The Amaranthine Sacrarium Journal

ecofeminist. metacostal. unapologetically queer femme.

Missionaries and open-mindedness

June 10, 2018 | Personal reflections

There is a common stereotype among the self-professed liberals and progressives that religious people are closed-minded bigots. Missionaries are often targets of their derision and hatred because to them, missionaries represent bigotry and colonialism -- proselytizing and shoving fundamentalism down their throats.

But this is far from the truth.

In fact, I have met more bigoted and closed-minded people who are secular, liberal, and progressive -- some are left-wing ideologues, many aren't -- than those who are Christian missionaries.

Years ago, I had a housemate who was a graduate student at Multnomah University (a very conservative school!) who was preparing to become a missionary. She was born and grew up in Idaho and went to George Fox University (another very conservative school!) for her undergrad. By then, I was no longer a Pentecostal -- I was a member of an extremely liberal United Church of Christ congregation founded by and led by a lesbian pastor, and pretty much had rejected the literal beliefs in the Bible.

She was living upstairs with her best friend from George Fox. They were pleasant, fun, and intelligent young ladies. I knew when she was working on her papers when I could hear a Disney movie upstairs (she had this habit of playing Disney movies in the background when she had to study hard). I had a fortune of meeting many people in her social circle, her parents and her fiance, and various individuals who were part of missionary organizations based in Portland area, including the late Richard Twiss, the founder of Wiconi. I have had many interesting and intellectually stimulating conversations with these people.

I had developed a lot of respect for the missionaries because of this experience. Missionaries, even if they are doctrinally conservative and theologically uncompromising, must always be open to learning about other cultures. Many of them study several languages in school (Biblical Hebrew, Koine Greek, and at least a major language such as Spanish, Chinese, or French) before they receive more specialized trainings in local languages and cultures of their destinations. In fact, SIL International (originally the Summer Institute of Linguistics), the world's largest repository of endangered languages and one of the largest research institutes of linguistics in the world, originally started as part of the Wycliffe Bible Translators to help translate the Bible into indigenous and endangered languages. Centuries before SIL, it was the Catholic missionaries from the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) who created the first dictionaries and textbooks of several Asian languages (as well as books on Confucianism and Buddhism) for Europeans and introduced Western science to Asia (and along with it, invented the Quoc Ngu, the romanized system of Vietnamese writing that is still in use today instead of the Chu Nom script that was borrowed from Chinese). When one learns multiple languages, they become very much receptive to world cultures and learning different ways of thinking, believing, behaving, and expressing.

Missionaries understand that they must adapt to other cultures and learn to make their messages relevant. They must therefore be attuned to popular cultures and latest trends. I have seen them being among the early adopters of new technologies to support their works. The Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, pioneered in multilingual computer-aided publishing in 1979 long before commercial publishing companies.