I have been traveling for the last two weeks. When I travel, I talk to everyone. This week was no exception. All the planes were full, from Africa, Zurich (where I changed planes) and the flight to Grenada in the Caribbean.
Most passengers were tourists or people coming home, but some were people on religious missions.
On the flight from Nairobi to Zurich, there was a group of Americans, most of whom were barely fitting in their seats from being grossly overweight. They weren’t going to a spa or diet program. They told me they were running workshops for ministers in Africa. I asked them if they were doing any building or repairing. No, they were just preaching and teaching the gospel.
Two days later, I was on a flight to Grenada. On the packed flight were two groups of T-shirts. One said “Team Grenada,” and the other group had red T-shirts quoting scripture from Matthew 10:27: “What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight. What is whispered in your ear, shout from the rooftops.”
I asked “Team Grenada” what their mission was. They said they were going to preach and teach the Gospel.
“Are you here to build things?” I asked.
“No,” they said. They were going to Grenada for the Gospel.
I was stopped dead in my tracks.
“Whoa,” I thought. “These white, middle-class Americans are coming to Grenada to preach?”
Then, I thought, they were making their church mission groups happy and clearly knew nothing about Grenada.
Grenada is an island of about 100,000 people, where the primary religion is Roman Catholicism. It is a profoundly religious country where people drink, but the country is reflective of deeply held Christian beliefs. Grenada’s political organization is based on parishes, not run by the church but by the legislature with names like St. George’s and St. David’s. The school system is rigorous and based on the English system. In fact, last year St. George’s University Medical School had a Grenadian graduate first in his class. (The school has about 400 students in each class, with 50 percent coming from the U.S. and with students representing most of the Ivy League schools.)
The folks in the “rooftop” T-shirts were doing the same. They were coming to Grenada to preach and teach. I sat in my seat for the next three-plus hours dumbfounded. It was profound cultural and religious imperialism that these Bible-thumping Americans were engaged in. They were coming to Grenada to preach/teach the Bible in a country that is much more religious as a whole than America.
My mind raced to a conversation that my foster son had just a few days before. His Arab slave master in the North of Sudan blinded Keer, my foster son. (Today, July 9, is the first anniversary of South Sudan becoming its own country.) Keer is from the Christian South. His name is Keer Aleu Deng, but a Pentecostal minister added “Charles” to his name when he was brought out from slavery. It is now in his passport and can’t be changed. He is very upset by this. He wants his African name, not his new Christian name, which was given to him by someone who wanted him to have a “proper Christian” name.
As if that were not insulting enough to the good people from South Sudan, there is group from America that rebuilds churches destroyed in the 22-year war between the Arab North and the Christian South. It’s a great cause, but why build churches that look like they are in New England? Why not ask the locals what they want their church to look like? Why build churches and not let the local Roman Catholics worship in them? It is another example of cultural and religious imperialism.
It comes from the basic belief that black folks need the guidance and help from the white folks and that the American brand of religion is somehow better. It is enough for these preaching religious imperialists to preach, not build. That is not going to win hearts and minds here in Grenada.
At the same time that the U.S. won’t allow student visas for Grenadian medical students to do their externships in the United States, Cuba is training Grenadian doctors. At the same time that Americans were in Grenada preaching, China was building housing to help the island recover after a hurricane. Need I say more?