Deconstructing my religion

When the pandemic changed all our lives, taking away many of the distractions of life, a process started inside both my heart and my head, and I didn’t know what to call it. Something that I hadn’t heard anyone else speak about was rising to the surface. At first it felt like I was being heretical, but the more attention I paid to what was happening to me, the more freedom I felt.

And then, listening to a podcast on the way to Yellowstone, I heard someone name the process: deconstructing my religion. He spoke my words and expressed my thoughts. With tears in my eyes I was full of relief at the knowledge that I am not alone in this, and that I was not just being difficult.

By the end of that trip I was able to verbalize my process. It isn’t one of deconstructing my belief in God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, and the Bible; but it is that I am revisiting what I was taught in many instances because of whom I was taught by, with the goal of claiming a whole, true theology that I can abundantly live by. Now, that’s a mouthful!

This journey actually started for me when I began to see the posts and responses of many people who have served in Belize as missionaries. At first each one surprised me, and I thought, ‘No, they can’t really believe that!’, but then it became so routine that I realized I only needed a few fingers to count the ones who don’t tow what I now see as the hard, predictable line. I had a gnawing suspicion that maybe they had to pass a test to determine their level of commitment to those politics to have qualified to become missionaries, even though they came through different states and organizations, and at varying times. Or maybe they were indoctrinated? Many of their responses to today’s issues are so eerily similar to each other across the board, that it has caused me to question their motives, and therefore, to question their message, which I received from them with open arms years ago.

There are those who don’t fall into that category, though. I can’t stress that enough! Whatever they thought they were going to accomplish when they first moved to another country, something happened while they were there, and they submitted themselves to having their eyes opened. I know it must have been hard work for them, but the experience left them changed for life. I applaud the ones I’ve known who are like that. I value their continued presence of in my life, and what they continue to do for Belizeans. Some have planted knowledge in me, others have walked me to healing. I’m extremely grateful to God for their past, and in some cases, ongoing influence and friendship.

Photo by Anna Shvets

So my mantra as I go through this deconstructing process is, ‘Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater’. Up until only a few years ago, much of my journey with Jesus has been walking along with missionaries and learning from them. Now, as some of them respond to the different crises facing America, I wonder, ‘Who are these people, and how did I allow myself to be influenced by them?’ I am now at the crossroads of needing to siphon the truth they taught, to separate it from what is just ‘American religious culture and beliefs’.

Deconstructing anything is busy and very uncomfortable work. In this case, it’s choosing every day to hold on to my core beliefs because I know God is good and full of love, mercy, and grace. It’s also letting go every day of a belief system that some missionaries linked to this faithful God, and then taught to us. Where is the line I must draw? I have to find it; and there is a lot of prayer and research involved to accomplish that.

Even though I’ve known that my trust is not to be in people, but only in God who has been faithful, that didn’t keep me from building my faith on a combination of His faithfulness that I have experienced, and a belief in the people who gave up their material comforts to move to Belize to ‘teach’ us. Now I understand why some of my people have out-rightly rejected interacting with missionaries: it was because many saw through the messengers quickly.

Once, about sixteen years ago when I was still a young Christian, I was at a church gathering with many missionaries present. When it was my turn to speak, I said, (without any knowledge of what being a missionary entails), “The thing about being a missionary is that wherever you go you have to take yourself with you”. What I meant was that the label ‘missionary’ doesn’t automatically make you a better Christian, but I was mortified that those words came out of my mouth! I can see now that there was so much truth in what I said. Missionaries do take their real selves with them, and a part of that, I’m now learning, is their religious culture which some feel duty-bound to impart to the ‘less fortunate’.

This deconstruction process is extremely uncomfortable. It makes me question everything, going back all the way to the day I recommitted my life to Jesus, and to the missionary who said the words of life that led me to freedom. I know it is a healthy spiritual exercise for me at this time, because as I go through it I am releasing wrong ideas about God and Christianity, and making more room for truth. I am mentally going through the list of missionaries who taught and influenced me. I now see that for many of them, (I repeat, not all of them), their other beliefs, (the ones they now post and comment about), don’t favor people like me. That is a difficult, but necessary, pill to swallow, all the while balancing that with the knowledge that we are all just human beings in need of God’s grace.

Photo by Fabian Wiktor

The Bible is clear that missionaries are to be sent out; but their work is to be that of spreading the gospel, not the American church tradition. The many whose work I would rate as successful and to be applauded, are the ones who stuck to the true calling. Even if they didn’t start there, they were submissive and responsive to the work of the Holy Spirit. I am thankful for them because they give me hope that the true work of spreading the truth of the Gospel on the mission field today is still ongoing. 

I speak as one who is from a country that missionaries flock to, partly because there is a freedom and simplicity that is a totally new, positive experience for many. Yes, there are countries where the original missionary work is still necessary to fulfill the Great Commission; but for the rest of the world, the work is different. The missionary undertaking is to do the hard things that locals won’t do, (just like immigrant workers will take up jobs a country’s citizens won’t). While doing so, the true missionary falls in love with the people and country they serve; which in turn prompts a change in how they view the world.

Please hear me: This isn’t to belittle or demean the work of missionaries in Belize or anywhere else. This is a process I am going through to figure out for myself what I believe. As one who has been deeply influenced by missionaries, I just need to confess that deconstruction of their work in me has begun, and I don’t know where that will take me, but I will go where it leads.

Photo by Simon Clayton

There are dear missionary friends who are on my mind and heart as I write this. This process was prompted within me, not by them, but because of a common thread I saw through the social media posts of others who had at one time or another served as a missionary. I am now a resident of their country, and with that proximity it is easy to contextualize their comments and their ideology. It is clear that their mission was not only to teach us about Jesus, but to indoctrinate us in white American Christianity, because they believe that is true Christianity. Some may not even have been aware they were doing it.

This leave us in deconstruction mode: how do we love with our lives, the Jesus they speak of, while honoring our culture? Our colorful culture is too much for many of them, and because they can’t understand it, they denigrate it and call it dark. My job now, as one who has been impacted by missionaries, is to isolate their voices and teachings, and to use the Bible for myself to make determinations about what to keep from our culture, and what to discard; and to do the same work with their message.

This process is prompted by the Holy Spirit to bring me to freedom, and to lead others there – and I’m not backing down from it. After all, this is what the Bible tells us to do – test the spirits. Up until now I’ve been slow to do that in this area; but not anymore. My hope is that this will be an eye-opener for some, and a key to freedom for others. Deconstruction that is instigated, and guided by the Holy Spirit will lead to a whole theology that we can live out in spirit and in truth.

Copyright © Debbie Mendoza July 2021

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