Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Missionary Position: Evangelical Traumatic Flashback Corner


In which the Romines’ sisters reminisce about going on missions trips to predominantly Catholic nations, triggered by Jessica's Mexican missions trip in Secrets.

Elise: Oh man. The memories.
Angie: Are they memories or hauntings?


Angie’s Story:

Cultural sensitivity tip: don’t brand a natural disaster
In early 2001 an earthquake registering at 7.6 on the Richter scale devastated the small Central American nation of El Salvador and killed over 1,000 people. As a POS high schooler, I was devastated that we wouldn’t be able to get to the beach on our Spring Break missions trip to the capital, San Salvador, because the roads to the ocean had buckled. So, our week-long missions trip transformed from pure evangelism to evangelism + water bottles, Purel, and other necessities wealthy, suburban Christians thought the locals might need in this, their darkest hour. We each had a bright yellow bag with our names embroidered on them along with a logo of an earthquake. That bag remains, to this day, the best part of that trip.

The "lost" city of San Salvador
There are so many WTF moments from that particular missions trip which I will keep in my back pocket for another time. (Teaser: My best story involves a performance of the Friends theme song). But for now, let’s focus on the intent of the missions trip, which was to evangelize or “lead people to Christ,” as the saying goes. According to the ever-accurate Wikipedia, El Salvador is 53% Roman Catholic and 31% Protestant. That’s 84% of the population identifying as Christian as opposed to 73% of Americans. Just let that sink in. We went to tell them about Christ, when the conquistadors made damn sure they knew about Jesus Cristo over 100 years before the United States declared independence.

Pool at our hotel. We did not "rough it."
While we did add a few “Earthquake Relief” activities to the our agenda, the majority of our time was spent going door-to-door in San Salvador inviting people to a movie about Jesus with the help of a translator. My translator had his work cut out for him because for some deep, psychologically-disturbing reason, I could not stop speaking with a thick Southern accent. Maybe Yankee Angie thought Rebel Angie seemed more like the type to proselytize to complete strangers. When we would get back on the bus every night after our Jesus movie viewing to drive back to our super-swank hotel, the youth leaders would tally up how many SalvadoreƱos we had led to Christ. My answer was always zero until one humiliating night. 


 
Y'all ready to get saved?
I was a very competitive person, and this zero souls bullshit was starting to get to me (my heart was obviously in the right place). So I found these two boys who looked like they were in high school like me. With an older white missionary woman translating for me, I led them through the Sinner’s Prayer with a little help from my tiny pamphlet that has the Romans’ Road on it. (For those of you who didn’t grow up in Jesus-Pleasantville, every verse you need to explain salvation to a lost soul can be found in the book of Romans. Thus, you walk some chump through ten crucial verses in Romans, and BAM, enjoy heaven, my brutha.) The whole time we were praying, I heard the boys snickering. So, I peeked (we didn’t have nuns to whack us for doing this in church services, so some of us were a bit bolder about opening our eyes during prayer time). Well, those SOBs were totally staring at my boobs and laughing. I suppose in their position, I’d laugh too, as I was still an up-top lightweight. But at the time, I was pretty pissed. It was clear to everyone (except for the middle-aged missionary) no saving was going down. And yet when we piled back onto the bus later that night, you’d better believe I made sure my two souls were counted. Tally ‘em! Angie’s on the boarrrrrrddddd!!!!

Now I guarantee you there were earnest, well-meaning people on that trip, both from our church and San Salvador. All missions is not like this one trip. In fact, I've been on a different missions trip that was a really positive experience for me and for the people we were serving. But for me, the whole San Salvador experience with the heavy emphesis on evangelism was so incredibly uncomfortable and also seemed like a really weird, borderline insane thing to do to people who were just minding their own business, trying to rebuild after the earthquake, wearing crucifixes around their necks. Thank God they all made it through with the help of my fake Southern twang.


Elise’s Story:

So my missions trip to Mexico was through my evangelical college. (Angie and I went to similar colleges, but hers was stricter than mine. My school let us watch any R movie we wanted, and her school only allowed The Passion of the Christ). I was a junior and already pretty uncomfortable with the idea of “witnessing” mainly because I was very introverted and pathologically polite. I thought it was intrusive to make eye contact, much less to ask people what their personal religious beliefs were. But all my friends were going on a Spring Break missions trip, so I decided to go too, since distributing eyeglasses in rural Mexico sounded better than staying in Indiana for a week. Once we got there, it was pretty clear that no one else in Mexico realized we were there on missions trip. In fact, it seemed as though we were there partially in support of a local politician's campaign. We were taken on tours, photographers followed us around, we stood behind the guy during speeches, and there was a ceremony in which I was given a certificate that my four years of Spanish have yet to decipher. To this day I’m convinced that if I ever become famous, a photograph of me shaking the hand of a rural Mexican dictator will surface a la Jane Fonda.


United in that one guy.


Anyway, at the eyeglass distribution center, Mormon missionaries were our translators. They were basically trying to do the same thing we were (providing a service for the purpose of witnessing). It was absolutely absurd. They were trying to convert us, we were trying to convert them, and we were both double teaming the Catholics. It was a three-car-pile up of Jesus-centric religions. 

While now it’s hilarious, at the time this was a legit crisis of faith for me. The toughest part was that everyone I met were genuinely lovely, thoughtful people. I loved my mission trip buddies, the Mormon dudes, and the local people. I struggled with the fact that these awesome people had put just as much thought into their faith as I had, but had come to a different conclusion. Afterwards, I journaled a lot. I listened to Sufjan Stevens. I thought about how I had a very different understanding of God at the age of 11 than I had at the age of 21 and suspected that I would have different ideas at 31.


Ugggghhhhhh. Never journal, kids.
At what point was I believing the “right thing”? The answer for me was that the chances of anyone being right are really slim. I decided that I was going to try to live my life in the way that I felt embodied what I believed about God, which is that he wanted me to be kind. I would trust that he would be cool about the rest.  Much later, I would learn that my psychotherapy hero, Carl Rogers, had the same thoughts on a mission's trip to China, which was the catalyst of him leaving seminary and becoming a psychologist.

But before I would learn that, I had to stop writing crazy pants, navel-gazing things in my journals and start living my life. I had a beer. I finally met a gay person. I forgot about the ridiculousness of my missions trip until a few years later. I was hanging out with a couple who are Eastern Catholic. They had been sporadically going to a Christian* small group, and the husband told us how he decided to go with the group for a medical service trip to Peru. Upon his arrival he was given this to help with “witnessing”:

 
It’s a Jesus cube. If you solve it, the rapture happens.
At that moment, holding a Jesus cube, he realized the purpose of the trip. He was a secret Catholic in a tiny boat, on a river in Peru (a nations that is  77% Catholic), surrounded by dozens of evangelicals. As he was telling us this story afterwards, all I could say was “I’m so sorry” over and over again. The hysterical laughter made it hard to hear me though.
 


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