My name is Rachel Charles, co-founder of 5 Small Loaves. This is the third article in a series that addresses the short-term missions model that typically comes to the Navajo reservation from American churches. I do not speak as one with expertise on missions but as one who is living in a cross-cultural setting and has observed thousands of outside missionaries pass through.
Do you know who you are serving?
I live in a community on the Navajo reservation that is a frequent site for short-term American missions. And while I don’t deny that this is a place that needs the power of the Holy Spirit to bring healing and growth, I do really long for the people here to be presented with the gospel in a manner that empowers and encourages them. And unfortunately, that is not what I observe.
I have already posted 2 other articles on this topic – one that deals with the size of teams and the other with the materialistic tendency of typical American mission models. Another aspect that I observe from mission teams is a lack of understanding of who they are trying to serve. Instead of seeking to learn the culture and history before presenting the gospel, the model that continually comes from American churches is one of assimilation, i.e. what works for me will work for you.
Knowing the History
I am going to offer a little history lesson of the Navajos and the Church, since that is my context, but I want to encourage churches and mission agencies to consider my reflections for other foreign cultures and contexts they go to as well, even if these cultures or mission sites are within the United States.
The Navajos were introduced to Christianity when the American government negotiated with Christian churches to force assimilation onto the children by running boarding schools. Consider this quote from Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. “In Indian civilization I am a Baptist, because I believe in immersing the Indian in our civilization and when we get them under, holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked.” — (Battlefield and Classroom: Four Decades with the American Indian, 1867-1904 by Richard Henry Pratt, 1964)
At boarding schools, Indian children were separated from their families and cultural ways for long periods, sometimes four or more years. The children were forced to cut their hair and give up their traditional clothing. They had to give up their meaningful Native names and take English ones. They were not only taught to speak English, but were punished for speaking their own languages. Their own traditional religious practices were forcibly replaced with Christianity. They were taught that their cultures were inferior. Some teachers ridiculed and made fun of the students’ traditions. These lessons humiliated the students and taught them to be ashamed of being American Indian. The boarding schools had a bad effect on the self-esteem of Indian students and on the well being of Native languages and cultures. (http://nmai.si.edu/education/codetalkers/html/chapter3.html)
Despite the harsh means and the twisted intent of the original missions to Navajos, many of them embraced this new faith. But it has left a very confusing picture of what the church is, even today. Churches were built to look like American churches, without cultural consideration of aspects that are important to demonstrate sacredness. American hymns were translated into Navajo without understanding that forcing a tonal language into a different tune renders it gibberish. And yet the people today sing it proudly because they were trained to believe that their original tones and tunes sounded, and therefore were, evil. And then with a constant stream of charity and short-term missions continuing to flow onto the reservation, it sets the people into believing that they don’t have to work at building up the body of Christ. All they have to do is sit and let other people do all the work.
A Modern Day Example
I wish I could say that over the decades since the boarding schools have ended American churches and missionaries have learned to cease to push their culture onto others. But, unfortunately, we still see this constantly demonstrated in the waves of mission teams that come to the Navajo Nation.
Recently, my husband and I allowed our kids to attend a VBS nearby which was ran by a mission team in very American-culture saturated ways. Their methods were completely counter-cultural to Navajos. For example, when we drove up to the church team members lined up along the outside steps cheering loudly at us and every passing car. And they didn’t stop cheering until we entered the church. Our children were actually quite afraid when they walked in and they would not allow us to leave their sides. We could also tell that these people came from a rather charismatic church because they sang their praise songs with so much passion that it was almost a spectacle for the Navajo children to watch. This church had a jam-packed schedule filled with American Christian music, games, and teaching.
Now, I in no way am saying that these methods are wrong across the board. I’m willing to bet that these styles serve their own congregation and community well. My concern is that it was clear that they had no idea who their audience was. They were so loud and charismatic that they were quite shocking to the quiet culture of the Navajo. There was also no inclusion of the Navajo church members in the entire program. We were deeply concerned of their methods throughout the time, and then we were appalled to hear this closing remark, “Thank you everyone and I’ll see y’all in heaven.” It was a remark that was filled with pride for their accomplishments and communicated that they would never return to these people again. Unfortunately for this team, they came without true cultural understanding or humble attitudes, they taught with rather culture-shocking methods, and they assumed they had saved everyone simply because they completed their agenda of high value. It was a sad sight to behold, and we didn’t even feel that they would be willing to listen to our concerns because they were so set in their agenda and proud of what they were doing. They missed so much by not talking with and learning from the people and adapting their methods to make sense.
How can we do this differently?
If you are coming on a short- or even long-term mission trip across cultures and economic statuses, you must understand that most cultures and impoverished communities these days have been exposed to the gospel and missions, some of them overwhelmingly, and most people have a preconceived idea what you will be doing. Understanding this then you will have to be prepared that your audience may not just open up to you with embracing arms. They have seen mission teams come and go with regularity, and you may just be one in a great line up. If you would like to take different approaches than your predecessors, you will need to demonstrate several things:
- Return. You should first come to a people or place with the intent to return continually. Trust takes a very long time to build.
- Come to simply build relationships. My husband likes to tell people to bring their dirty laundry and just sit in a laundromat. Get to know people in ways they are not used to seeing missionaries come in the past.
- Don’t build, teach, or give anything away, at least initially. You don’t know enough about what methods have been done in the past by mission teams, how the people feel about the other approaches, and what are culturally appropriate ways to reach these people yet. That only comes by developing deeper relationships once trust has been built.
- Learn. Learn the culture, the language, the history, the local churches, etc. Allow God to direct you as you learn.
- Go as Jesus modeled in Mark 6. See previous blog articles Keeping It Small and Taking Nothing for more on these.
Now I understand that God is gracious and covers our sins and mistakes, and the Holy Spirit will move according to God’s will. But I also see that we can definitely grow in our approaches to love people cross-culturally.
Recommended Reading: Brutchko by Bruce Olson
For more on the series of Mission Models That Empower, see the following links:
I appreciate your attempt to express your frustration over the techniques and methods improvised by missionaries to bring the gospel to our indigenous people her in Navajoland. It is true that since the mid 1800’s that attempts at proselytizing Navajos and surrounding tribes in the southwest has taken many forms but has perhaps made our people even more set against Christianity, LDS, Catholicism or any other organized religion. I believe the hearts of the visitors who leave their comfortable surroundings to venture to an unknown one, are doing so in the best of intentions. The people here are left with a taste, good or bad, of a form of interaction that seeks to demonstrate a relationship that is longlasting but it falls short just as the little time that is spent to build a relationship. Like anything that is short term, the memory fades when the demands of our life become a priority. So who does it benefit? We are not unaware that we have been descended upon by a missions team but I don’t hear anyone talking about it in the months after their visit. We are grateful for the help with VBS, campmeeting, delivering food baskets or house repairs. Often times its for people who don’t frequent the church. But each church here is its own entity and they accept help through their own connections and contacts. Each church must educate each missions team in their own way. Until they seek help in managing their missions teams we rely upon our Creator to these cross-cultural exchanges more edifying and engaging for the giver and the receiver and the giver may not be who you think.