I went on several mission trips to Mexico in my teens and twenties. During each, I experienced something of a culture shock as I saw firsthand the comparative poverty of the areas we visited. The “mission,” of course, was to convert people to Christianity through a variety of means, ranging from building projects to children’s workshops to passion plays, which dramatized the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The last trip I participated in was in 2003, and rather than drive over the border, we flew into Central Mexico. We spent most of our time in Tepic in the state of Nayarit. After we spent a week or so there, we had the opportunity to spend a night in a resort in Puerto Vallarta before returning home. A couple friends and I decided to leave the resort and go to dinner in town at a place that was recommended to us. On the way there, it began to pour. It seemed like the water was coming down in sheets and it continued to rain all night. It took some trouble to find the restaurant, and it was on a block so steep that the cab had to take multiple tries to get up the hill to it.
It was worth it though. We entered the second-story restaurant soaked, but had an excellent meal out on a covered balcony overlooking the city with live music playing in the background and margaritas that grow in size each time I tell the story. (They are currently the size of fish bowls.) We had the restaurant call us another cab to return to the resort, and this time as the cab driver was winding through the dark, drenched streets to get us back, we somehow got around to the topic of religion.
The poor cab driver didn’t know what he was in for when he asked us what we were doing in Mexico. He was fairly open about his religious beliefs once we explained our trip, which probably involved phrases like “sharing the love of Jesus.” He told us he had a Bible on the shelf at home but never really read it. His mother was religious but it didn’t hold a lot of interest for him. He was busy trying to provide for his family. I don’t remember the whole conversation, but I know that my friends and I spent the remainder of the trip back, slightly buzzed, trying to convince him how great Jesus was. Despite our efforts, the ride was too short for us to change his mind and we arrived back at our hotel.
I was, in retrospect, disappointed by the exchange, thinking if I had only said the right things, we might have effected the man’s (re?)conversion to Christianity right then and there. I was acutely aware of how many people don’t “know God,” and how sad their day-to-day lives had to be. In part, that was just the mode that I was in, having spent a week evangelizing the “unsaved,” and it probably involved some guilt at partaking in the typical American resort vacation, tucked away from day-to-day life in Mexico. But there was always a tinge of sadness that mixed with the earnestness when we returned, because it was much harder to evangelize at home.
For church groups, particularly of teens and young adults, taking missions trips to Mexico is fairly popular for a variety of reasons. It’s close and relatively easy to get over the border. But there is also some time-tested institutional logic involved.
If the primary directive of Christianity is the Great Commission—to convert as many people as possible so as to usher in the end of time—as many evangelicals think it is, why do most spend so little time trying to complete this task? Why instead do they venture out mostly in large groups to faraway places rather than evangelize in their immediate surroundings? I think that it is in part because they base a vibrant spiritual connection on evidence in socio-economic well being. We went to Mexico because the poor are more vulnerable, and consequently more open to the Christian message. It helped also that we believed there was a connection between their state of poverty and their spiritual status.
This preference for “vacation evangelization” is not unconnected to our marginalization of the homeless in the United States. Most comments I have heard about the homeless reflect the belief that they are ultimately responsible, not only for getting themselves into the situation they are in, but in wanting to stay there, because surely if they wanted to get a job, they could. Similarly, middle-class Christians often tend to think that physical poverty is a reflection of spiritual poverty, and an improvement in the latter will effect an improvement in the former. In addition, the proximity of homeless in our own communities is unsettling and more important to rationalize than the existence of poverty elsewhere.
I didn’t often think about this connection as a Christian. My motivations were out of pity, although it did cross my mind that we didn’t focus as much attention on the poor in our own community. But why the poor? Why not evangelize those of our own socio-economic background? Perhaps because without a socio-economic disparity, there is no justification for convincing someone that their life would be better off with Jesus. There is no metric of measurement to justify religious belief among our peers.
The lack of urgency to evangelize one’s peers is a reflection of a level of disbelief that “they” are actually better off than “we” are. It is easy to go elsewhere and observe living conditions that would be terrible to experience. The knowledge that you have it better off in social and economic domains transfers readily to a spiritual domain. After all, Christians understand that their good position in life should be attributed to God. And if someone nearby is experiencing a tragedy, it is easier to step in, assuming—aside from a genuine desire to help—that his/her situation would be more manageable with religious belief. But how do you convince someone for whom life is going well that they are actually not well at all? One might do as Nietzsche suggested Christians do, make others sick in order to make them well. I, like many, convinced myself that others must be more unhappy than they seem in order to justify my worldview. But few have the heart to seriously act on that conviction, to find out if that’s really the case. And if not, it might be beneficial to consider whether Christians are actually better off, and by what standard—other than a Christian one—that might be measured.
Am I suggesting that Christians be more evangelistic with all of their peers? In terms of consistency, absolutely. In my last years as a Christian, the rhetoric of evangelization seemed hollow and hypocritical. I wasn’t shooting for conversions, but I did think it the Christian’s imperative to make a positive impact in his/her communities. So part of me wishes evangelicals were more consistent in application of their beliefs. But I’d rather that Christians realize there is no necessary connection between theological belief and socio-economic position. A reliance on social or economic indicators to prove or evidence divine favor would only prove an arbitrary an cruel deity who caused many to suffer in order that a few might enjoy relative comfort.