I recently returned from a trip visiting international partners in Haiti. On the flight to Port au Prince, passengers boarding in matching t-shirts made it evident that the plane leaving Atlanta was full of church groups going on mission trips. One t-shirt read "GO.LOVE.HAITI!" Another, with the words emblazoned on a cross, said "Mission to the Least of These." When my wife and I lived and worked in South Africa, we would see the same phenomenon on planes bound for Johannesburg, many of the shirts referring to the need to "save" Africa.
These group journeys to help others, matching t-shirts and all, may be easy targets for us to mock. But I wonder if we mainline Protestants are that different? At Global Ministries, we partner with international churches and organizations in relationships of mutuality and solidarity. In addition, we have the opportunity to work with many churches and individuals in North America who want to make a difference in the world. And there is no doubt that this desire comes from our calling to follow God and to work for a world of justice and peace. But it is also evident that, due to our privilege as North Americans, many times we see ourselves as "doers" and agents of change, making it difficult to experience solidarity and learn from these relationships.
When we meet with international partners, one of the most important lessons we can learn is how U.S. political, economic, and military policies affect the lives of the most vulnerable. During the visit to Haiti, one of the comments we heard over and over is how Western aid, especially after the 2010 earthquake, has actually served to undermine Haiti's ability to respond to the many issues currently facing the country. The Rev. Patrick Villier, president of the National Spiritual Council of Churches of Haiti (CONASPEH), noted that true partnership is not about building independence in either Haiti or the United States, but should instead be rooted in our mutual interdependence.
Similarly, in Solidarity Ethics, Rebecca Todd Peters writes that while international partnerships usually begin by focusing on the needs and poverty of others, they instead need to start with the reality of privilege that many of us in the West take for granted. She goes on to note that "because a first-world ethic of solidarity begins from a position of privilege rather than a position of marginalization, analyzing and understanding privilege must be its starting point."
Yes, there are needs around the world. And yes, God calls us to minister to the "least of these." But when our solidarity with others begins with the premise of their poverty, it is very difficult for us to relate in any form other than donors or patrons. We must begin to understand that in a globalized world, it is not always our direct assistance or direction that others need. Rather we must recognize that our culture of hyper individualism and over consumption is tied, both directly and indirectly, to the social realities and deprivations faced by millions around the world (including here in the United States). If we begin with our privilege as the starting point so that we might be encouraged to fight for change here, we may just have a chance at realizing relationships of mutuality and interdependence in our globalized and uneven world. And we don't even need matching t-shirts to do that.
The Rev. Jon Barnes is Global Ministries' Executive of Mission Interpretation and Constituency Relationships.
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