When Charity Masks Injustice: Thoughts from an Ex-Missionary

A bible lies open on the table with a purple marking ribbon hanging down the center. The bible fades to the washed out window behind it that

One of the things I love about the Voices section of this blog is that it creates an opportunity to share guest writers’ life experiences that are so incredibly different from my own. I can research a topic, break it down, explain it to you, but I can’t tell you what it’s like to live it unless someone who has, tells me their story first. That is why as a non-religious person, I’m so grateful to have today’s guest post to expand your horizons. Newbury Caulfield, who is now an ex-missionary, looks at how her relationship with her faith evolved over time and how that process was influenced by the sometimes oppressive mechanisms within missionary work.

CN: in depth discussion of christian culture and religious institutions, othering and neglect of marginalized groups, stigmatization of mental illness, abuse of power.

After I graduated college, I became an urban missionary for two evangelical Christian organizations; an experience that ended up temporarily dismantling my faith.

I have always been spiritual. During college, I wrestled back and forth with concepts of psychology, philosophy, and theology in attempts to formulate a concrete belief system for myself. I was committed to Sunday worship, Wednesday evening Bible study and daily study of “the word” (what Christians call the Bible). I took a pledge to abstain from sex before marriage, frowned upon drunkenness and was determined to be kind above all else. After graduation, I became a full-time missionary in hopes to serve God fully.

I did missionary work for a couple of years. In my first position, I acted as a host that led visiting church groups around the city to different volunteer opportunities. Realistically these volunteer trips were opportunities for church groups to evangelize to the “lost,” those who are not Christians.

In my second position, I lived in one of the poorest neighborhoods in a US city, where it is not uncommon for a family of six to live in two-room economy apartments that look like hotel rooms. I lived in a tiny bedroom above a kitchen that serviced a food pantry and was a part of a Christian community that felt like a commune. In this role, I taught in the church’s school and helped lead a youth mentor program.

Many nights I struggled with the unhealthy power dynamics that I saw playing out within these church organizations: Pastors owning multiple properties in town while staff lived below the poverty line, ministries feeding homeless individuals spoiled food at outreach gatherings, and perpetual bigotry. When feeling overwhelmed with what I was seeing and feeling I would walk a couple of blocks away, sit on the curb and converse about these abstract issues with homeless people from the neighborhood. In those moments I had no agenda. It was there that I found a glimpse of God. These interactions are what kept me devoted to mission work despite the harm I was seeing be done.

Below are three unique realizations about my time as an urban missionary that I hope will help justice workers in their pursuit of making this world more equitable.

The Poor are Exploited for Profit

When I worked as a host for Christian volunteers, we started each trip with something called a “Prayer Tour”. During this tour, we would drive around the city inside of a 12-passenger van and talk about the community’s disparities. Essentially, we were saying how horrible the living conditions were and how badly God needed to help “them.” Hosts would point out graffiti and theorize about the gang members who wrote it. The point of the prayer tour was to emphasize how much the city needed God and needed this group to share God with them so that they could be saved. The longer I lived in this specific community, the more I understood that the content in this “Prayer Tour” was a grotesque exaggeration that did not fully capture the essence of the city. This city had much more vibrancy, hope, and beauty than the tour was letting on.

Halfway through my stint with this position, I realized that all the tour guides were transplants from other communities. I began to wonder, how would these “Prayer Tours” look different if someone from the community were present?

I decided to ask the president of the organization if we could start hiring staff from the community to better represent the people of the community. I was met with resistance that ultimately led to me leaving the organization.

It was at that point I realized that making places seem unlivable, hopeless, dirty, and shameful is a big part of generating income for mission organizations. Sensationalizing social problems, poverty and the need for prayer make mission groups feel needed. Mission groups were paying more to attend these trips than a group would pay to visit a mid-range, all-inclusive hotel in Cancun. Many mission organizations profit from the “us and them” mentality.

This strategy is ultimately harmful to individuals who live in these communities and to trip participants themselves. While the harm to the vulnerable community seems obvious, the strategy (whether intentional or not) can be damaging to the youth attending these trips as well.

Teaching youth to see people who do not share the same faith and/or express it in the same way, as less than, can cause immense cognitive dissonance. There is a phrase from the Bible that was used by many Youth Pastors during these trips: “We are in the world but we are not of the world.” The Youth Pastor would say this to the youth they brought during a morning devotional or Bible study to emphasize how by being a Christian you are different, not like the people you are evangelizing to. This polarizing phrase often left youth feeling fearful, confused and sometimes engorged with pride or arrogance.

