Questions of Travel Series

I was so excited by the conversation in the comment section and on Twitter about the Questions of Travel idea I had this week that I decided to define the series a bit better. In the next two months, I will be writing and seeking guest posts to begin a conversation that I hope will prompt us to think and spur us on to deeper conversations.

Questions of Travel

When Christians talk about “the poor,” we use specific language and tropes with specific cultural connotations for our groups. We are essentially translating people into ideas that we understand or are predisposed to expect. We make “the poor” familiar, palatable, stereotypical.

This is not new. Missionaries have served alongside ethnographers and travel writers for hundreds of years in journeying to a place and returning to tell stories, show pictures, bring souvenirs or bodies back from far off regions. Christians have played an integral part in exoticizing, primitivizing, racializing and other categorizing of people from other countries or regions.

For generations, we have made them “Other.”

We use different terms. We have different motivations. We speak different lingo. But let’s be clear–Christians are often implicit in asymmetrical relationships that privilege First World over Third World, white over black, men over women, urban over rural, Western over Eastern, cosmopolitan over “primitive.”

So many of the imperial relationships that broke down in the twentieth century have been examined in-depth in academic and political settings, and yet we barely touch this subject in many churches.

We travel. We bring back slidshows and videos. We talk about “the poor,” “orphans,” “the least of these.”

We are guilty of not examining the acts of translation that turn an ordinary Bolivian into an object of sympathy for our mega-churches. We are guilty of using the degrees of removal that separate an upper-class white Midwestern Christian from a Haitian mother as guilt trips or morality moments. We are guilty of objectifying Ethiopian villages by making their stories about our reactions, our acts of generosity, without really stopping to see what is happening their on the ground.*

We are guilty of using “the poor” as objects or foils sent to teach us about ourselves rather than people in their own right.

In the next few weeks, I’m going to use the tools of postcolonial theory to identify terms, language and concepts that are common in the churches I am familiar with to help us delve more deeply into our conversations about poverty and helping and changing the world.

I’d love guest posts on three things:

1) STORIES: If you have a story that made you uncomfortable of a time when a church shared a picture or told a story about someone in a way that you thought was concerning, please share it. Or if you have a story of a way in which your church handled this issue well, I’d particularly like to hear that. Write in an anonymous way, please–hide your name or change the details. I don’t want to make this about specific places. I think stories help us to think and I’d like to draw from a variety of interactions in this conversation.

2) QUESTIONS: What questions do you have? What do you NOT know? What are you struggling with? I’ll be honest, those of us who have more than a few years of experience working with “the poor” have more questions, more doubts, more fears than we do answers. And working with people in Haiti and Mali and Thailand and in the United States are all completely different.* Working with people in different apartment complexes or neighborhoods changes the story completely. What are things you are struggling with? How can you turn the story on yourself–either you want to be in better relationship with people who are different from you or you continue to struggle after years of interactions like me?

3) CONCEPTS: I’d love a little help from my friends. Is there a postcolonial theorist or a development book or a theological work you found helpful? I’ll take this in any form–quotes or book reviews or epiphanies from reading When Helping Hurts. Any concepts or terms or ideas you can give us to help us frame this discussion?

I’d love something between 300-1,000 words or so. Pictures are great if you have them, but since they can be dicey in a discussion about objectification, not necessary.

Even if you don’t guest post, follow along and share in the comments section and Twitter.

I’ll use the hashtag #QofT for the series.

If you’re interested in guest posting or know someone who should be in on this conversation, leave a comment. I’ll send you an email and we’ll schedule it. Can’t wait to launch this conversation!

The Questions of Travel Series page has a list of the current posts.

*I changed these two sentences because Rachel Pieh Jones astutely noted that I had used “Africa” in parallel descriptions with other countries, which conflates the concerns of an entire continent as if it were one monolithic country. It’s one of my own pet peeves–I love good dialogue that spurs us on to more thoughtful language! Thanks, Rachel!

15 comments on “Questions of Travel Series

  1. Joanna on said:

    I’ve got a question that I would like to put in an email, please.

  2. Caris Adel on said:

    “We are guilty of using “the poor” as objects or foils sent to teach us about ourselves rather than people in their own right.” aahhhh!!!!!!!! It’s because being a christian is all about us and how well we know God and how much God loves me! I’m getting ready to rant in my journal about individualistic christianity. I just listened to a depressing sermon encouraging people in it. aaughhhh!!!!!!

    Now that you’ve laid this out even more, I’m SO excited about this. For point number one – I don’t really think I have another post in me about it, but how youth groups come back from missions trips and get up in front of the church and say ‘I had a lot of fun, Our worship times were good, I had fun getting to know people, I felt God’, etc….and nothing about the people they worked with or what they learned from them or anything other than ‘the people were really poor and I’m so thankful for my blessings’……….this ties in with how the church in general talks about it, but that we also need to help our kids see this whole area better and help them reframe the issue, help give them a new way to approach doing and talking about missions.

