily within a global context. Mission had to do with being sent to other places than our own.

There is an almost natural fascination with the unfamiliar and exotic, which is understandable. Who doesn’t like to travel to other countries and explore their histories, customs and cultures? But, what I began observing in our church were some tendencies that express and reinforce an exoticism which seems to hinder mission understood and practiced more fully in its US and local contexts.

There appears to be a prevailing understanding of mission among individuals and congregations that is evidenced as an imbalance between financially supporting global mission work over practicing local mission work. If we think and talk about mission in our congregations primarily in terms of the visiting missionary with slides from a foreign land, who shows some artifacts, and shares some insights from another language, or the offering we took to support our favorite mission agency, as wonderful as that is, or point to the postcard from the couple from our congregation, more than how our congregation is practicing mission in our own local context, we are probably engaging, at least in some degree, in mission as a form of exoticism.

Sometimes exoticism expresses itself in the high level of admiration for and preference given to persons, more specifically white persons, with experience in another country over against those who have ministered in the US context. I’m not talking about the obvious preference given to such persons where that kind of experience is a requirement. People of color share stories around the “church water cooler” about the church’s tendency to offer high respect and preference for white persons and their work in other countries over against the kind of respect they would like to see for their leaders and work within urban contexts in the US that should be considered models of being missional.

Has the church significantly involved “racial/ ethnic” leaders and congregations, who are engaged in missional practice in North America, in telling their stories and sharing their knowledge and expertise with the wider church as much as we have utilized white “professional” missionaries we have sent to other countries? If not, doesn’t this reinforce engagement in mission as a form of exoticism?

Certain mission practices give clear evidence of this tendency toward mission as a form of exoticism. For example, the church has a longstanding practice of sending white missionaries to other countries while rarely sending people of color in the US who are from those countries and cultures, for whatever reason. How many of our missionaries are persons indigenous to the countries to which they are sent? And even though there have been efforts to place mission work in the hands of the indigenous people, the US church has no comprehensive, long term project and process for a full transference of power, decision making, leadership, and resources to indigenous people within the countries where we send predominantly white, North American missionaries. Is this not some form of exoticism?

US and local contexts a mission priority?

If the missional agenda with its renewed emphasis on the contextual and local is a priority, it would seem that the mission of the church in regional, congregational, rural and urban settings would also be a priority of the church. Within rural contexts the missional agenda calls for an understanding and practice that fits with the ethnic and racial diversity that now exists in the rural setting. Exoticism seems to be reinforced by our denomination and mission agencies inability to maintain a strong, wide ranging urban agenda, while there is strong support for international mission work. I am not speaking about the work of conferences, which support local congregations in mission and ministry within local and regional contexts. In spite of the fact that the church is becoming more and more urban, the urban agenda has struggled to have a vital, comprehensive, and adequately financed support within the denominational structure.

Our church’s strongest and well supported urban work has been providing short-term opportunities for predominantly white children of our congregations. A more comprehensive urban agenda would involve urban theological education, church development, church planting, urban networking, social ministry support, training of urban leaders and congregations, creating and supporting multicultural congregations, and on and on one could go. In the 70’s Latina/os started a theological education project in San Antonio, Texas, which was not fully supported by white Mennonite leadership. More current efforts have also struggled to find needed support. Is this struggle to support and expand the urban agenda a back door for exoticism in mission to enter?

I have to admit that even my work in peace and justice was not immune to a form of exoticism. Mennonites have had a long practice of peacemaking dominated by an agenda of addressing wars in foreign places over US justice issues. Is not peacemaking that directs is primary energies and resources toward wars on foreign soil a form of exoticism? Again, peacemaking focused on wars in other countries and contexts has not always drawn in people of color in that it has not been relevant to the US urban context of gang, school, and inner city violence, hand gun proliferation, racism, discrimination, economic injustice, and issues related to veterans of color. Peacemaking that neglects a more comprehensive understanding of shalom that includes personal, familial, interpersonal, and local contexts and which works for justice within the US is probably being seduced by some kind of exoticism.

I recognize the fact that within a global context the US has greater wealth and resources to share in mission than do many other countries. So, why wouldn’t the global mission work need greater support and resources than our own national and local missional work? This economic reality might answer some questions about what might be an imbalance between our global and domestic mission agendas, while it does not address other issues. For example, it does not address issues of where the power and decision making is located for mission work.

My personal observations are not meant to simply denigrate traditional global missions nor to state that the missional agenda within US and local contexts has been absent from the church and its mission agencies. There is much good work that is being done. They are rather to point to the continuing need to reform the church’s mission and to correct its imbalances that tend to downplay or neglect our own context as a mission field and for the church to engage at times in mission as a form of exoticism, particularly in light of the missional church vision.

Moving away from exoticism in mission

In conclusion, let me offer some brief signposts along the missional journey that indicate when mission is moving away from exoticism toward a renewed emphasis on the domestic and local:

1)When white North American congregations see their own local context as much a “mission field” as mission work in other countries.

2)When members of white North American congregations see themselves as missionaries.

3)When support for and the practice of mission work has to do as much with mission in local contexts as it does with work in global contexts.

4)When whites engaging in mission within the US context become as well informed about issues of culture, abuse of power, the messiness, contradictions, and blessings of working with US racial/ethnic groups as they are in doing their work as global missionaries.

5)When people of color already doing missional work in domestic contexts are given the voice, respect, support, and venues for sharing their stories and learnings with the wider church as those who have traveled to do mission work in global contexts.

6)When peacemaking is wed to justice, the global is local and the local is essential.

7)When our larger and longer vision of global mission moves us toward fully relinquishing power and control of global mission work into the hands of indigenous leaders and people where we send missionaries.

1 comment:

  1. Leo,

    Great article and I "got your back." After 11 years at MCC, exoticism continues to be the norm. As a person of color who is called to domestic missions, it can be frustrating and discouraging to see and hear your work denigrated and/or dismissed.
    i look forward to reading the responses to this article.