When I was 6 I spent a month in Costa Rica on a missionary trip, living right on the beach. Now you might be going “wait a second, I thought your family was dirt poor and living in New Orleans? How’d you end up in Costa Rica?” Well, my Dad was head of the missions department at our church and it was a Costa Rican guy who’d gotten my Dad into fundamentalism when he was an idealistic 19 year old out-of-work pot smoker on the verge of homelessness. (Yeah, my Dad was evangelized by a missionary before becoming one himself.)
As a little tiny kid I remember being in the inner city New Orleans black church run by this Costa Rican pastor. It was rather run down, with faded wood paneling and threadbare pews, but when the ladies got up to sing it was the most beautiful gospel music I’d ever heard then or since. At that age I certainly believed that God was actually in that place. Why? Well aside from the singing, there was a mulberry tree outside and sometimes when we went there I got to pick mulberries.
We generally only went to church when my Dad’s mentor preached, and sometimes just to visit him. This Costa Rican pastor was very old though, and he went blind and cut his preaching way down before he died. My Dad sobbed when he heard of his death, feeling he had lost a father. There was only one other time I saw my Dad cry like that, and it was a time when he was in a deep depression and convinced God no longer loved him. It was hard to watch.
My mother wanted us to find a new church. So we tried a couple and ultimately ended up at one in a warehouse that had rows of brown fold up chairs and this hideous 1980’s green shag carpeting covering the main room. The carpeting was lime green. Yep, almost glowing. When the collection plate went around, our pastor, who hated the carpet, said we’d eventually have money to replace it. We never did though, as it seemed money often went to other priorities, and eventually the treasurer was found to also be embezzling funds. The church kind of went south and disintegrated after that. We stopped going, but before then, they’d mainly had their eyes on evangelizing the global south.
We had the most fascinating missionary visits where they’d preach and pray and we’d pass around the collection plate for them after they’d presented a video or a slideshow of their work. One guy showed us pictures of wrinkled brown men with nails through their noses, and told us that tribal people in Indonesia had been stealing missionary-purchased building supplies that were supposed to be used to construct houses, repurposing them as grotesque body art jewelry. The idea was they were savages and needed God so they wouldn’t do this anymore, but obviously as a little kid I found this story more fascinating than anything I’d seen. I wished more than anything that I could meet people like that. Apparently I wasn’t the only one.
My Dad got himself appointed head of the missions department and went on a few church-sponsored missionary trips with other missionary guys. One was to an orphanage in Haiti run by a French-speaking Cajun woman, another to the place in Costa Rica that his beloved old pastor had come from. My Dad loved Costa Rica and was even able to meet up with some men who’d known his mentor pastor. He talked about us all moving there. Next thing you know, our whole family (there were only 3 of us kids at the time) was going to be taking a trip, staying there for a month.
We ended up in a house owned by a Costa Rican woman they called “Sister Clara” who was 104 years old. We dodged giant spiders and slept under mosquito nets (me learning the hard way that accidentally putting a leg against the net in the night would result in so many bites it looked like poison ivy). Sister Clara looked like you might expect someone that age to look, wrinkled beyond recognition and a little bent over, but she was still active and she talked to herself as she swept the kitchen. She scared the heck out of me as a little kid, as I’d never seen someone so old or someone talking to themselves like that, so I spent that month avoiding her and eating as many bananas, coconuts, guineps, pineapples, guanabana, mammee-sapota, and water apples as I wanted while learning Spanish from a little neighbor girl. This girl reminded me to avoid the giant breadfruit tree in the yard too after a falling breadfruit, bigger than my head, nearly hit me.
This wasn’t the Costa Rican paradise advertised in travel brochures. Well, I mean it kinda was, with iguanas and coconut palms everywhere, and being within close walking distance of the beach, but this beach had a lot of garbage on it, and the walls around all the nearby houses were topped with broken glass. People sometimes used termite-damaged wood to build new houses, and I saw my first drug deal while watching an abandoned house across the street. We had gotten what people refer to as “traveler’s diarrhea” our second week there, and were still feeling pretty dehydrated, so at the local market my Mom decided she wanted to buy a milkshake. The lady at the stand asked her “what are you going to catch it in?” We were not in some tourist-friendly spot. If you wanted a milkshake, you brought your own cup.
People were really nice though and I remember the respect my Dad got by being an American missionary, and the kindness us kids got by being his kids. Some lady from the tent-revival church my Dad had been preaching at there, who had a lot of barefoot children running around and lived in a small shanty style house, gave me a doll she’d made herself. It was the first birthday present I remember getting since I was 2 and my family had stopped celebrating birthdays (deciding that singing was for God’s benefit, not ours). We didn’t tell her that and I was actually allowed to keep the doll, even though my Mom didn’t like it because it had painted on blue eyeshadow. Often, after we’d come back home to New Orleans, I’d lay my head on that doll and let my mind go back to Costa Rica and how beautiful it had been there. I still have very vivid memories of it, having made it my “happy place.”
It was only as I got older that I realized missionaries didn’t always just bring friendship, goodwill, and resources. They brought biases, misunderstandings, and often disdain for the local culture. Sometimes they went to spread and justify ideas that were hurting their own families and poisoning their own relationships, or they cavalierly said things that were mostly seen as a lot of hot air at home (“culture wars” stuff designed to rile up the congregation and get them giving), not recognizing they were speaking in a country where the context was different, or perhaps there wasn’t much of a starting context for their comments at all. Thing is, these missionaries generally get taken very seriously, and are seen as caring messengers from a prosperous and Godly background, people with a moral message. Whatever they say is believed to be respectable and true by their listeners.
So that is the context I had in my mind when watching this New York Times video about how evangelical missionaries, I’m assuming a lot of them from the Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull tradition (the seven mountains doctrine being mentioned), have influenced Ugandan politicians to craft anti-gay legislation that calls for the death penalty for repeated acts of homosexual activity.
I think back on my childhood trip to Costa Rica, and how for years I dreamed of going back, going other places like that, doing something similar elsewhere, and then I have to ask – is this what we’ve really gotten from it, what we’ve really done? Is this how far the message of “God is love” has been distorted that missionaries go on “vacation” and spread hate? Is this the kind of stuff my parents were involved in when I was a little kid happy to be drinking coconut water on the beach?