A middle aged woman in formal clothing speaks guidance to a younger woman with a bright blue t-shirt and curly hair. The younger woman looks uncertain but hopeful.

Counselors are not Counselors

In the Christian world, you can either become a full-time missionary– often times committing to a year or more of service work– or you can go on a short-term mission trip.

Many churches and ministries have staff members that are full-time missionaries that take on the role of church counselor (Marriage Counselor, Youth Counselor, Outreach Counselor, etc.) Often, these individuals have had no clinical or formal counseling training. In the church or in a ministry people can feel called to a counseling role, which means an individual believes that God has told them to take on this vocation. That calling is often enough grounds for a church to administer the person a counseling title.

Some of these “called” Christian “counselors” believe that mental illness is just evil manifesting in an individual. Congregants and the general public sometimes do not understand that these counselors are not licensed professionals. Without a clear understanding, individuals heedlessly take guidance, advice, and direction from faith leaders pertaining to what are often mental health-related issues. Taking this guidance can be damaging to congregants especially if significant mental health issues are not being properly treated. It is an injustice to brush off PTSD, OCD, anxiety, depression or any other diagnosable mental illness as a character flaw and/or evil spirit that someone can rid themselves of through prayer alone.

Workers Live Below the Poverty line in the Name of the “Calling”

Evangelicals take their communication with God very seriously. There is a lot of pressure within the church to regularly communicate with God and understand your life’s path and people are encouraged to listen to God’s “quiet voice” and follow his will regardless of their wants.

A banner ad for Kella's Etsy shop demonstrating social justice themed products: A brown apron covered in little baking illustrations and the words "Bake the world a better place," a sticker with five colorful intersecting circles and the words "The future is intersectional", a pink mug with a pair of ice cream cones making the shape of a heart and the text "you could never be ice cream you're too hot and a person."

Individuals often seek employment at a church because they feel called. Usually, they are people who are regular churchgoers that feel a need to go “deeper” into their spiritual walk with God. This calling is a spiritual reason that can be a drastic move for the individual because oftentimes they are leaving aspects of their life that they consider worldly. Sometimes they are leaving vocations or positions with high salaries to serve God as a missionary. This decision is considered very noble in church circles. Churches tend to capitalize on an individual’s willingness to follow God’s calling by paying unlivable wages to those doing “God’s work.”

Doing God’s work should not dismantle an individual financially. A calling is not a reason to place oneself into destitution, yet I see it happen all the time in the church.

I have seen people hired into these roles for less than $6.00 an hour; no benefits, no room for advancement, no encouragement toward higher education and absolutely no holidays off! If you are working for God, wouldn’t God pay you a hell of a lot more than that?

I have seen ministries insist on missionaries and employees fundraising half of their salary, two months after being hired. I have seen ministries decrease wages exponentially six months after hiring for no reason at all. I have watched people do the work of three caseworkers at ministries all the while being paid less than a part-time food service worker.

Many idealist Christians follow their calling despite their wages, wellbeing, and security. In the church, this is seen as admirable and a display of faithfulness. Christians are encouraged to listen to God and go regardless of the implications. You are serving; therefore, you should be content in the Lord. The people working under these conditions are too afraid to ask for more money. They may fear that they will sound prideful or greedy to the pastors or in the eyes of God.

This is an injustice. Why is the place that so many run to for healing and health allowing this to happen to their missionaries and employees?

Inside a large church with dark wooden pews and ornate lanters hanging above. There is a colorful and detailed trio of stained glass windows on the far wall.

Many go to church with the hope of being healed from something. Many Christians hold the belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with them, and their only hope to get better rests in healing through the church. Churches and related organizations promote themselves as being places filled with love but sometimes I see places that capitalize on self-hatred. Perhaps some church organizations are simply businesses participating in a supply and demand chain?

When mission work harms the marginalized but rewards the privileged, society seems to brush off the injustices within this work because volunteers and missionaries are helping, selfless and kind, right? We must look deeper at the practices within Christian mission work and not accept it at face value. We must protect our world’s vulnerable populations the best that we can.

Christian mission work is broken. Becoming a missionary was my attempt at getting closer to God. The experience ultimately dismantled my faith. I am now reconstructing it piece by piece.

A woman walks across a large wooden bridge with railroad tracks next to her, metal beams above, and muddy water beneath. She's wearing a blue summer dress, a straw hat, and a large olive colored backpack. She is facing away from the camera.

About the guest blogger: Newbury Caulfield is a college professor, ex- missionary, lover of poetry who is obsessed with analyzing culture, society and paradox. You can find her on Twitter and Tumblr.

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