Reflections on mission work
Ten years ago today, I was in India, in the final week of my final mission trip. It was my fifth trip, and my longest. I haven’t returned to the country since, though maybe one day I’ll go there as a tourist. Now, looking back on it, the whole endeavour just feels odd.
The Bible has the answers? Really?
When I look back on it, what strikes me most is the pure arrogance of the whole endeavour. We were going into a different country and culture, assuming we had all the answers because we had the Bible. After all, we were offering salvation - far more important than, say, the mundane things of life.
The texts of the Bible were written thousands of years ago, by different authors at different times and with different cultural contexts (none of which were like our 21st century capitalistic and technological society). The texts were originally written in Hebrew and Greek, so we relied on translations - and then fought over which translation into English best represented the Word Of God. While these things seemed normal at the time because I grew up with them, it’s actually really weird trying to apply those texts to my situation in Australia.
All of these things become worse again when going into a country like India with a different cultural context and many different languages - none of which we could speak. We took texts, which we’d become used to looking at through our own cultural lens and denominational tradition, then tried to apply them to a culture that we didn’t fully understand. At times we even told them that the text in their language - which, again, we didn’t understand - had translated the original text wrong, and our preferred English version was the right way to understand it.
Yes, we paid lip service to the idea that the locals should be allowed to run things their way, because we weren’t trying to set up a colonial outpost. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that we were affected by our upbringing and our Bible interpretation, and that as a result we privileged our understanding of the Bible over the lived experience of these people we were earnestly trying to “save”.
What did we know about their struggles?
Just as one example, take this:
We went into the local gardens in the town we were in, and there, among the plants and the fountains, was a statue of Gandhi. I’d been used to seeing his head on bank notes. But how much did I really know about his story and what it meant to India?
There was struggling free of colonialism. Trying to determine their own direction as a nation. Having borders drawn on the basis of religion, in ways that have had long-term consequences.
And I doubt I fully understand what that means now. I certainly didn’t then.
Did I understand what it was like living in the country with the second largest population in the world? More importantly, did I understand how the kind of “salvation” we were bringing could actually cause significant problems?
Did I know how making converts would disrupt the social welfare that was largely dependent on family and religion? Did I know how the rules about not marrying outside the denomination would affect people where marriage was expected and arranged marriages were common? Particularly if a child had converted, but their parents hadn’t? Did I know how the caste system might affect this?
I was on the mission committee for many years. I heard more about these problems than if I’d just been a mission worker. But I heard them filtered through a Christadelphian lens, and that probably meant I didn’t realise how serious they could be. We were taking on social obligations and causing significant social problems, and we didn’t realise that’s what we were doing. It’s only writing this blog post that I’m realising how messed up some of it was.
And, to be fair, I think part of the problem goes back to the core message of Gospel Jesus: Yes, following Christianity might make things harder for you in this life. Jesus came to bring a sword, after all. The teachings might divide you from family and friends, because only you were fortunate enough to come to a knowledge of The Truth. But it will all be worth it in the end (promise!)
As a result, we expected those we converted in India to make sacrifices as necessary to follow (our Westernised, fundamentalist version of) Jesus. Here in Australia we made sacrifices, at least in principle, so they should too.
Marriage was another such area. The narrowness of the dating pool and the expectation of marriage as the default is an issue for those growing up in Christadelphia in Western nations, but it was a bigger issue in India. Particularly in language groups where there were few converts.
It was once suggested I should marry a specific woman (who I didn’t know) to solve one such problem. The Australian involved swore it was just a joke, but I gather it was taken seriously by the woman and caused difficulties.
If I remember rightly, that woman did eventually marry a non-Christadelphian. And in our comfortable committee meeting we probably criticised that (before then plotting to try and convert the new husband…). But the truth is that she was doing what she needed to do in the culture she was in, and no amount of Bible Truth changes the fact that we hadn’t given her a lot of options.
Placed on a pedestal
The first time I went to India with my Dad, I was 15 and in high school. At the time, I’d been brought up with a thorough Bible knowledge, had been baptised for a couple of years, and had given a few Bible talks in Australia.
