How I, an African-American, reconcile going abroad when there is work to be done at home.
By Adrainne Gray
Most people called into missions or humanitarian work will have to sacrifice or leave behind something.
Typically those sacrifices are comforts (think large U.S homes, individual cars, grassy lawns, safety, routine, familiarity, money, etc.). At least one or more of these will be noted as something left behind for the sake of a cause upon other shores.
However, I believe missionaries and humanitarians of color or of minority status leave behind something unique, and it causes us momentary angst. I say momentary because people who cannot reconcile this particular loss as worthy usually don’t accept the call as workers abroad.
The loss usually is formed as a question in the minds of minority missionaries.
They ask, “Why am I going abroad to do missions when there is so much work to be done here, in my community, in my own country?”
At that moment the loss of identity or the loss of presence or the loss of a focus in a particular context, becomes a band of tension for the missionary of color, at least it did for me when Ben and I accepted the offer to work at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL) in Palestine. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) asked Ben and me to go and work as communications coordinator and photographer documenting the lives and faith of Palestinian people, especially Palestinian Christians, but not limited too.
Palestinians are ancient, proud, creative people who face an ancient dilemma of displacement in their own country. The displacement is the result of systemic laws enacted and enforced to protect the land and “comforts” of the majority. By most historical standards it is hatred, racism, and a power grab and this has led to a messy, complex existence for Palestinians and Israelis alike.
As an African American woman, my first reaction is, “I got my own mess!” But, I chose to say yes, I would go… send me, Lord (Is. 6:8)
I wonder if this is the thought process of other globally missional minorities?
“Why am I not using my talents at home? They have their own workers in (fill in the blank), I’m sure. Am I forfeiting my identity for that of another?”
For the sake of keeping this blog under 20-pages long, the short answer is, no.
No, because during a serious reckoning with God, the names of activists and influential peacemakers of this century came to mind: Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Howard Thurman, Angela Davis, Deitrich Bonhoeffer. They all traveled outside of their neighborhood and came back enlightened with new ideas about race, religion, feminism and politics in the U.S.
These leaders didn’t choose travel destinations based on the best view of the ocean or whether there was an all-inclusive (maybe a few did) but the point is that they were drawn to places where the collective pain was visible, and the arch of hope and justice understood.
Upon arrival in my new neighborhood, I was greeted by a Black Panther monument. North African (Arab) Jews modeled their local movement for equal treatment on that of the African American Black Panther Party. I think of Angela Davis every time I walk to the school, to the market, or to the park.
I thought of Bonhoeffer’s visit to the US as written about in The Cost of Discipleship when he asked to visit African-American churches. There he found strength, hope and a dependence upon the Gospel. My people inspired his mission to all people and his willingness to take the cup of martyrdom against a political nightmare.
I thought of both Dr. King’s and Howard Thurman’s visits with Gandhi and other revolutionaries that shaped their own movements of peace and courage. In Thurman’s book, Visions of a Better World he speaks of using Eastern philosophies to reshape American Christianity which influenced his contemporaries, especially Dr. King.
Likewise, Gandhi learned from the struggles of Indians abroad when he participated in social activism in South Africa in the early 1900s.
I thought of Malcolm X’s travels through Africa and the Middle East. Subsequently, during his return to the U.S, he is noted as saying,
“So one of the things I became thoroughly convinced of in my recent travels is the importance of giving freedom to the woman, giving her education, and giving her the incentive to get out there and put that same spirit and understanding in her children. And frankly I am proud of the contributions women have made in the struggle for freedom and I’m one person who’s for giving them all the leeway possible because they’ve made a greater contribution than many of us men.”
I could go on… Nelson Mandela, Jesus, etc. etc. etc.
These all sound like gains to me; gains that transformed the world they lived in and beyond. Nothing lacked while they were out and about traveling. They took the time to be witnesses to the power of revolution of various sorts, in various nations.
Now, I’m not claiming that I am on the fast track for a Nobel Peace Prize because I came to Palestine. Nevertheless, this revelation was enough to make me understand that if I didn’t go I would surely be limited in what I might be able to offer my own people in the future.
Furthermore, (and this may need to be another blog post) my mess is their mess and their mess is mine. (Apostle Paul)
I don’t have to turn away from my identity as the descendant of an ancient, proud, creative people who faced and continually face a two-centuries-old dilemma of displacement. I carry that with me, and I am open to allowing it to guide me as I cipher truths from my Palestinian brothers and sisters.
As always, it is not an either-or answer; the truth is in the Gray areas.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by thegraytones.com, runographer.com and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the ELCA, ELCJHL or any organization, thereof.