Tina Colon ’09 stood in the middle of a field in Bogota, Colombia, watching children and adults crowd around the break-dancers in front of her. One group of teenage boys, covered in tattoos and striking defiant poses, hung off to the side rolling their eyes. Five minutes later, the toughest of them all broke down in tears, admitted to a life of drugs and crime and wondered aloud where he went wrong.
“Wow, that is ridiculous,” Colon said she remembers thinking of the episode, which took place during her week-long mission in Colombia this past summer.
“Things like ‘God loves you’ and ‘You are not worthless.’ They had never heard that before,” she said.
After opening up, the boy prayed with the break-dancers, who were actually local church leaders, and told them he had never felt that way before.
Tina is one of approximately 40 Yale students who spent anywhere from a week to a few months of this past year working as missionaries. Though missionaries are often stereotyped as imperialistic and close-minded, the Yale students who participate in contemporary mission trips often employ different methods than the missionaries of the past. Far from trying to convert as many souls as possible, Yale students on missions both abroad and in the United States seem to approach evangelism with thoughtful consideration. Last Friday, Yale Christian Fellowship completed a lecture series entitled “Is Christianity Imperialistic? Re-thinking Missions.” Student missionaries and religious staff said missions of the 21st century aim not only to provide service and build positive relationships with those in need, but also to help participants gain a greater understanding of the world and themselves.
Many Yale students remember being taught in high school about the hypocrisy, cultural insensitivity and occasional cruelty of Christian missionaries in the past.
“I associate the idea of missionaries with people who have no respect for the local culture and are manipulating locals into accepting Christianity,” Phoebe Clarke ’09 said.
Even though Yale was originally founded as a school for ministers, Susanna Ferguson ’09 said she thinks it is odd that students today are still involved in missionary work because she thinks not many Yale undergraduates are extremely religious.
But missionaries are often not as extreme in their religious views as they may be perceived to be.
At last Friday’s YCF lecture, Pastor Lee King of Hillside Church in Westchester, N.Y., described his experience bringing food to Muslims fleeing the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo.
“It’s not about ‘You need to be saved,’” he said. “I’m here because I want you to know you’re not in this alone. There are people in America who care about you.”
Grace Kim ’07, one of the founders of Yale’s Student Mission Society, has been on a few missions trips and said she would love to do more after graduating.
“The goal is to become one of them and make Christ and the gospel relative in their lives, in their culture,” she said.
Kim said she is considering specific criteria in deciding where to do long-term missionary work. She said she would like to find a place with a specific problem that she could feasibly help resolve.
Kelly Hebrank ’04, a staff intern with Yale Students for Christ, said she thinks that Kim’s thoughtfulness is common in Yale students who do mission work.
“Oftentimes, because of who we’re normally surrounded by, Yale students may approach evangelism from a more intellectual standpoint,” she said.
Many Yale students with mission experience said they did not undertake missionary work to engage in overt proselytizing and preaching. Quyen Vo ’07, who worked at an after school program on an Urban Mission Project in Boston the summer after his freshman year, said his work was focused on making connections rather than saving souls.
“We didn’t do any preaching whatsoever,” he said. “We just hung out and got to know the kids. We wanted to make friendships and help them any way we could.”
Building relationships that eventually lead to open conversations about faith is an important aspect of most missions, students said. While some missions involve service projects, including working at camps for poor or orphaned youth or rebuilding the Gulf Coast, others entail no more than getting summer jobs as lifeguards or at McDonald’s as a platform for getting to know people.
“From the vantage point of friendship we could share with them our lives,” said Sandisiwe Mnkandla ’08, who went on a mission to East Asia two summers ago. “In just hanging out with them, it would come out that my faith is central to my life.”
Jonathan Bonk, executive director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center, said he agrees that missionaries have become more reflective and humble in their goals and methods. But he dismisses the type of shorter mission trips that many Yale students go on as relatively insignificant.
“There are huge numbers of North Americans that just flit around as pious tourists,” he said. “Even though these are idealistic and good people, they’re there for two weeks. The good ones are there for the long haul.”
Students and staff agreed that because of time constraints, the primary beneficiary of a mission is often the missionary himself. Tom Sharp, a staff worker with Yale Christian Fellowship, said he hopes that every leader in YCF participates in some kind of mission project during their four years at Yale.
“Often, the primary goal is for you to be changed more than you’re going to change anybody you come in contact with,” he said.
Some students who have been on missions said the experience helped them determine that they were not interested in teaching others about Christianity, though they said they still thought their faith would play a significant role in determining their futures. Mnkandla said she inevitably felt uncomfortable sharing the gospel, even on the casual level of friendship, and has decided that God has a different role in mind for her.
Some Christians at Yale have not been on any mission trips but still say they are committed to helping people in the world around them. Naima Coster ’08, one of the founding members of Salt of the Earth, a Christian group affiliated with Dwight Hall and devoted to social justice, has never been on a mission, but she said she believes her faith is essential in helping to decide how she will live.
“My goal in life is to heal people,” she said.
While many Yalies ponder law school or consulting, others said they pray to figure out how best to serve God and the rest of humanity. Sharp said he hoped shorter mission trips would inspire Yale students to devote more time to helping other people.
“Yale students have the message all the time of being the elite of the elite, and so I think there is a sense of using privilege and opportunity to consider a path different than just success and comfort,” he said.
Students who work as missionaries said they are often surprised to learn that the lives of the people they meet on missions are actually not as different from their own as they expected. Kim said some of the college students she befriended on one of her missions seemed to face problems similar to those of Yale students.
“They were so consumed with the idea of success,” she said. “Their only idea of happiness entailed making money. I was sad for them, because I think that there’s so much more to life than just getting a successful career, and I could see them really stressed about school and getting jobs. And that really struck me, because that could be my life too.”