To Be a Missionary

Adventure is an assumed part of being a missionary, and mine started right away upon my arrival at the airport in San Salvador. After getting lost in the terminal, stumbling my way through a conversation with the airport staff about one of my suitcases that hadn’t arrived, and being thrown headfirst into the local Spanish dialect, I finally exited the airport where I saw this smiling woman holding a sign that said “Joseph Russ.”  I smiled and waved at her, but her expectant smile was replaced with utter confusion. I told her, to her surprise, that yes indeed I was Joseph Russ, from the United States, here to work for Foundation Cristosal. Apparently, this was my boss, and she took me to the house where I was staying.

It wasn’t until two days later, when she introduced me to her husband, that I found out why she had been so confused. Apparently, she had some different expectations about who I would be. She had been told I was a missionary from the United States, which she assumed to mean I was at least middle-aged, had a long beard, dressed in robes and was very serious. In reality, I’m twenty-two, have a short beard, and I wore a V-neck and jeans on the day she picked me up. And for those who know me, they know that being serious is something with which I have serious trouble.

Despite a slightly awkward arrival, my adjustment to life in El Salvador was fairly smooth. On my fourth day, while touring the city center, I visited  El Rosario, a beautiful church near the Catedral Metropolitano and the Central Market. Outside this church was a statue of Christopher Columbus, in honor of him bringing the Christian faith to the New World. When I went home I looked at my prayer card with Junípero Serra’s image, the patron saint of missionaries and the Americas, a “shining example of Christian virtue and the missionary spirit.” I reflected on these two figures revered for their missionary work, for bringing the gospel to the Christless land, and for bringing salvation to those who didn’t realize they needed saving. Their legacy reminded me of the pride my home church in El Segundo, California expressed on my final Sunday when the congregation expressed their high expectations for me to change the world during my missionary work.

A few days later, I was staying at a co-worker’s house and joined her roommates for dinner. We chatted about our lives, and they asked what brought me to El Salvador. When I told them I was a missionary, there was an awkward pause. They glanced at each other. There was another awkward pause. One asked me how I feel about the history of oppression, genocide, and forced conversion at the hands of missionaries.  And if the name “missionary” is so tainted why would I use it, (clearly referring to the legacy of people like Columbus and Serra, known for evangelism by way of the whip and sword). I had the dual opportunity to explain what missionary work means to me AND to practice my Spanish language skills. 

It may be easier in English:

As I understand it from my training, missionary work is no longer the thing many assume it to be. It is not just for middle aged or retired people, and though I sport a modest beard, they aren’t required. The robes might make me seem distant, and I have found one of the essential qualities for making friends, integrating into the community, and coping with the struggles of missionary life is a sense of humor. And definitely not taking things too seriously.

The legacy that past missionaries have left behind is polarizing, seen as either heroes for introducing the indigenous peoples to Jesus, or as monsters for decimating populations and stripping away traditions, religions, and cultures of the Americas. I do not intend to be either of these things  I don’t have the hubris to suspect that I am bringing something earth-shaking, or that I am a savior of sorts, come to fix problems and show people the ways of which they are blind. I don’t want to be celebrated as such, especially in the tradition of Columbus and Serra, whose atrocities history glazes over in favor of recognizing the “blessings” they brought to the Americas. In many ways, it makes me uncomfortable to see these missionaries, especially those who have perpetrated such heinous acts, celebrated as having fixed something. Nor do I want people to see me and my fellow missionaries as ruthless imperialists here to impose our values on others.

To me, there is nothing more special in missionaries than in anyone else. I want to help the communities I serve however I can, but I want them to tell me what they need, because obviously they know their struggles better than I do. I want to learn from the people who surround me so I can understand other cultures and bring some of that understanding home. I want to see the ways God’s spirit of love, justice, and redemption are already at work. It’s not to fix or shame, to be the hero or the villain. It’s to be as we are. Human.

Joseph Russjoseph-russ

Foundation Cristosal

El Salvador

GMF International, Class of 2016-2018



One comment

  1. Joe!!!! I must admit when I was reading the beginning about Columbus I was a bit troubled, maybe a bit more than I would have ever been before coming to Seattle and exploring the histories of the first peoples here. I am so impressed and a bit relieved to hear the tone of it change towards the end into a beautiful symbol that can represent us all! Working in an inter-faith organization here, I cannot and do not use the term missionary because it ruffles so many feather and compromises the cohesion of the faith communities, so I totally understand where you’re coming from. I encourage you to continue to re-DEFINE what it is to be a missionary! I love and miss you!


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