The pastor smiled at me and I mimicked him. Should I explain myself, I thought? What could I say? I had to say something. So I tried to be somewhat funny or offhand; basically I tried to make light of the fact that I clearly didn't want to be associated with or labelled a 'missionary'.
So I said "Oh, but I like to slip in some subliminal Christian messages every now and then!"
Several days after I had this conversation with Pastor Ryan at Victory Church, U-belt, I was still wondering why I had verbalised such intolerance and prejudice towards 'missionaries'? Was it simply because missionaries and all that they embodied seemed both out-dated and unfashionable? Maybe? I suppose I found it difficult to grasp how I could possibly personify the archetypal 'missionary' role whilst simultaneously sporting liquid eyeliner, reading online fashion blogs and watching the exceptionally graphic Game of Thrones?
Or was my overt reaction to the label 'missionary' founded on something far deeper? I suppose it was. I knew that I wasn't really concerned with how others would perceive me, especially my open defiance for the bland uniform favoured by so many modern day missionary's. (You know what I'm referring to… the brown moccasins and tribal neck scarf's! All tell-tale signs of the deeply committed and socially conscious aid worker).
Rather, I think deep down I was more concerned with being labelled a missionary because of the historical atrocities long ago committed by many well-meaning yet deeply misguided faith workers. I wondered how I could possibly identify with or align myself with the missionary brand in light of these heinous legacies.
So I rejected the term. I did not want to perpetuate past injustices, particularly evident in countries such as Australia and North America. I did not want to impose my beliefs or ideological preferences on other people; as many former missionaries did under the brutal guise of colonisation, assimilation and genocide.
I recognised the historical complexities that came with brandishing the term, and I wasn't sure whether I could comfortably embrace it without feeling like a religious zealot that both indoctrinated and imperialised people with my beliefs.
But just as quickly as I rejected the term 'missionary', I simultaneously felt a desire to embrace it. To wear it proudly! Certainly not for humanistic reasons. But rather as a way to please and honour God. I didn't want to just work in the development sector, but I also wanted to be working for Christ. To be purposely living and working for him.
But I could I embrace the term? I started to think about missionaries. I actually knew several missionaries personally. I saw their work in action and I often admired it. In fact I hoped to replicate it in some small way, especially my dear friends David and Cherie Snellgrove who are currently working in Manila through their refuge 'Safe Haven' with battered, neglected women and children.
So why was I struggling to reconcile the wonderful reality of so many modern day missionaries with the stereotypical images so often perpetuated by secular aid organisations? And more importantly if I rejected the term, and worked in the humanitarian field could I totally check my faith at the door? Was it possible or even beneficial to solely tend to the physical needs of people without also nourishing them spiritually?
It's a precarious dilemma. Am I a missionary or am I an overseas aid worker? Do I embrace the missionary title or do I ultimately reject it? Or is it possible to self-define; that is picking and choosing what it is exactly that I am doing? Do I have to choose?
To reject or embrace the 'Missionary' term? That is the question!
Since beginning my Masters degree in the development sector late last year, I have frequently found it difficult to define what it is that I do and hope to achieve, especially to my virtual classmates. As humanitarian organisations increasingly distance themselves from their founding Christian principles in order to appease the secular world, I too have viewed the humanitarian/aid/development industry as one that cannot associate with nor accommodate religion.
So then, what do Christians that seek to make a difference do? If we are seen as religious imperialists that facilitate and commit generational wrongs, should we do away with the title altogether? Essentially I'm wondering how the world views this particular sub-group of Christians working to expel slavery and hunger and poverty and various abuses from the world? And whether it really matters?
Well, I think we should care very much, especially when we seek to represent our Father here on earth. Missionaries and faith workers who have acquired a less than credible reputation in the development sector must shake off the view that they are religious imperialists, imposing their beliefs on the most vulnerable persons in exchange for basic human needs.
But, and this is the ultimate BUT, isn't conversion a missionary's sole point for helping people? And if they do not comply or listen to the message…should aid be withheld? Now for some missionaries, this may very well be their method of outreach. They withhold necessary aid if individuals do not subscribe to the ideologies they are sharing. And this is unquestionably immoral.
Love and compassion and justice are not for Christians alone. They cannot be excluded from those that do not respond in the way we would so desire them to. But then what of Jesus' great commission to the disciples; the call to share the Good News amongst the many nations. Surely he is demonstrating the necessity of sharing the gospel, not just nourishing and band aiding the physical needs of people!
Surely missionaries are seeking to do just this; to love and care for people both spiritually and physically.
Embracing the 'Missionary'?
In 6 weeks time I will be relocating to Manila to coordinate a sponsorship program that seeks to finance the university studies of impoverished students living in urban Manila. And I suppose this will naturally engender the question 'So why are you here?' and 'what do you do?'
Although I am tempted to respond with ridiculous answers such as world domination or an acting career, I am proud of the people I work with and the purposes with which we are seeking to achieve. So I want to respond in a way that is concise and truly reflects what we are trying to do.
And we are trying to do so much more than simply support the educational needs of young adults living in poverty. We are seeking to share Christ's love. We are seeking to instil kindness, compassion, gratitude, and fellowship. We are seeking to build relationships that will not simply deteriorate along with this world, but rather live on for an eternity. That is what we are seeking to do. And yet the secular development world does not recognise this. So in many ways I don't really want to belong to or identify with them either.
I want to define myself. I want to be a co-worker with Christ for justice, compassion, love and equality. So when people ask me what I will be doing next year in the Philippines that will be my answer. I am working for justice and compassion, and I am co-working with Christ.
Maybe that's a ridiculously schmaltzy answer. I don't know. But what I do know is this…I am excited to work with him. And it really doesn't matter what other people think or what they want to categorise it as. In Psalm 96 verse 3 it says, "Declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous works among all the peoples!"
Alison Barkley lives in Newcastle and is a post graduate student at Deakin University.
Alison Barkley's archive of articles may be viewed at