Sinister Missionaries

Maybe it's because I'm working on a story about a missionary who has spent the last few weeks setting up water purification systems for tsunami victims and helping clean out a Muslim religion education building that had been used as a morgue, or maybe it was just see a picture of Bob and Thormbloom (whose daughters are friends) at the gravesite of Bob's sister Bev, who died in Congo at age six while her dad was a missionary doctor. Or maybe it's most of the missionaries I know are doctors and development workers who have spent their lives serving people, at considerable personal cost and risk, because that's what they feel God wanted them to do.

But something about the "sinister missionary" stories who mix faith and relief efforts really bugs me. There's been a slew of them since the tsunami, and most are like the one in yesterday's New York Times .

I'm not expert on the Aceh province of Indonesia and maybe Sri Lanka is a "religious tinderbox" as the Times described it. And whether the group from Antioch Community Church is a "plain vanilla NGO" or not is up for debate.

But here's a couple of things I do know.

Presence Matters in Tragedy.

Gordon Atkinson, better known as the Real Live Preacher put it this way in his essay "Everett Thomas Taylor Was a Real Boy written after he visited a family whose baby son was born prematurely.

“I am keeper of a most sacred truth. It is the incarnation truth that enables ministers to go into the grief storm unafraid. If you come in the name of Christ and stand with people in their grief, you have done the single most important thing you can do and the only thing they will remember. You might bring words with you, and they might even be good and helpful ones, but your presence is what matters. “If you know this truth, whatever you have will be sufficient. If you do not know this, all that you have."

Whether it's a group from Texas that organized activities in a refugee camp or two t-shirt vendors from Fenway Park going to Bagdhad (see "My Big BreaK" in this week's This American Life , there is power in just being with people in tragedy. You see a glimpse of that in the Times story--after hearing from relief groups and local leaders who think the Antioch folks are acting unethically, we read that the people in the refugee camp they visited want them to stay.

Residents of the camp here reported no healings as a result of the group's prayers. But they said they appreciated the aid and activities for children that the group provided and did not want to see them end.

(On a related note, a headline in today's Times read "After Treating Victims' Bodies, Indonesia and Sri Lanka Turn to Hearts and Minds" --isn't there a place for religion in helping heal people's minds and hearts, not just in saving their souls)

Humanitarian relief is often a religious act

Rev. Jimmy Seibert's assertion that missionary work and aid work "is one thing, not two separate things" is not that far removed from Jim Wallis "19th Century Evangelicalism" or John Kerry's assertion that "Faith without works is death."

There’s a reason that Catholic Relief Services, Lutheran World Relief, World Vision, and a host of other religious charities are Sri Lanka and Indonesia and will be long after the Red Cross and the US military are gone.

God told them to go there.

Evangelicals get a lot of things wrong. But they aren't monsters. They don't trade bread or medicine or food for souls.


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