  3. Pingback: In which I offer a Christian response to #IdleNoMore | Sarah Bessey

  4. Danielle | from two to one on said:

    I would like to write a guest post on point A — stories. If you would allow it, I’d like to focus on the problematic way in which victims and survivors of sex trafficking and related forms of sexual violence are depicted in some, if not many, church/missions/faith-based organizations.

    • Caris Adel on said:

      I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. I have a feeling I’m guilty of a lot of them.

      • J.R. Goudeau on said:

        I think we all are, Caris. I certainly want to write about this not because I have all of the answers but because I’m desperately trying to find even the right questions to ask. Danielle, I love that idea. I’ll make up a schedule in the next couple of days and let you sign up–I cannot WAIT to hear what you have to say.

  5. Esther Emery (@EstherEmery) on said:

    I’m interested in guest posting. I co-led a workshop on Christianity and US Immigration History, several times in the Boston area and then at the Ben Linder Center in Managua, Nicaragua. Such a difference, speaking to Northern Christians and getting yawns and perplexed looks, and then speaking to a group of people who are daily conscious of this crazy contradiction: Christian action that supposedly intends to eliminate inequality, and Christian action that maintains it, has historically helped to create it. What’s the difference? Huge question, but one we had better be wrestling with, as long as we are wearing our superhero capes.

    I’ve never been here before. Glad I clicked through from Sarah Bessey. :) Looking forward to learning more about you!

  6. Tere Hager on said:

    Jessica-See my questions I posted on July 22, 2012 in the comments of your post about STM ( the ugly)

  7. Carrie McKean on said:

    Hi Jessica – I found you via Sarah Bessey, but when I started reading more of your blog I realize I’ve actually been wanting to talk to you for several months! :) I’ve looked for your email address here and on the Hill Tribers website, but I don’t see it. Can you email me? It isn’t really about this post, but I want to chat with you a bit… I can put details in an email, but here’s a brief intro — I’m a 30 yr old mama to a 2 yr old girl. We lived in China for 4 years working with an orphanage for wee ones with special needs. We’re hoping to start adoption process ourselves, soon – saw we have that in common! :) While there, we started a small fair trade sewing cooperative called Scarlet Threads (www.scarletthreads.org) working with rural women. When we moved back to the USA we ended up in Midland, TX because of my husband’s job. I’ve had a longtime passion for refugees and have found out since moving here that Midland has a fairly large and underserved refugee population… mostly Chen people. I’m VERY interested in doing something like you’ve done with Hill Tribers with our local community, working under the umbrella of Scarlet Threads since we have a lot of the sales structure in place. I’ve already started some conversations with local churches and Midlanders who have been personally involved with the refugees, and there seems to be a general sense that this could meet a local need. I’d love to chat with you more about it… learn from you and not reinvent the wheel. I know you are probably crazy-busy, but if you had a few moments… even just to chat on the phone… I would so appreciate it.

    • J.R. Goudeau on said:

      Carrie, from that comment, we have more in common than you know. I’ll email you when I have a few free minutes today, but thanks so much for getting in touch. I can’t wait to learn more!

  8. Hi Jessica – I received both your emails and replied to the first one. I have a feeling you didn’t get the reply though. Can you check your spam box in case it went there?

  9. Rachel Pieh Jones (@RachelPiehJones) on said:

    Hi there. I’ve enjoyed reading along in silent anonymity for a while, but wanted to say something. And I almost hate to do it because I don’t want my first comment to come off negative! I’m really excited about watching this series and hearing from people. I love your insights and honest questionings. But…one thing related (sort of) to this discussion comes up in your post. It is the issue of the words we use when talking about justice and poverty and ‘the poor.’ And one of those words that bothers me is Africa. Not in general, of course. But when used in lists with countries. I heard it in a popular song this morning too so it is fresh on my mind. But listing Haiti and Africa and Thailand and the United States contributes to the perception that Africa is a country. This is an example of labels being part of the problem. I’d like to encourage people to name things accurately in order to see them more clearly. Hope you aren’t offended!

    • J.R. Goudeau on said:

      No, I’m not offended at all; in fact, I think that’s a fantastic critique. I had a student a few years ago that kept talking about the “country of Africa” and it’s one of my pet peeves, then look at me, doing the exact same thing. I’m editing the text based on your comment now, but just wanted you to know I really, really welcome this kind of feedback. It’s important for all of us to keep talking. As a matter of fact, I’ll be honest, I’m a little hesitant to even launch this series because I don’t want to act like I have all the answers or even say it right half the time. Thank you!

      • Rachel Pieh Jones (@RachelPiehJones) on said:

        Appreciate your response – we are all on a journey. I was talking with a 60-year old friend about the way people younger than her write these days and we talked about how part of our writing and learning is to express the questions and the fact that we don’t have it all figured out yet and then work on it in community. I love that – thanks for initiating. I feel like the longer I live in Djibouti, surrounded by the issues the series raises, the less I know and the more I have to trust. Thankful for grace.

        • J.R. Goudeau on said:

          Seriously, always say something. I love it. And I completely agree–I knew so much at 23 living in Brazil. I was such a tired and cynical expat. Now, at 35, there’s a whole different world out there than I thought. I know much less than I did, that’s for sure! :)