One by one these individuals began to share their stories about the catastrophic occurrences they had witnessed while doing mission and charity work in Latin American and Sub-Saharan African nations in hopes that the two-speaker panel leading the discussion could help them make sense of it. My first thought was, "Man, there is enough White guilt in here that even a Florida jury would convict someone." But then I began to seriously wonder why these White individuals knew so much about the problems of people of color.
In no way am I trying to downplay the work that many of these individuals have done for marginalized and poor people in high risk communities because I believe these individuals are well intended. However, from a room that embodied both the very essence of privilege and the way that we in the West like to involve ourselves in struggle (from a far and comfortable place), every word spoken started to sound like Western triumphalism and American exceptionalism. It has been my experience that White folk's, particularly White Evangelical Christian's desire to go and "solve" other people's problems implies three things: (1) White Evangelicals (and America) have no problems of their own; (2) nothing indigenous is being done to provide a solution wherever the White Evangelical sees a problem; (3) White Evangelical Christians possess either the best solution or the only solution.
Too often are poor and oppressed people (especially people of color) regarded as threats here in America, while poor and oppressed people in other countries are viewed as victims. This type of perspective is dehumanizing to people here and to people abroad. To overlook the problems here and to focus on issues elsewhere sends the message that poor and oppressed American's problems are either insignificant, unimportant, or non urgent and at the same time it leads to the objectification of the "exotic other."
I've seldom come across a mission group or charity organization that submitted to the leadership of indigenous people, rather they import their own ideas and solutions. The imposition of White Evangelical Christians is evidence of a "Savior complex" that has been deeply embedded in Western Christianity for centuries. That is just one of several issues I have with short term missions (for more reasons read here).
What bothered me the most that particular Friday night was the fact that those poor and oppressed people who had actually been through suffering and felt real despair were not present to tell their own stories. It seemed as though people wanted to make sense out of the things they saw so that they themselves could be comforted and so they could have their own sorrows alleviated.
If White Evangelical Christians truly care about issues that plague poor and oppressed people they will not see them as an "abstract category, but as unique persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived, and cheated"; they will seek to understand how their privilege and imposition perpetuates a system both here in America and in other countries that has been broken for centuries; they will not undermine indigenous efforts; they will have long term commitments to particular people groups and cultures and immerse themselves in a way that leads to a better understanding; they will stand beside or even behind indigenous leadership; they will lend their resources instead of their ideas to indigenous ministries; and they will take heed to the words of Paulo Friere: "when oppressors join in the struggle for liberation they almost always bring with them the marks of their origin...which include a lack of confidence in the people's ability to think, to want, and to know. They believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them...A real humanist can be identified more by his/her trust in the people, which engages him/her in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust...leaders cannot think about the people, or for the people, but only with the people."