02 May 2016

i am a missioner so i can judge you.

Ashley and I are Maryknoll Lay Missioners living and working in Tanzania. If you have followed this blog for more than a couple weeks, that much should be obvious (I hope). Over the past two and half years, we have waxed philosophic about what it means to be a missioner.

We said Hallmark card-worthy things like, a missioner is "one who deliberately chooses to enter into the reality of life of another person, a reality that is quite foreign to the missioner, be it culturally, economically, etc., in order to mutually learn from one another and strive towards a more just and compassionate world." And we also questioned ourselves, wondering if we are even legit missioners, asking things like, "Are you a missioner if you don't like going to church?" (Clearly we are not the ones constructing church buildings, distributing bibles or “saving” people.)

But the thing is, there is another side to the life of a missioner. A dark side. No, not like Star Wars. (Okay now I’m kind of wishing mission life was like Star Wars.) The dark side I’m talking about is this: feeling a sense of superiority and license to judge others.

Yep, if you’re reading this and we have met at least once, I have likely judged you. I have even judged your lifestyle choices: the food you buy, the clothes you wear, the car you drive, the neighborhood you live in…all of it.

Anyone still reading this? Oh, hi Mom.

I’m not proud of thinking that way. Not happy about it one bit. And of course there is a terrible irony, hypocrisy and contradiction that comes with all that ego-driven sense of superiority and inclination to judge. Plus this isn't even the first time I have written about the things we compare. A missioner should’t be like that, right?

Here’s the deal. Ashley and I chose to live in a slum in East Africa. While life is overall pretty great, it can also be “Get me out of here right now!” hard at times. The real problem comes when I start to compare our lifestyle with others. I start to calculate the sacrifices made (“Goodbye income!”), the comforts lost (“Goodbye water without typhoid!”), the hardships earned (“Goodbye normal bowel movements!”). And when I do that, I’m a doofus. Because I allow those calculations to create divisions between those who I think are hacking it (a.k.a. me) and those are who not (a.k.a. everyone else... or at least, a lot of other folks).

Yeah, I’ve been a doofus a lot.

So why am I writing this? Well, I suppose in one sense it’s to come clean to all those folks who think I am an exceptionally wonderful human being because I voluntarily chose to live in Africa - I am not. But also because I believe it is important to know your values and consider how all of your choices support or contradict them. That’s what Ashley and I are trying to do. But in doing so I have had to struggle against the urge to look down on others doing it differently. Maybe someone else out there has faced the same struggle. 


  1. I think I can relate to this. It's an inevitable temptation of anyone who chooses to forego certain things in favor of what they believe is a higher good, especially when that sacrifice (a) is something you believe all people should make to at least some degree, and (b) involves suffering.

    I am kind of surprised that you don't like going to church, just because I remember you as the leader of a Bible study, one of the best Bible studies I've ever been in. That's not to judge - believe me, Sunday mornings have often felt like toil the past few years, especially with the little ones. I just don't remember you ever speaking about it so bluntly. Are you in a spiritually drier state than you've been in the past?

    1. Ashley and I absolutely loved going to Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Dallas, Texas - we miss that community a lot. The mass experience is just quite different for us here. One, the entire mass and homily is conducted in Swahili. Two, the homily is 45 minutes long. Three, normal Sunday mass is 2-2.5 hours long (Easter Vigil was 6 hours long). Four, there are two or more collections every week with what I find to be an unhealthy amount of pressure for everyone to contribute (i.e. calling out men and women separately to give, saying anyone wearing glasses should get up and give, etc.). Five, announcements which are read at the end of the mass are 30-40 minutes long and usually consist of 2-3 random speakers scolding the congregation for not giving enough money during the numerous collections. With that said, there are beautiful parts of the mass which we are reminded of when people visit and experience it for the first time. The choir sings with unbelievable gusto, but the cheap, electronic organ is an annoying distraction to their heartfelt singing.

  2. I was with you until you said "Goodbye normal bowel movements!" Oh dear, God bless you. In reality though, I understand where you are coming from. It is also hard for me to resist comparing my spiritual life to others. I thank God that He is the judge and not me, even though I seem to think I am very good at it!

    It is true, though, that when I read about your life on here it does put many things in perspective for me. I am proud to say "Hey! Those are my friends!" :)

    1. Thanks for the kind words and encouragement! I know that comparison is generally not a helpful or healthy thing to do, so why do I keep doing it? Perhaps it's like Saint Paul writes, when he says he knows the thing he ought to do, yet he does the opposite. Human nature? Maybe.

  3. You and Ashley have more courage than I could ever muster. I follow your blog and am proud to say I not only know you but can call you nephew. Your urge to judge others now is only human. I try to do things that will surprise others and do so anonymously. I feel the urge to display to the world that I gave however I refrain. (and then judge others for displaying their name. :-)

    Retirement means no more paycheck and that takes some getting used to. We count ourselves as blessed but not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. We live on a budget spending only what we need to live on and make it last. That said when I see there are people in need we make a small sacrifice knowing it will cause some financial distress.

    Last week, we had planned to spend some money on painting the house but I received some awful news when I heard a friend had a brain stem stroke, paralyzed from the neck down. The family is not prepared to meet their medical expense debt so we donated to them what we would have spent on the house and did so anonymously. I saw many others place their names on their donor list and I saw mine as "anonymous". I reminded myself that what I did was not for me so that I could be acknowledged in some way. It was for the sake of doing what was right and giving a sum that would cause us a bit of distress. I also believe that "what goes around, comes around." So go ahead and judge Michael, make comparisons, Jesus did so many times in the Bible. And besides, you've earned it more than anyone I know, especially me.

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words. A fellow Maryknoll Lay Missioner was in the papal audience in Rome yesterday and shared an article about the comments made by Pope Francis, which seem relevant to this blog post and the theme of judgment and comparison.

      Specifically, the pontiff spoke about the parable found in Luke's Gospel, in which Jesus describes two men who pray in very different ways. The Pharisee thanks God that he is "not like the rest of humanity." The tax collector instead beats his breast, asking: "O God, be merciful to me a sinner."

      Reflecting on the Gospel parable comparing the ways that a Pharisee and a tax collector pray at the Jewish Temple, Pope Francis said "Whoever believes themselves just and judges others and scorns them is corrupt and a hypocrite....Arrogance compromises every good action, empties prayer, distances from God and others."


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