Sunday, January 17, 2010

Thoughts on being a "Missionary"

I am sent by my religious faith system/denomination to be a "Missionary". Admittedly this word hasn't set well with me. Needless to say - I AM sent by my denomination and accepted as a missionary in Cameroon.

One can think a missionary is sent to convert others to their particular doctrines/dogma/religion/what-have-you. One can think of one sent on a charitable mission somewhere. Wikipedia has a definition that says "one who is sent to witness across cultures."

Am I out to convert people to my personally held doctrines/dogma/religion? Am I here to be charitable? To witness across cultures? Witness to "what" exactly?

We find our faiths in a variety of ways. We are born into families with certain values and we may not depart far from them. We convert. One of the easiest ways for me to think about who I am and what I am doing is to put it in terms of nationalities. I was born in the USA; imprinted with the climate and scenery of New England.

I think my country is beautiful and diverse. My country was founded with particular values. I cannot help it - I get goose bumps when I read or hear the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Equally, the music of our national anthem is meaningful, and the words of America the Beautiful stir me.

I was not born with those feelings. I discovered them as I grew up and experienced life. I tested the values against other values to see if they rang true. And to my perspective, the America we have to day is the same but also very different from the one I value in my heart and that I believe was intended at our inception.

We do not always represent those values well. We say one thing and often do another. Still other Americans have differing perspectives from mine - differing opinions of the intent of the founding fathers. This neither makes them or me right or wrong. That is one of our values.

When I travel the world, away from my country, I am a "missionary", an Ambassador if you will. For those who meet me have their own ideas of what America is and what Americans are like. I cannot own their perspectives - they are what they are. I am who I am.

I represent just 1/300 millionth of what America is and I only offer myself as a single perspective. I remember being in Hong Kong, waiting in a hotel for my ride to the boat to Macau. I could hear a "Texan" bellowing through the halls. I tried to hide. I was riding a bus in London. We slowed near a club and there was an American swearing is head off that he was NOT going to remove his tie to go in the club.

I am sure at some point, that I too, have been an ugly American - loud and obnoxious. Though I try to be mindful of such, I am a witness to others about America by how I live and conduct myself. I do not do so from a "legal" basis. I do not live burdened by the obligation. I succeed and I fail. That too is part of being American. Oh, and just because I am American doesn't mean I agree with everything the leaders of America say or do.

I am not out trying to convert others to be American. I would rather see them be excellent citizens of their respective countries. However if one should be unhappy with their country, and I think you might be a good citizen of mine, I may wonder aloud, about the person becoming an American. Should they become an American citizen, I would hope they would value our history. That being an American isn't, in itself the American dream. Being American isn't a surety of success (or failure). Being American doesn't automatically make one an infidel (though I don't doubt there are some among us).

Rather than assuming the best or worst of me, because I am American, I would prefer people to talk with me and explore what it means for me to be American. I too want to understand what it means for you to be a citizen of your country. I get excited when you love your country and can point out the beauty of its values as well as its physical beauty. Don't expect me to convert -- though I hope I can deeply appreciate what it means to be a citizen of your country.

Perhaps together we can break down the walls of misunderstanding and mistrust. Perhaps together we can build each other up through loving acts of kindness, demonstrating the best values of our respective countries. Perhaps together we can make the world a better place.