Author note: This is part 1 of a three-part blog on the barriers to missions and service. Subscribe to be sure you get part 2 and 3.
Recently we rented a house on the coast for our annual Surf and Serve trip. Eight men traveled from across the country to enjoy surfing, community and serving here in Mexico. As we were settling in one of the men, having been to Mexico before, asked, “Do we need to put the toilet paper in the trash can?” What many people don’t realize is that in Mexico the vast majority of houses require you to put your toilet paper in the trash can next to the toilet and not in the toilet. The septic systems and pipes cannot handle the paper down the tube as it will clog the pipes and even cause some severe damage. As we looked around the house and read the letter from the owner, there was nothing stating what we should do with the toilet paper so I messaged the owner:
Me: “Is it ok to flush the TP in the toilet?’
Owner: “It’s barbaric to not put toilet paper in the toilet.”
On the surface, this sounds like a funny response to my question. Most westerners are not used to putting toilet paper in a trash can instead of the toilet. We have to go through this rule every time we take people to Mexico. But was the owner’s response really that bad?
If it is barbaric to put toilet paper in a trash can what does that say to the people who have to put toilet paper in the trash can to save their septic tank? They are barbarians and therefore, less than human. Imagine what a Mexican hears when this is stated out loud.
Chances are this was an honest mistake and the owner wasn’t thinking about what he/she was saying. But our words matter, especially when we go to serve or on mission trips to other countries. These types of words or interactions will create barriers to effective ministry and meaningful relationships as it reveals a bias we have towards certain people and people groups.
A bias can be defined as an unfair personal opinion that influences your judgment.* We have obtained many of our biases by our cultural context, where we grew up, and our experiences. Our brains are flooded with so much information, especially on a cross-cultural trip (to another country or city) that it looks to take short cuts to help us make quick decisions and judgment calls. Many times this leads to biases and actions that may not be accurate and cause harm.
Other clues to our biases can be heard when we either use overly positive or negative language to describe someone or something. It is also seen when we use all-inclusive words such as “all” or “everyone.”
Recently there was an American man working construction with a Mexican installing door at a local ministry. The doors in Mexico are a little different than the United States as it does not come with the hardware already installed. The American was struggling to install the door, making mistakes, and out of frustration said out loud,” Mexicans do all construction backward!”
What do you think the Mexican worker heard? The American held an unfair opinion of how Mexico does construction and it clouded his judgment in how to interact with the Mexican worker.
The biases we have will inevitably come out in our words and our actions. We may not even mean what we say, but they reveal biases that will cloud our judgment of how we see people created in the image of God and how we interact ad treat others. (These biases are not just seen on trips, they are seen in our politics, how we view people of a different color, ethnicity, gender, religion, political party, etc.)
How do we discover our biases?
A good exercise to do is consider what biases you and other people might have by answering these two questions:
- People from the inner city of Chicago (or insert country or city) are _____________________.
- The first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Uganda (or insert country or city ) is _____________________.
As you write your answers down, consider what is an unfair opinion about the people and places you are going? You might be surprised by what comes up in your discussion. Then discuss how does this opinion affects your actions and feelings towards the people you are going to work with on your trip or event? Honestly, there are some biases we all have that we are not aware of until someone else points them out.
When we do not take the time to consider the biases our words communicate and as well as our actions that come as a result of our biases, we will damage relationships we hope to build while serving. We will end up communicating to people that they are less than human and not worthy of love and our actions will hurt the people and community we visit.
Biases are a barrier to hearing God.
Biases will also keep us from hearing the voice of God and follow His calling for our lives. God came to Jonah and called him to go to Nineveh. Jonah told God, “No way am I going there” and Jonah ran the opposite direction. But Jonah’s decision wasn’t without reason. Nineveh was known as an evil city, similar to Sodom and was also the capital of the Assyrians who had conquered Israel and was oppressing the Jewish people. So obviously Jonah had some strong biases against the people of Nineveh. Yet, God called him to go there and preach the Good News. Maybe the place you don’t want to go is because of a bias and it is hindering you from obeying.
Even after Jonah preached the Good News and people came to follow God, Jonah went up on the mountainside, waiting for God to destroy the city.
Jesus experienced bias that when Philip found Nathaniel and told him they had found the Messiah, Nathaniel’s response was,” Can anything good come from there?” What would Nathaniel had missed if he held to his bias and had not followed Jesus?
Our biases towards others can have deeply damaging effects not just with the people we serve, but with the people we interact with every day who look different from us, believe differently from us or are from a different place than us. Let us be aware of the words and actions we use and consider if there are unfair opinions about people that are clouding our judgment.
How do we overcome biases?
- Hope for and expect the good in everyone
- Build relationships with those who might make you feel uncomfortable and sit there for a while (tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, etc.) Disciples were with Him.
- Develop empathy – see the world from their perspective without judgment, looking to respond, or justification of your beliefs
- Be aware of your thoughts, feelings, words, and what you are telling God.
How would you overcome your biases?
*Cambridge English Dictionary