No I was not on a missions trip. The work of FSD is quite explicitly void of attachment to “missions” in the strictly religious interpretation of the word. This was important to me in my working with an international organization. It’s not that I don’t believe religiously based organizations can impact communities in beneficial ways, but I did not want my own travels to be underscored by the message accompanying many missions trips that what I have to offer is somehow better than what already exists.
Ivan Illich’s “To Hell With Good Intentions” powerfully criticizes the presence of foreigners in developing communities, especially those whose travel is religiously-motivated. I find myself agreeing more than I would like to with Illich’s assertion that kids from developed nations travelling to less developed nations will inevitably do more harm than good because the mindset of a first world college student is inherently unable to support the needs of a developing community.
Sometimes I begin to fear my presence in this distant community is so poorly motivated or purposeless that when I passed people on the streets and we didn’t smile at one another it seemed as if they was screaming “What the hell are you doing here?! Go back where you came from!” Because what good reason do I really have for being there? Mostly I would like to say to learn. But even learning can be argued to be a selfish personally enriching endeavor.
The best way I can find to argue with this is to improve my linguistic literacy. Only then can a non-harmful and hopefully even beneficial cultural exchange be had for the visitor and visited alike. Never had I realized before that linguistic literacy applies as much to the language you’re speaking as it does to the religion you’re speaking.
By the end of my time in Bukura I was waving hello with “Habari yako?” (Swahili: How are you?). Likewise, by the end of my time there, I was beginning to sign my emails with God Bless, something I wouldn’t have done beforehand nor continue to do now if I thought about it hard.
But is not “May God bless you” equivalent to “I wish you the very best”? Is not to be ‘Born Again’ the same as saying “I am committing myself to be my best self?” Is not a religion just a language? Language is often defined as “the system of communication used by a particular community to express thoughts and feelings.” Is that not precisely the purpose of a religion? Certain people typically subscribe to certain religions because of its applicability to their environment or life experience, so that they might better understand and be able to express their purpose in the world, or lack thereof.
To refuse to respect a Swahili speaker or even silently regard your pronunciation better than his would only be hurting yourself. Likewise it would be counterproductive for a Swahili speaker to expect or even hope that everyone would speak Swahili. As a language, no one religion can be completely discredited or singly credited. Religions, or spiritualties, or relational attachment to some omnipresent entity, or atheisms, or what have you, are structures for sharing thoughts based on different places, different concepts, and different people.
List of languages I need to learn/improve: Swahili, Spanish, Buddhism, Ruby, Arabic, Christianity, Python, Islamism, and musical notation. Yes, I am from Portland.