In the past three weeks we have been overwhelmed with images of religious groups descending upon the island of Haiti, uniting religious solidarity and aid, most often in the name of Jesus Christ. From Pat Robertson’s Operation Blessing distributing food and water in Port-Au-Prince to Christian Scientists working side by side with US doctors in the many makeshift hospitals that now dot the capital, to the dramatic arrest of ten Southern Baptist Missionaries accused of kidnapping, these images beg the question of the connection between aid and evangelization. And, perhaps more harshly, these incidents force us to wonder if the “good” these groups bring is outweighed by the manner in which their ignorance is a destructive force in the global South.
The current North American missionary wave—often in the guise of aid—is not new to the Caribbean and Latin America. The twentieth century is marked particularly by the increased presence of Protestant denominations in traditionally Roman Catholic countries. Haiti is no exception. These North American missionary groups, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, bring US cultural Christian values, along with their food, medicine, textbooks, and able hands ready to build schools, clinics, and homes for the poor. Ultimately they impose a worldview upon populations, remaining blissfully unaware of the cultural, historical, and religious intricacies of the countries they visit.
In addition to the traditional missionary formula, there has been an increase in the past decade of what are known as “immersion trips,” yet another form of Christian imperialism (otherwise known as theological tourism) south of the Rio Grande. Universities and churches assemble groups of eager participants to descend upon countries full of poor people that need the help and money the United States provides. Participants “immerse” themselves in the concrete lives of poor people, feeling that after a week (!) of living alongside a community they understand and know what is best for these poor populations.
For two years I lived in San Lucas Tolimán, a predominantly Mayan town in the Highlands of Guatemala. For those years I volunteered at the Roman Catholic Mission and its various outreach projects to the local Mayan community. Spearheaded by Fr. Greg Schaffer, a Minnesotan Roman Catholic priest who has spent close to fifty years living in and struggling with the community, the vision underlying the Mission is the empowerment of the local Mayan community. Projects such as Fair Trade coffee, land redistribution, education, health care, and reforestation dominate the Mission’s work, which is led by a collective of local Mayan leaders. In addition, there is an extensive volunteer program for groups and individuals from the United States whose ultimate goal is cultivating global solidarity. My husband, a native of San Lucas who was head of the groups and volunteers for five years, handled the two to three thousand North Americans that came from churches and schools across the United States in order to provide financial and physical aid to the Mission’s projects.
I met my husband when I descended upon San Lucas as the faculty leader of an eager group of undergraduates who, fueled by the mission of our Jesuit University and the readings of Latin American liberation theology I had given them, were ready to save the poor. Years later, when I lived in San Lucas and served as a quasi-host for similar groups, I cringed at their comments about “the happy poor” who smiled in spite of their suffering, the candy they would give toothless children whose families could not afford toothpaste, and who often declared that all Guatemala needed was some American motivation and technology to move ahead. I would also constantly remind smug North Americans that while the aid they brought was significant, the money they spent on their trip to “experience” the poor could have fed a family of ten in this local community.
I do not want to devalue the importance of these trips or the need to cultivate global solidarity. I also do not want to question the good intentions of the thousands of individuals whom I met over the years. Without the commitment and money of individuals from the United States the Mission could never have built homes for thousands of families, supported close to thirty schools, or created an infrastructure in this community. And yet the smugness with which some leave San Lucas, that self-satisfaction of “making a difference,” is like a thorn in my side—for what we all have come to know is that such immersion experiences affect the visitor much more than the resident who is left behind.
I am bringing a group of eager undergrads to San Lucas next month. Clearly I see the value of these trips. Yet I am bringing a group who has studied Guatemalan culture, religion, and politics. This preparation will not control the individual reaction, yet can contextualize it. I can remind them that the iPods and brand name clothing they wear can create a sense of longing in a community that would not necessarily know such luxuries exist so readily. I can also remind them of the true impact, both negative and positive, of their presence. And more importantly, I can make them aware that we are not here to save a people but work side by side with individuals to slowly empower a community.
What do college immersion trips have to do with Baptists accused of kidnapping? Everything. For the attitude that has dominated mission work in Haiti, that we can somehow, even in our ignorance, save people from poverty—like mini-Messiahs incarnating briefly in their lands—can become the prevailing ethos in all intercultural exchange, no matter how well-intentioned.
Over sixty Roman Catholic Churches collapsed in the earthquake in Haiti, killing over one hundred nuns and priests. As the Haitian Catholic Church tries to rebuild, it worries about how the Haitian exodus to rural provinces (where, in some cases, Protestant denominations are more entrenched) will affect the future of Catholicism in this nation. International money and support will flood into Haiti on behalf of every Christian denomination that has ever had a foothold there, especially as communities go through the work of rebuilding. This aid is desperately needed, along with the presence of aid workers, yet the imperialist attitude that generally accompanies this mission work, this idea that we are “saving the poor,” must be checked at the door. Or at the very least, on the way out.