It was Summer 2011, and although I did not realize it, I was in the middle of a complete spiritual crisis. I had just returned from a study abroad trip through Furman University, where I studied the socio-political history, healthcare systems, economic practices, and psychological development of persons in southern Africa. After the courses were finished, all I had learned abroad about poverty, racism, disease, tribalism, sexism, patriarchy, globalization, xenophobia, corruption, pollution, and environmental destruction in the Global South caught up with me. I was paralyzed by guilt and shame, unable to concentrate on anything but the injustices I had seen. Never before had I been confronted with the reality that I, a white, upper-class, college-age female from the US, had contributed to these issues locally and abroad. The most shame-inducing part of my crisis, however, was the fact that I vocationally wanted to be a part of an institution that has turned a blind eye to these issues for centuries, and even endorsed these forms of oppression. The institution in question? The Christian Church.
At the time, I was not new to spiritual crises. I’d had one almost 10 years before, but the previous one helped me embrace the idea of working in the Church. When I was 13, my mother was diagnosed with alcoholism. My sisters and I went to live with my dad and stepmother, who were members of Shandon United Methodist Church. During our crisis, it was Shandon UMC which surrounded us with love and acceptance, forming a safe space for us to figure out what it meant to be a family again. The congregation members prayed for us without prying into our pain, and plugged us into church life (especially the youth group’s construction-based mission projects). This experience lead me to discern a Call to Ministry as a teenager. Like my United Methodist church, I wanted to help persons in crisis reclaim their identity by participating in a community of faith. Attending Furman University from 2008-2012 only confirmed my sense of Calling. Through my psychology degree, poverty studies minor, community-based internships, pre-ministry scholarship opportunities, and participation in campus ministry groups, I gained experience and knowledge about theology and the human condition. I was even entering the process to become Certified Candidate for ministry South Carolina United Methodist Conference.
After I returned from southern Africa, though, my worldview shifted. Not only was I painfully aware that I’d hurt others through my own existence and ignorance, I also felt that God could not cure such expansive global suffering. Furthermore, I perceived this global suffering to be made worse, by the Church’s involvement (or lack thereof). After all, the mission of the Church has been used to endorse all the “Bonds of Oppression” I’d encountered head-on in my study abroad coursework. Even so, I still felt cognitive dissonance about Christian missions. Service projects were how I found purpose and identity. They were tools for rebuilding my sense of Self. How could I hate Christian mission when it had been so restorative in my life?
Several months later, I stumbled upon the Young Adult Missionary Programs from the General Board of Global Ministries. At that point, I had no positive opinions to give about missionaries. I was repulsed by the way they helped subjugate continents in the name of God centuries ago. In any case, most modern-day missionaries seemed fundamentalist and un-relatable. Yet after investigating Global Ministries’ programs, I was rendered speechless. It was the perfect blend of social justice and responsible evangelism. The young adult programs emphasized ministry “with” others, not “to” or “for” them. They also promoted engagement with local communities, connection of churches to local and global mission initiatives, and participant growth in personal and social holiness. In other words, Global Ministries sought to redefine the words “Christian” and “mission” so they would be synonymous with words like “justice,” “reconciliation,” and “restoration” instead of “injustice,” “oppression,” and “destruction.”
In order to help redefine Christian mission, I decided to become a young adult missionary, and I’m so thankful I did. Since August 3rd, 2012, I have been serving the United Methodist Church as a commissioned Mission Intern. For the first half of my 3-year service contract, I worked as the Field Education and Ministry (FEM) Coordinator for Seth Mokitmi Methodist Seminary in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. In helping seminarians experience ministry with marginalized persons in the local community, I gained a better perspective regarding the role of Churches in Southern Africa: the mistakes they made, but also the education and empowerment they gave non-white South Africans to fight racism and oppression. Since March 2014, I’ve been spending the second half of mission contract as a Financial Coach for the United Way Center for Financial Stability in Miami, Florida. By providing free financial coaching and education to others (regardless of income level or citizenship status), I’ve become more familiar with the socioeconomic realities of the Working Poor in the United States, as well as issues concerning mass incarceration, racial profiling, and immigration reform. Both of these mission placements have shown me how churches can function as centers for community development, where relationship and imagination create abundance in environments of scarcity. Without a doubt, I can say these last few years have been the most meaningful years of my life. Global Ministries has shaped me in ways I never would have imagined, allowing me to wrestle with the Church, Christian mission, and most importantly, myself.