Ever since we started to organise our trip to Nepal, we have been called “missionaries” by various people and agencies. I accept that this is accurate – we are volunteering here at our own expense because we believe it is the right thing to do. And for us, that belief in right and wrong is tied up with our christian faith. So technically, we are missionaries.
However, the term “missionary” is still confronting. My idea of missionaries is so caught up in the self-righteous invaders of the last few centuries – bringing God to the primitives. Every time I use that word, I think of Black Robe, or even The Sparrow. So I have avoided the word. It is easy to say “I’m volunteering…” or “I’m going to work..” rather than “I’m going to serve…” (which still sounds very cringy to me).
It’s a bit challenging to talk about being led by my faith, or doing what I think Jesus would do, particularly in Australian society. I am self-consious, and somehow think that being a christian appears to cheapen what I am doing. I feel in Australia it is considered noble to help others, but less noble to help others as a christian. It is even more valid to be buddhist (or jedi) and help people, than it is to be christian.
I don’t feel like that with Nepalis, though. Christianity is not the dominant religion in Nepal – there are much more Hindus and Buddhists here. But I am working at an openly christian hospital, United Mission Hospital Tansen, where we read the Bible and pray for the hospital staff each morning at morning report. If we have a emotionally rough day, it’s not uncommon for someone to pray for the group, and we often pray before difficult cases in surgery. One of the nicest things I have experienced is the entire operating theatre staff praying with a christian staff member before he was anaesthetised for his emergency operation. There are non-christians who work in the hospital, but they accept that this is how the hospital works. Needless to say, that is completely different to any other hospital I have worked in.
Furthermore, we are total cultural outsiders here. It is accepted that bideshis (expats) do crazy things, which makes cultural blunders a bit easier to deal with. So it is less difficult to be myself, including spiritually. Here, I’m happy to be called missionary, because it’s an shortcut that says a lot about me. Ironically, I feel more cultural pressure from the bideshi community themselves. This is a group of impressively smart people who are all giving up their first world lives to live here for a few or many years but almost all more than I am. I really want them to like me, and it’s much harder to be just me, warts and all.
So at home in Australia, its hard for me to be honest about my spirituality because I want to “fit in” and I want to avoid offend anyone. And here in Nepal, where I will always be an outsider, I can be as crazy as I feel I want to. I want to be honest and not care. I still do. But I’m better at calling myself a missionary.