As a result, I was pressed into speaking duties in India. And I don’t know I was comfortable with it even then, but now I consider it wildly inappropriate.
There I was, a sheltered teenager from a different country and culture. I was speaking through a translator because I didn’t know the language. It’s certainly possible that I knew more about the Bible than most of my audience, but there’s so much more to life than that. I wasn’t yet at an age where I could honestly decide whether the message of the Bible was right for me. How could I hope to make it useful for my audience?
Some of them would surely have been three or four times my age, and I think they were uncomfortable with what must have seemed like a boy put over them. Though if I remember rightly the translator smoothed some of that out for me because he was impressed by my Bible knowledge.
But the truth is that I wasn’t really being put on that pedestal because of my deep wisdom. Nor was I put there because of my Bible knowledge. I was there because I was the visiting foreigner. And maybe some people were only there because I was the visiting foreigner, not because they thought my message important. I have no idea.
But the point is that the mission organisation was an (Australia-based) voluntary organisation. That time I was volunteered by my parents. On later trips I volunteered myself.
There were probably better qualified people in Australia. For that matter, there were probably better qualified people in India. But I was the one who was there to send.
By my final trip I had better Bible knowledge, more life experience, and more agency. I’d gained height, and didn’t look so ridiculously young. I held down a responsible job at home. I was in India because I’d chosen to be there, not because my parents wanted me there. But I still got a respect and authority that was far more than I could reasonably say I deserved.
Trying to fit in
I was uncomfortable with being on this pedestal. Maybe it was somewhat acceptable when I was the speaker, genuinely out the front because I had a message that was (at least in theory) important to the audience. But it could happen when I was an audience member too, and I didn’t think there was a good reason for me to get different treatment from the rest of the audience.
For example, it would be common for the audience to be sitting cross-legged on the ground, maybe on woven mats. I expected to do the same. And yet sometimes plastic chairs would be brought in for those of us visitors who were just in the audience - even if space was at a premium.
And in truth, perhaps sometimes I offended them by refusing those special honours intended for us as guests. But it just didn’t seem right. We were supposed to be all one in Christ Jesus. We were fellow humans studying the Bible together and seeking God’s plan for our lives. Not foreign dignitaries graciously bestowing our presence on the locals.
I wanted to be part of them. To fit in. To be normal.
I still think that was a good ideal - but it was also an impossible one. After all, I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t know enough of the culture. I couldn’t make small talk or put people at their ease. How much could I really fit in?
I didn’t deserve to be treated as superior to them, but nor could I be equal to them. I didn’t belong, and I very much doubt I had the message they needed. Like I said, I knew the Bible, but I’m not even sure I was good at applying it within an Australian context. I didn’t have a hope of applying it well in an Indian context.
So what did you actually do?
Over five trips I did a variety of things, but a few things that stand out:
Travelling to visit rural areas: The places we visited were almost always places where there was already a Christadelphian presence. Sometimes it was preaching to potential converts (often in the form of a “Bible Truth Camp”). Sometimes it was more focused on supporting the existing believers (also with Bible talks, and usually with a “breaking of bread”).
Attending Bible weeks: These brought believers (and potential converts) together from a wider area. I was never the official speaker at one of these, but at different ones taught a Sunday School class, led discussion groups aimed at potential converts approaching baptism, and talked with anyone who happened to want to speak English.
Being involved with a children’s home: There were a couple of children’s homes, one an orphanage, the other for children of lepers. I had much more to do with the second one, though it was mostly doing things in the breaks between travel rather than my main job. It could involve leading morning or evening prayers, listening to the kids reading English, and even joining in with games like cricket*.
I don’t know what to think of it now. There were some great kids in the home, and I enjoyed spending time with them, particularly as they grew older over multiple trips. And I think it’s likely that they got better education (and better nutrition) than they otherwise would have got, which was also likely to lead to better opportunities as adults.
