When I was a kid, my oldest sister spent a summer in Spain as a short-term missionary. Our white fundamentalist Baptist church was big on foreign missions, and was very proud and supportive whenever young members answered the call to “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel.” And since the mission fund had contributed to her trip, my sister was invited to share a report on her mission work during a Sunday evening service after she got back.
In the ’70s and ’80s, reports from the mission field always involved slides — photographs from the trip projected onto the big movie screen that lowered down in front of the baptistry behind where the choir sat on Sunday mornings. So my dad and my sister sorted through all her photos from the trip to Spain to select which ones to take back to the Fotomat and have developed as slides. This was tricky because some of the best pictures of the full-time missionaries she worked with — missionaries also supported by our church’s mission board — were taken at a big dinner they had after a long campaign of street evangelism. And in all of those pictures, bottles of red wine were clearly visible on every table.
My family were teetotalers, just like everyone else at our church. We did not drink wine because we were Christians and good Baptists and good Christian Baptists did not drink wine. Those missionaries were also good Christians and good Baptists, but they did drink wine because they were Spanish (some were native Spaniards, some were Americans who had lived in Spain for decades). My dad understood that. He understood that this was a cultural difference, not a doctrinal one, and that it wasn’t sinful or “worldly” for these good Spanish Christians not to be bound by the peculiar cultural trappings of American Christianity. But he prudently avoided including any photos with wine bottles in my sister’s missionary slideshow because he realized that might be a distraction for some folks in our church.
I was just a kid then, but I still remember sitting at the dining room table helping Dad and Lulu sort those photos because this was the first time I had ever encountered this strange and unsettling idea that my understanding of faith and religion, of the gospel and of “sin,” might be tangled up and confused with culture and customs and mores that weren’t really an essential part of that. I had questions. But I had difficulty articulating those questions, and Dad had photos to sort, so those questions were put on hold.
Those questions began to take on clearer shape in the summers that followed, when I played baseball with the Bread of Life League. This was a church-sponsored league run as a kind of ministry by the devout Christians of a storefront Black Pentecostal church in Plainfield. I learned a lot from these good people. I learned to hit the cut-off man, to throw two bases in front of the runner, to realign the defense based on the count, and to never make the first or third out at third base. And I learned that you didn’t have to travel to another continent as a foreign missionary to experience cross-cultural ministry.
Anyway, I was reminded of all those photos of smiling Spanish Baptists drinking their red wine by this story from the AP’s Holly Meyer, “White evangelicals refusing vaccines at higher rates – but not missionaries.”
Meyer and those she interviews address this mainly as a practical matter. Missionaries travel internationally and if you’re flying from one continent to another during a global pandemic, then it would be recklessly foolish not to get vaccinated. Being vaccinated also frees those missionaries to travel to places where they might not be permitted to go if they were unvaccinated. Mission work that takes you to a country that mandates vaccination means that country’s mandate now applies to you too.
The mission agency leaders quoted in Meyer’s piece all make eminently reasonable arguments:
“We want to make sure that our missionary population are safe so that they can focus on the mission work that has been assigned to them,” [United Methodist Global Ministries executive Judy] Chung said. “We want to make sure that we are not causing harm as we engage in mission.”
Ted Esler, a former missionary who now leads an association of hundreds of small mission agencies, says this:
“From my perspective, this is an issue more because of the fact that it’s COVID-related than it is vaccine-related …
“It’s unfortunate that the COVID vaccine here is controversial and rejected by some,” he added, “when in other places it would be coveted and highly sought-after and they cannot get it.”
That last point is important because, as it turns out, ingratitude, seething resentment, parochial partisanship, and Fox-addled fever-dream conspiracy theories make for lousy missiology.
The news hook for Meyer’s piece is the new vaccination mandate from the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. It’s the first American-based mission agency to require vaccination but, as one of the largest, it often sets the tone and the standard that other, smaller agencies follow.
The IMB policy applies to both current and future missionaries as well as some staff members. Among the reasons it cited for the measure are health concerns and the fact that increasing numbers of countries are implementing their own vaccine requirements — some field personnel have reported needing to show proof to board airplanes and subways or enter restaurants and malls.
Other large agencies, like the United Methodists, haven’t yet strictly mandated vaccination in part because many of their missionaries are based in countries where the vaccines are not yet easily available. The Latter Day Saints is requiring vaccination, but restricts unvaccinated missionaries to serving only in their own countries. But then, as Esler points out, the specific policies of mission agencies may not matter as much as the policies of the countries where their missionaries work:
Ultimately, he noted, organizations’ internal rules may be rendered moot by vaccine entry requirements that many countries have instituted for visitors.
“Whether you have a policy or not,” Esler said, “if you’re going to serve cross-culturally in another country, you’re going to be faced with the government regulation.”
Another aspect of all this that’s not mentioned in Meyer’s piece is that a significant percentage of these missionaries — whether Southern Baptist or Methodist or from any of those hundreds of nondenominational agencies — are medical missionaries. They’re doctors and nurses. They run hospitals and clinics, devoting their lives to providing medicine and health care to people all over the world. Medical missionaries don’t need to be given a mandate to get vaccinated. They’re already vaccinated and they’re already busy trying to line up supplies so they can provide the vaccine to the people they serve in their “mission field.”
The remarkable thing about the Southern Baptist’s mandate, though, is that it clashes with the culture of white Southern Baptist Fox News Republicanism that dominates in most of the congregations whose donations fund the International Mission Board and the thousands of missionaries it sends all over the world.
This is not new. The faith of those missionaries always clashes with the faith of the congregations back home. This clash is usually just kept quiet, discreetly played down or mentioned only gently — as in my example of the Spanish wine — so as not to make white American Christians’ heads explode.
This is inevitable whenever a group of Christians whose culture-bound faith and practice is unexplored sends out members to work, as the missionary lingo puts it, “cross-culturally.” Those missionaries are being sent outside of the culture of the churches that send them. They are quite literally going beyond the bounds of that culturally bound religion and thus are forced to begin learning what their faith and practice and gospel mean when not shaped by the parochial mode of white, English-speaking, American culture and American partisan politics. What does the evangelical gospel mean in a country where the Republican Party does not exist? Southern Baptist missionaries all over the world have an idea, even if Southern Baptist preachers in Texas can’t begin to imagine such a thing.
“The Rev. Allen Nelson IV, a pastor who leads a Southern Baptist congregation in Arkansas, said he is … completely opposed to mandates for missionaries.” Of course he is.