Missional Rape: Embracing Our Own Poverty

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Next year, it will have been 20 years. 20 years that we have been involved in taking people overseas to serve. In those two decades, we have facilitated short-term trips for over 10,000 people in well over over a dozen nations. Many of those trips, were literally hundreds of people at a time that would descend armed with good hearts, naiveté and veiled arrogance. Our largest group was 850 people that traveled at one time, 22 teams of about 40 people each…and yes, they had matching t-shirts, in fact, our friend and comedian, John Crist may have even been on a couple of those trips. It may have created plenty of fodder for his now sold-out shows across the nation. 

I don’t mention the statistics above for some cosmic or earthly “pat-on-the-back”, in fact, quite the opposite. My objective is to admit that we still have so, so much to learn…even those of us who were the poster “missions” people. It’s hard to look back and find a way to appreciate that good can come of almost every situation. Knowing now that once we know better, we have to learn to do better. 

In our early years of engaging in our work in Ethiopia, we thought that we knew what we were doing because, you know, alllll of our experience. But, we quickly learned that we were in way over our head. We watched in slow-motion as both well-meaning and narcissistic Westerners began to missionally rape entire vulnerable communities. I realize this is a harsh, uncouth and very unpopular description. But after watching those we invested in, sat with and cried with became mirror images of entitlement that we brought with our “gospel”, this actually seems very tame. The United States is among the most generous nations (financially speaking) in the world, but generosity does not mean “generative”. We have to embrace generosity of time, learning and self-reflection. This means that we must bear-hug our own poverty. It takes an intense kind of bravery to embrace this dark side of our souls. 

Our partners and those they serve have become our greatest teachers. They have shaped how we educate and set expectations for anyone that seeks to be a part of one of our travel communities. We have learned that it is an abuse of our “first world privilege” when we use mission and mammon as a way to market, influence and spread our version of nationalistic Christianity. Instead, we now focus on coming alongside as learners, not doers or worse - crusaders. The latter never did much eternal good for the cause of Jesus or Love. Our neighbors are not a problem to be fixed, but a community to engage. 

There has been much discussion in recent years about how much damage “short-term missions” has done and I don’t disagree. In fact, I may have lost many folks when I used the phrase “missionally raped” just a few paragraphs ago or when our family spoke out on how the evangelical church was complicit in the trafficking of Ethiopian children through money hungry adoption agencies. https://www.thetable.world/journal/2018/1/22/evangelical-trafficking

We literally went from the adoption poster family to the black sheep outcasts overnight. BUT, we are learning that if engagement is done correctly and with true humility, travel can become an asset instead of a liability. Sending one of our Creative teams to the Pearl of Africa has reignited hope in me for our world. To be honest, some days I question our impact, but their stories, photos and videos have spoken to the light, beauty and dignity that is brighter than the darkness. 

If you’d like to hear more of our story in detail, click and listen to

The Transformational Power of Coming to the Table with Dr. John Stenberg/Thrive for the COS: 
https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-transformational-power-of-coming-to-the-table/id1441710303?i=1000426028672&mt=2

 Our teams, or “travel communities”, are part of a screening process that challenges their intentions and motivations for going. They are required to read and become learners before being accepted to go overseas with The Table. They are a part of at least 3 team conference calls to discuss expectations, motivation and healthy engagement. As an overall culture, we have become too lazy to wrestle with anything that is not black and white. We are seeking to change that. Polarization must be challenged. It can no longer be “either/or” but “both/and”. Let me explain what I mean. 

About 5 years ago, a wise friend, mentor and father-figure challenged me to take an honest internal inventory. It incited fear inside of me because it brought my identity as the “missions guy” into question. Identity has always been a deep-rooted issue for me, but his loving and kind way gave me the safe space to question my own motives for service and mission. It’s since been a brutal internal quest for personal health. But for this, I'm forever grateful. On each of our team conference calls, we have sought to prepare each traveler for what they are going to encounter. After almost 20 years, countless trips (over 25 to Ethiopia alone!), I still have to check myself for my own poverty. I find it every time. 

Whether to the Syrian border, the Horn of Africa or even here at home, we make it a priority to discuss how easily service can turn to pride. It is vital because I have seen how my own identity became so wrapped up in what I did that I was blinded to what the Healer wanted to do in my own life. Travel exposes the best and worst in us all. When we encounter an impoverished, starving orphan, a vulnerable woman, a leper, an immigrant or a refugee – our reflex is to find a way to heal or fix the “poor” with a band-aid to ease our conscience. We can no longer afford to serve out of emptiness, but only out of wholeness. In these moments, God is using that beautiful soul to reflect back a picture of our own state. Here, we have a choice. Healing comes through internal work and we must take advantage of the tool of therapy, counseling and safe community to make us whole. Do we ignore our own poverty or do we find the wealth in the soul across from us? This is where mutuality and authenticity begins and paternalism ends. This is The Table. 

We can only give peace when we have found peace. When we acknowledge our own poverty, we can trade our orphan spirit for the true spirit of adoption. This is where we find Home. Home is our safe space. Let’s create Home in our world. 

Caleb David