However, part of the pitch to Christadelphian donors was that some of those children would choose to be baptised and remain part of the community. This was one of the things the nationalist Hindu political party was critical of: Basically, that Christian charities were buying converts. That’s not the way I saw it at the time (I thought we were allowing them to make their own free choice) but now I can see it had some justice.
To me now, it’s not just about the financial side (though I guess that might make a difference). Like my own upbringing, the home was a structured environment, with a lot of time set aside for religious activity (daily prayers, Sunday services, attending Bible weeks, translating, …). Much of their social group would have the same religious background as themselves.
This makes them more likely to make the “free choice” to adopt the religion they’ve been brought up with, just because their knowledge of other options is limited. And perhaps, just like me, they will later struggle with doubts and eventually quit. Some of those I know were baptised, and as far as I know have continued with the religion, though I haven’t heard from them in recent years.
* Cricket was one thing Australia and India had in common. Part of that shared British heritage, I guess. At least one time I was there when the Indian Test team was in the middle of a tour of Australia. I may not be particularly skilled, but did have enough backyard cricket experience to be involved in casual games of cricket.
It helped people place us in the world. To quote a couple of conversations I remember: “You are from Australia? Ricky Ponting!” “I know Melbourne. MCG!”
It’s all about correct doctrine, right?
I’ve mentioned Bible Truth camps. They were usually over 2 or 3 days, often (though not always) a weekend. The topics covered could vary a little from place to place, but I think this list of topics I dug up is fairly representative:
- Bible Truth about God
- Bible Truth about Jesus Christ
- Bible Truth about Man, Death and Resurrection
- Bible Truth about the Promises of God
- Bible Truth about Sin and Satan
- Bible Truth about Bible Prophecy
- Bible Truth about the Kingdom of God
- Bible Truth about Baptism and the New Life
And looking at that list now, I just find it bizarre. Why exactly were these things the important things that potential believers needed to know and welcome into their lives? I mean, I understand the general narrative it was going for: God was the creator, humanity had been separated from him by sin, he sent Jesus to provide a way back to God, and that way would lead to salvation from sins and everlasting life for those who believed and were baptised. But now it just feels like a solution looking for a problem.
It was a very Christadelphian approach. The denomination focused on the importance of understanding the Bible correctly. Which also meant understanding all the many ways in which our beliefs were different from the majority of other denominations (for example, Jesus was human and not divine, there was no Trinity, no immortal soul, no supernatural devil, and the afterlife would be on Earth rather than in heaven or hell). These were the “first principles”.
And it was complicated by the language barrier. For example, I understand that the translations in some Indian languages of verses we were using used words which suggested an immortal soul or a supernatural devil. This needed to be corrected. Somehow.
Then, before we would accept new converts, we would interview them to make sure they were ready for baptism.* And a lot of that was on knowing all the correct doctrines. So of course we had to make sure we preached and taught it at every opportunity, so that in the end they would pass the test we imposed.
* This kind of pre-baptism interview happens in the Western world too. But here most of those being interviewed have grown up in Christadelphian homes, and so have a much better idea of what’s expected from it than most of those we interviewed in India.
The interviews there are also complicated by having to be done through a translator. That also reveals a power imbalance - I don’t think it was universal, but it seemed in many places local believers weren’t allowed to do baptisms on their own. Locals could identify potential converts and tutor them, but then would have to either invite mission workers to visit or bring those potential converts to a Bible Week.
Basically, it needed a Westerner to sign off on it before the convert could be baptised. I guess we needed to make sure they met our standards before joining the world-wide (but Western dominated) family of True Believers.
The mission work recruitment poster
I stumbled across a recruitment poster from August 2009 - and from the email chain, it seems the words were mine. Given I think that was before I experienced serious doubts, this would have been my feel for mission work:
With over 1000 brethren and sisters among one billion people, India has many experiences and many opportunities. Can you help?
- Meet people sharing a common faith
- Visit local brethren and sisters
- Experience a world more like the one Jesus knew
- Participate in a Bible Truth camp
- See newly baptised brethren and sisters
- Realise that language is no barrier in Christ
And of course some of it is completely wrong, particularly the last point. As I’ve described, both language and culture were barriers. Not insurmountable, perhaps, but serious.
