Theologically speaking I have lived my life between two antagonistic frontiers.
I grew up in the Bible Belt of rural Kentucky, where hell and brimstone scared me just as much as the occassional tornadoes. Sunday school teachers taught me at an early age that God was love and that he saved animals two-by-two on a big boat. But I guess that the standard indoctrination practices of Bible Belt Christianity mandate that by age 10, Noah's ark and "Jesus loves me this I know" are to be replaced by a healthy fear of the burning lake of fire and eternal suffering. It probably has something to do with that curious thing we call puberty that is just around the corner for most 10-year-olds. By high school, the conservative brand of Christianity that I grew up with, begins to incorporate certain political beliefs as part of the "acceptable" life of faith. In the most extreme of cases, it justifies the historical legacy of slavery due to some odd tale including the "blackening" of the sons of Ham. Most commonly, however, is the heartfelt conviction that the United States of America, in all of its vast moral authority, is the equivalent of God's Promised Land.
Through the providential twists and turns of life, however, I ended up in Latin Americ, where liberation theology, revolution and the ideals of a new civilization became the utopias of my youth. The ideas for which I struggled, changed from keeping the Ten Commandments in the halls of my public high school, to advocating for the rights of Mayan communities over their ancestral lands threatened by mega-hydroelectric dam projects. Inevitably, the supposed "moral authority" of the United States as "God's Promised Land" also came into scrutiny as the historical legacy of American imperialism and its present day foreign policy clashed mightily with the ideals and beliefs that sustained my faith.
For several years, I have waged an internal battle on how to bridge the gap between these two worlds in which my life has transpired. This battle, characterized by impasioned debates and inevitable frustration, ultimately led me to accept the apparent impossibility to bring together two worlds, two realities and two faiths so different and far apart. Latin America was to be one reality, and the Bible Belt of Kentucky was to be another. And it is in this disjointing of my life where the plague of stereotypes have become all too common.
Once a year I return to the United States to visit family, reamaze myself at levels of consumption and to touch up on my faltering english. During these visits, one uncomfortable conversations ALWAYS occurs. By chance I run into an elderly woman from church, an old friend of the family, an ex youth group leader, etc., and the conversation goes something like this:
Old Woman/Youth group leader/friend: It's so good to see you again. Where have you been?
Me: Oh, well I have been living in Guatemala for the last couple of years doing different development and advocacy work.
Old Woman/Youth group leader/friend: That's so great to hear that you're a missionary.
Me: Well, I wouldn´t really say tha---
Old Woman/Youth group leader/friend: We really need more young people like you to get into misson work.
That's about the time that I start looking for an excuse out of that conversation.
There is no label that I more despise than being considered a "missionary." The very term itself makes me cringe inside. Yet, I cannot escape it. I suppose that folks from Bible Belt Kentucky think that, apart from saving the souls of the eternally damned, there would be no other logical reason for an "American" to forsake his country (remember, the Promised Land) to go and live among the "primitives" (another word I despise).
But missionary I am not. The genocide that we call the "Discovery of the Americas" is enough to convince me that I don't want to be confused with that historical precedent. More than anything else, I would consider myself an "apprentice of the poor." Throughout the years I have been in Latin America, I have realized that it is the poor, the outcast, the oppressed and the marginalized who I am to learn from, because it is they who offer an alternative to a global society that is unsustainable, cruel and unhealthy. Ignacio Ellacuria, the Jesuit priest who was martyred during the Salvadoran Civil War for his defense of the poor, once said that the capitalist, individualistic, consumer society proposed by the North was not a viable alternative for Latin America. Not only is it not universable due to a lack of resources, but also it was inhumane. He proposed a "civilization of poverty," which was to be "a universal state of affairs which guarantees the satisfaction of basic needs, the freedom of personal choices, and an environment of personal and community creativity that permits the emergence of new forms of life and culture, new relationships with nature, with others, with oneself, and with God."
Now how to explain that to a group of 70-year-old United Methodist Women from rural Kentucky who think that my sole purpose in Guatemala is to save the souls of the pagan Mayans? They're just a bunch of conservative, Bible-thumping, middle class, suburban, comfortable Americans ignorant of the harsh realities of the world we live in and of how their lifestyle is contributing to the harshness of that reality.
It is here where I come face to face with my own stereotyping, labeling, pigeonholing -- and ignorance. In my most recent trip back to the United States, I was speaking in a church service trying to briefly explain all of the work my wife and I had been involved in. I told the congregation of the dignity and beauty of rural, peasant lifestyles in Guatemala, of how those lifestyles were being threatened by injustices inherent in the global society in which we live, and how we need to learn from the rural, simple lifestyles of so many peasants who farm their own food, participate fully in their community, and live healthy, family lives. In the back of my mind, I wondered if anyone in the congregation had any idea what I was talking about.
After the service, there was a line of eldery women waiting at the back of the church. After initially thinking I might be excommunicated by the women's committee, I was surprised to hear story after story of elderly women and men sharing their stories about the rural, peasant lifestyles that they lived as growing up. I was fascinated to hear of the values of those rural societies that were so similar to the mountain communities of Guatemala that I knew. They shared with me their nostalgic longing for the values of those departed rural societies. As they firmly voiced their desire to replace the superficiality, alienation and competetiveness of contemporary America with the values of hard work, family, close-knit community and simplicity that they learned as children, I realized that my own stereotyping had led me into a profound ignorance of the common ideals that we shared.
Perhaps the old women that day would never understand why I didn't consider myself a missionary. They might never understand the historical injustices of imperialism, or the concepts of liberation theology. But beyond that, there was something in common; a shared ideal; and something to work towards -- together. Stereotyping convinces us of what we most easily see in others. But by going beyond "missionary" and "conservative Bible-thumper" or any other label we choose, I think we will all discover shared purposes and our common bonds.