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Monday, June 5, 2023

Racialized dynamics of Chrisitan missions – Whiteness privileged, people of color objectified

In 2001, my wife & I were young adults newly married. We’d been invited to Jamaica by a Christian missions organization to see about joining their work. We were taken to a gated compound to stay in a massive house used to host short term teams who came to build houses.

Our hosts were a retired white couple who lived in the house year round & had a staff of Jamaicans who cooked, cleaned, did yard work & security. The first morning I woke in the big house to the sound of hedges being clipped & saw a Black man working outside our window.

We were brought to the dining room to eat & invited to sit down at a table with the missionary couple while the kitchen & yard staff ate at a table across the room. Uncomfortable, we asked why we were eating separately. We were told that’s how the Jamaicans preferred it.

The compound was a mansion on a beautiful mountainside in Highgate. The field director came to pick up my wife & me to show us their housing work. We visited rural villages where the missions organization was building tiny 2-room shacks w/ no running water.

Visiting teams from American churches would stay at the compound while they built the shacks out of plywood and tin sheeting & provided Christian programming. We visited the missions church, which was white missionary adults & Black children, many from a local orphanage.

We asked hard questions. How much were the Jamaicans paid? The going local rate for workers. Why not more? So it didn’t throw off the economy & create dependency. Why weren’t the houses better? Because it would create jealousy & teams couldn’t build them in a week.

As a student, my wife had gone to Jamaica with this org to work in an orphanage & teach in a school. As adults we were brought back & saw a different side. Several Jamaicans my wife knew spent time with us. We visited their church & we heard their concerns about the org.

To the local Jamaicans, the organization did some good work but mostly felt distant & didn’t pay well. To us, the whole thing operated like an antebellum plantation. We knew how much support white families were raising to live there, while the people around them subsisted.

While there, we found out the field director was planning to retire & they were looking at us as possibilities to take on the role. We were just barely adults ourselves, but knew enough to run away from this setup as fast as we could.

We had visited because we knew God had called us to community development & reconciliation work. What we found there made us cringe. White Americans who felt like their way of life was slipping away at home were recreating it in another land.

I’m not saying this is the sum total of all missions work or that all organizations operate exactly the same. Some missionaries have been voices for justice. What I’m saying is that our particular experience of a conservative group that hosted short term teams was terrible.

In my writing & speaking, I’ve tried to identify the racialized dynamics at play in the way that intercultural Christian missions is often imagined, the ways it centers whiteness & objectifies people of color. It doesn’t always go over well.

I’ve used photos of white American Christians putting their arms around Black & Brown children while on short term trips overseas to ask if the same folks are learning from & submitting to Black & Brown Christians in their own communities. This makes people angry.

(This article has been compiled from the tweet thread originally tweeted by Andrew T Draper (@andrewtdraper) on August 21, 2022.)

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