Maybe we were just trying to get volunteers. Or maybe we kidded ourselves that things were easier than they actually were. Perhaps we only saw what we wanted to see.
An agricultural world
To me, looking back at that poster, the most interesting point is “Experience a world more like the one Jesus knew”. It shows something that I really liked about visiting India - but I think it also shows problems with what we were doing.
While I’ve spent a fair amount of time in urban areas in India (mostly Hyderabad and Kolkata), most of our potential converts were in remote villages in agricultural areas. In places, you could see rice fields stretching as far as the eye could see:
Cattle were used to pull loads in the streets and to perform jobs in the fields:
This was much closer to the world of the Bible. For example, it’s not hard to imagine using the picture above to illustrate Jesus saying that his yoke was easy, and his burden light. Or, given some of the marriage problems I talked about earlier, the dangers of being “unequally yoked”. And yes, I guarantee we used the “fields white for harvest” verse when trying to recruit extra volunteers for the mission fields.
However, like I said earlier, we were still seeing the Bible through our lens. In many ways their society was closer to the Biblical society than ours, but we were still the ones coming to save them. It was cool to see the agricultural action, but we were still the ones with the answers.
Seeing a side of India that tourists didn’t see
For me personally, it meant that I got to see a part of India that most people didn’t see. We spent a lot of time on the railways, often in sleeper carriages (Hyderabad to Kolkata is 24+ hours…). We visited remote places where it was difficult to find transport.
We were welcomed into people’s homes. We drank tea together, and shared communal meals of curry and rice, sometimes served on banana leaves. I thought that that was special. And it was.
And yet, I look back on it now and I’m not so sure. We were seeing where they lived, and that’s something most tourists wouldn’t see. But we weren’t really seeing their lives. And maybe we couldn’t.
As I’ve already mentioned, we were divided by language. But that wasn’t all: We might be able to share their food, but we couldn’t drink the water (usually we needed to carry round bottled water).
We were the visiting foreigners, there to be treated with deference. Some were just treating us as honoured guests. Others might have been trying to get something out of us. I don’t know.
But when it comes to experiencing their life, the reality is that we weren’t actually cooking the food. We weren’t working in the fields. In fact, we might actually be taking them away from necessary work, and exploiting the power imbalance between us.
I can remember times when we turned up somewhere in the middle of a week because it suited our schedule, and then getting upset that there weren’t that many people in the audience to listen to us. Didn’t they take the Bible seriously enough?!?!? And of course that’s really unfair - after all, if someone had turned up in Melbourne mid-week with a message from the Bible I probably wouldn’t have taken the day off just to listen to them.
I also remember being told by a translator that my evening talks were too long: Many in the audience had spent a hard day labouring and needed their sleep. And he was right, of course, but I guess I must have thought that we only had a limited time with them, and the message from the Bible was more important than the mundane things of life.
Preying on the vulnerable
There is a darker side to this. The reason we were out in these remote areas is because we knew we got a better response out there. We complained about how people got to the city, got educated, and then were too focused on work and daily life to worry about the important spiritual matters. Those with less were more receptive to the message of future hope, and we needed the numbers.
Like most organisations, one of the mission’s goals was to continue to be relevant. We needed new baptisms and positive stories to demonstrate our work was valuable and to encourage donations. That meant focusing on places where we thought we’d get the best results.
To be fair, I think we did genuinely believe that our mission was a noble one, and that future salvation was more valuable than material possessions or a comfortable life now. And maybe we did also give our converts some things which were valuable in the here and now. But we risked harming the social fabric of the communities we went into, and I’m not sure we knew enough about what we were doing.
It also makes me wonder whether the intellectual, Westernised religion we were selling was really a good fit for the people we were trying to sell it to and their social situation. Obviously it met some need, but I’m not sure I understand what need.
So why was I there?
