Ralph Goes on a Short Term Mission Trip

By Bill Mefford

So, last week I wrote that liberationist Christians should do more than simply call for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to step down for being connected to a racist picture on his yearbook page and for admitting at his press conference that he did in fact wear blackface previously at a dance competition. Well, the hits just keep on coming. On Sunday in a CBS interview Northam insisted he is not stepping down and believes he is the best person to lead our state in achieving racial healing. He also referred to slaves being brought over to Virginia 400 years ago as “indentured servants.”

I still want Northam to experience liberation, but he needs to stop this painful process on the public dime. First step is to step aside and go away. But sadly, he won’t. We are stuck with him as he works out his painfully shocking lack of racial awareness in full view of the world to see. I can’t imagine how bad this might possibly be for the next three years. It reminds me of my time working in an urban ministry context a number of years ago and I ran the trainings for visiting youth groups.

For three years I ran two programs in an urban ministry setting for visiting affluent church groups. One was a poverty simulation weekend; a carefully structured time of experiential learning where visiting church groups got a glimpse of what it was like to be poor. Our hope was that these groups would return to their home contexts and enter into relationships of compassion. And some of the time it worked! I loved these weekends because for many who went through them, they experienced deep transformation.

The other far less transformative program were the short-term mission trips where groups would come and do some physical labor while also doing outreach to the kids in our neighborhood. Frankly, I grew to hate the short-term mission trips because they only served to cement the paternalistic and often racist views that affluent, suburban church groups arrived with. The same attitudes they had towards poor people and people of color most often stayed with them when they left.

Whenever church groups contacted me to schedule a trip with us I would always try and get them to do the poverty simulation. In fact, some church leaders openly complained to my boss that I wasn’t accommodating enough for them. But there simply was no comparison in the experiences I witnessed among groups. Poverty simulations made affluent people normally accustomed to being the most knowledgeable and in control to being in the position of a learner; dependent on others for what was happening and what they were learning. They hated it and I, frankly, loved it because it was innately transformational.

Short-term mission trips, on the other hand, maintain the ownership of knowledge and control in the hands of those visiting rather than in the hands of the indigenous community. Short-term mission trips sadly breed paternalism and colonialism as I have heard countless people come into poor communities and leave with comments like: “I am so thankful God did not allow me to end up poor,” or “If these people took care of what they have they might not be so poor.” For all of the things people say that short-term mission trip changed their life, numerous studies have shown that there has been no measurable change of any kind; not in tithing, not in voting, and not in their attitudes. Experiential learning events such as poverty simulations can bring about individual and societal change, but short-term mission trips only serve to further entrench the current political, social, and economic status quo.

And Ralph Northam is now saying he wants to use taxpayer money to go on a three year-long short-term mission trip when what he needs is an extended poverty simulation. The problem is you can’t do a poverty simulation when you are the governor. He can’t give up control; he can’t fully submit himself to the leadership of others. Most importantly for Northam, he can’t shut up. The position itself demands he give speeches, that he leads meetings, that he sets agendas, etc. To fully experience the transformation that comes with racial healing he must and foremost give up control and learn; he must shut up and listen.

This is why the first step of a long journey towards liberation must begin with Northam resigning. Otherwise, his insistence on leading Virginia towards racial healing is exactly what it appears to be: a plan designed by a public relations firm to save his governorship and keep him in place. This is exactly what defines the nature of a short-term mission trip and this is what Ralph wants to lead his state in. Virginia has some serious problems that we need legislation to solve and we are not going to solve them while we have to follow Northam around on his pathetic need to create his own process for his own sanctification.

Step down Mr. Northam, end your short-term mission trip, and begin your journey towards liberation.

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