Some time ago, I was talking to my friend Daniel, a monthly donor to our ministry, about challenges we face in maintaining connections with folks in the United States while serving abroad. Specifically, about how communication becomes increasingly challenging and distorted and how folks who care about us a great deal can end up saying the most hurtful, deflating things.
“‘You out drinkin’ with my gifts?!’” he said in his best “church-person” voice with a laugh. “Wow, it seems you guys have a double standard for having fun!”
I love Daniel’s way of keeping things in perspective. The reality is the type of work we do in Barcelona (and before in Lithuania) does not really fit the classical missionary stereotype. We serve in a first-world country that is riddled by poverty of the spiritual sort and often the baggage of the institutional church does more to create barriers between people and Jesus rather than facilitate connections.
Meaning we’re not digging wells, converting villages of poor people, and dressing in some relatively exotic fashion. That’s not to say those types of missions are unimportant and, in many contexts, these things have been carried out by amazing, faithful people responding to God’s call in their lives. But that’s not who we are and that’s not who we should be in our context.
For our first two years in Barcelona, our stated objectives have been:
Learn the language well.
Engage in the local culture and figure out how to fit into it.
In other words, we have been laying a lot of foundation that is as challenging to portray as it is meaningful and important.
Ministry happens in the midst of each of these objectives and most of our supporters know and understand this…but the legacy image of what international missions should look like always seems to linger. The dissonance that image creates with the parts of our experience we’re able to communicate, combined with the hallmark American fear of getting duped or flimflammed, often results in some unfortunate encounters and assumptions.
The following is the first of a three-part series that addresses some of the common myths and misconceptions we experience most regularly while serving with Mennonite Mission Network in Barcelona.
Myth #1: Our European Vacation
We love to travel and likely would not have found ourselves living outside the United States were this not the case. Maybe that’s why this first myth gets under our skin so much:
“You’re just getting people to pay for your European vacation.”
While we don’t hear this first statement from our ministry partners who support us, it is a serious accusation that seems to come from a darkly cynical and somewhat ill-informed place.
Is Barcelona an amazing city? Totally! Do we enjoy living here? Yup! Is it a huge tourist destination? Annoyingly so!
However, living in a place that lots of people would love to visit does not make us tourists. Do you want to know another major tourist spot we’ve lived in? Amish country. Growing up in Goshen, Ind., I never felt like a tourist even though that’s a definite aspect of the area’s culture. Phoenix, a place we lovingly called home for about eight years, is also a major tourist destination. Even a sleepy city like Klaipeda, Lithuania, draws in lots of visitors during its summer months.
Everywhere we’ve resided is touristy to someone who hasn’t been there. In fact, stereotypical settings for missions such as Africa and South America are also places countless people visit and drop lots of money to go on safaris, visit historical sites, and consume culture — living life in a fashion that’s completely separate from the locals.
The same is true for Barcelona.
The truth is our travel is pretty limited to what we can access via the subway and bus. Occasionally, we find ourselves outside Barcelona for a ministry-related trip or conference. A few times we’ve been able to visit and decompress with some good friends who live a two-hour train ride away. Most days, however, we’re grinding away with meetings, office work, language courses, getting groceries, going on family walks, etc.
I suppose this myth is most hurtful because to imply we’re on a perpetual vacation is to say we don’t work — an easy assumption to make as our work doesn’t all fit into a 9-to-5 window. And to say that we’ve somehow tricked folks into paying for a life of leisure implies we are being disingenuous about our call to serve.
I would love to travel more as a family. Regional travel in Europe is amazing: for the same cost as traveling from Phoenix to southern California or Indianapolis to Chicago, we could see and do some amazing things. But we travel less now than ever. Usually there’s too much work to do at home in Barcelona and, often, it just doesn’t feel like it’s worth the judgement.
Questions to reflect on:
How important is recreational travel for me/my family?
In what ways might where I live and my lifestyle be exotic to someone from another part of the world?