My official answer would of course have been something like “I’m going to tell people about how they can be saved from their sin, live a better life, and have the chance of eternal life after death”. And there was some truth to that. But there was also more to it.
The first few times, I would have gone because my parents and siblings were going. And I guess I would have felt it was the right thing to do, and a way to show my devotion to God. It was different from my ordinary life, and I enjoyed the opportunity to try something different (including the food).
The first time I went by myself was immediately after completing Uni. And when I say immediately, I mean immediately - it was less than 24 hours between when I finished my final exam, and when I was on a plane for India. That gave me nearly 6 weeks before I started a graduate role in January. I think that does show I took it seriously.
However, I suspect part of what got me to go that time was because I was on the mission committee, there was an expectation that I would go sometime, and that was likely to be the last opportunity for a while. It was also something I knew how to do, and there were people and places over there that I already knew. Yes, I could possibly have demonstrated my faith in other ways, but would I have known where to begin?
It turned out to be awkward timing, since it was only a few days after Australia had raised the travel advice level to “Reconsider your need to travel”, but all the plans had been made before then and I followed through on them.
The final time was different. As I’ve described it in a previous post, I was trying to overcome doubt, and the three month trip was a last desperate roll of the dice. Co-workers thought I was going to India to help others, and I kinda was (at least officially), but in practice it was entirely about me. I was there because it was a familiar environment, and because I didn’t have a better way to react to my personal problems.
And it didn’t work. By the end, I was fairly confident that I would never return to India for mission work. And I didn’t.
Looking back on it, I can see that it definitely shows commitment. Half of the three months was unpaid leave, and I paid my own airfares and a lot of my own expenses.
But it’s hard to see it now as the right thing to do, though I’m not sure what else I could have done. Yes, I hope I didn’t contribute to trapping anyone in the system who will later regret it, but I was trapped by my upbringing. There’s no way I could have told people that they should walk away from it all, because I didn’t know that myself yet.
In the final analysis
Far from being there to help others, I was there for myself: I was confused and struggling with doubt and didn’t know better how to deal with it. I wasn’t a true believer there to save the benighted locals from themselves and help build God’s kingdom. I’m sure I did hope that what I did helped others in some way - but that wasn’t really my main goal.
Now, I look at it and think that the overall mission organisation probably was (and is) harmful. The people we were talking to didn’t need foreigners to come in and tell them what to do. The message of the Bible wasn’t particularly relevant to them, and I don’t believe the promised salvation we offered actually exists.
Perhaps it does help some people. I really don’t know. However, it also risks separating them from their family and from existing support networks.
Looking at the mission website, one of the featured items is an appeal for donations to support Indian brothers and sisters affected by the Covid-19 pandemic - either due to medical issues or due to loss of work because of lockdowns etc. This would be a separate appeal, not covered through general mission funds. I’m glad they are doing that, but still wonder how much of the appeal is required just because we disrupted existing support networks. And I’m sure part of the goal - whether or not it’s ever been explicitly said - is to make sure none of the converts feel in desperate need to seek support elsewhere.
As for my visits, I sincerely tried my best to work out my personal issues and to help others along the way. I did what I was supposed to do. However, my message wasn’t that important or that relevant, so I’m not sure I did much of either harm or good. But if I have done harm, I’m sorry.
Some lasting memories
The moments that I remember aren’t the routine things of mission life - the travel, the numerous Bible talks, the discussions with people through a translator. Some of them happened while performing the job I came to do, while others were making use of my spare time. These are the memories that last:
- Being on a cycle-rickshaw at night in a remote rural area, with no street lights about and the fireflies dancing.
- Looking out the window of another rickshaw in another rural area and seeing an unexpected lunar eclipse with the stars coming out.
- Going boating on a lake with my brother and seeing a peacock on the island.
- Seeing the cutest red crabs scurrying around a beach, then hiding in the sand when I approached.
Perhaps I could have found a better way to use those three months - I definitely have more special memories from the three months I spent in the UK and Switzerland post-religion than I do from that final India trip. But it’s something.