The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir Or Whatever
:"The reason you love Jamie (or are about to) is because she says exactly what the rest of us are thinking, but we're too afraid to upset the apple cart. She is a voice for the outlier, and we're famished...
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:"The reason you love Jamie (or are about to) is because she says exactly what the rest of us are thinking, but we're too afraid to upset the apple cart. She is a voice for the outlier, and we're famished for what she has to say." --Jen Hatmaker, New York Times bestselling author of Of Mess and Moxie and For the Love
Wildly popular blogger "Jamie the Very Worst Missionary" delivers a searing, offbeat, often hilarious memoir of spiritual disintegration and re-formation.
As a quirky Jewish kid and promiscuous punkass teen, Jamie Wright never imagines becoming a Christian, let alone a Christian missionary. She is barely an adult when the trials of motherhood and marriage put her on an unexpected collision course with Jesus. After finding her faith at a suburban megachurch, Jamie trades in the easy life on the cul-de-sac for the green fields of Costa Rica. There, along with her family, she earnestly hopes to serve God and change lives. But faced with a yawning culture gap and persistent shortcomings in herself and her fellow workers, she soon loses confidence in the missionary enterprise and falls into a funk of cynicism and despair.
Nearly paralyzed by depression, yet still wanting to make a difference, she decides to tell the whole, disenchanted truth: Missionaries suck and our work makes no sense at all! From her sofa in Central America, she launches a renegade blog, Jamie the Very Worst Missionary, and against all odds wins a large and passionate following. Which leads her to see that maybe a "bad" missionary--awkward, doubtful, and vocal-is exactly what the world and the throngs of American do-gooders need.
The Very Worst Missionary is a disarming, ultimately inspiring spiritual memoir for well-intentioned contrarians everywhere. It will appeal to readers of Nadia Bolz-Weber, Jen Hatmaker, Ann Lamott, Jana Reiss, Mallory Ortberg, and Rachel Held Evans.
The Very Worst Missionary
The year I turned thirty-two, I took a deep breath and marched boldly into full-time ministry as a missionary to Costa Rica. I wasn’t alone in this soul-saving, world-changing, God-pleasing endeavor--my husband, Steve, and our three sons (thirteen, nine, and seven at the time) were also in on this adventure. People often assume that our kids must be oh so grateful to have been given the gift of worldly perspective during their early years, so allow me to dispel that fantasy. Today, as young adults, our children all agree we pretty much ruined their lives by dragging them off to a faraway land, saddling them with a second language, and forcing upon them a great variety of new people, places, and cultures. But, in their defense, our life overseas was kind of a shit show.
Steve and I intentionally gave up every ounce of stability we’d enjoyed in the United States, said good-bye to our community, and took a massive financial hit to chase a dream of being a small part of something big. We were acting on what we’d been taught: that the world needs missionaries to find the lost, feed the hungry, heal the sick, and free the enslaved. And, for a minute, it honestly seemed that simple.
Everyone kept saying how awesome everything about missions was and how amazing we were for our willingness to take our family and go, and I happily, willfully believed them. Imagine my dismay when I finally came face to face with this thing called Christian missions and what I found was actually countless ways in which things were not awesome or amazing.
Costa Rica was a tiny Catholic country practically overrun with North American Evangelicals, many of whom were arrogant, lazy, inconsiderate, manipulative, and self-absorbed. The work of missionaries was often subpar or nonexistent, wasteful, and, at times, even harmful to the local culture and economy. But the pervading understanding was that every missionary, including me, was called by God, and that through our mere presence and our important “work” we were changing the world. When Steve and I flew away to play house in another country, we’d built a whole new life on this premise, which almost immediately I began to suspect was false, or at the very least deeply flawed.
I wanted to talk about the questions and doubts I was having, but I didn’t know how people would respond if I started to pick away at the accepted narrative that all missions are good missions and all missionaries are good missionaries. There seemed to be a great deal of evidence to the contrary, but could I dare to tell a different story?
In the spirit of self-preservation, I could sit here and say, “The truth is, I saw a lot of unfit missionaries doing unnecessary stuff, which made me uncomfortable.” But the whole truth is that I wrestled with the broad practice of Christian missions, in part because I was a hot mess of a missionary, a perfect example of at least a dozen things that are wrong with the system. And I knew that if I were to expose the ugly truths I’d seen, I would have to acknowledge that I’d seen a lot of them in me.
I curled up in a ball and sucked my thumb, while Steve took to life in Costa Rica like a hot chick to Coachella.
His daily grind as the director of buildings and operations for our organization’s Latin American headquarters came with a never-ending list of things to do. Between new projects and old maintenance on the ministry campus, a steady flow of work allowed him to dive right into friendly relationships with landscapers, construction workers, contractors, and every single human being who worked at a hardware or building-supply store within a twenty-mile radius. It wasn’t long before everywhere we went someone came up to shake hands and say hello to the big, friendly gringo with the bad accent who worked up on the mountain.
Unabashed, industrious, openhanded, and approachable; in so many ways, Steve was a very good missionary.
And I was just like him, but, like, the complete opposite.
When I had to psych myself up just to put on pants and go out for laundry detergent, Steve was braving the packed corridors of the dingy government hospital in Alajuela, because he had learned he could donate blood to offset the cost of a transfusion for his building foreman’s wife. While I was thinking of ways to avoid talking to taxi drivers more than absolutely necessary, Steve was getting to know local shop owners and their employees by name. While I stuck strictly to the routes, rituals, and cultural rules I knew and trusted, he made a point of exploring and experiencing everything he possibly could. I was envious of how easily Steve transitioned into life in Costa Rica, and he was truly baffled that it wasn’t as easy for me.
Since I was practically a hermit without much on my plate and Steve was always busy with one thousand things, I quietly took over the unofficial role of communications director for our clan. I’d never written anything in my life, but from my favorite spot on the sofa, I could keep our family, friends, and supporters filled in on our wild and wacky day-to-day lives. It was my responsibility to make sure updates included dramatic shots of three pasty white boys in a sea of brown people, and artsy pics of fresh produce, weird cuts of meat, and towers of pirated DVDs for sale under brightly colored tarps at the Saturday-morning markets. Snapshots of brilliant sunsets, torrential rainfalls, stray dogs with hilarious underbites, and oxcarts blocking traffic also served well to help me tell our story.
Along with a few of those “look at our crazy life” pics, our first update went out with an image of my smiling husband, submerged waist deep in a swimming pool with his arm around the Costa Rican guy he’d just helped baptize. It was taken on our very first Sunday in the country at a baptism that just happened to be occurring in the private swimming pool where we stayed. Our family stumbled across this celebration, completely by accident, on a morning walk across the property, and a Canadian missionary generously invited Steve to join right in with the dunking. It seemed like the missionaryish thing to do, so he did.
In the update, I shared how God was already using us in awesome and amazing ways. The story was carefully worded so as not to mislead anyone into thinking we’d done anything more than just arrive at a baptism in progress, but I did choose that picture and tell that story because it felt appropriately interesting for would‑be investors, and it was an optimistic way to show supporters that the Wright family was a wise choice for their missionary money. We never saw the baptized guy again, but he sure gave us something to write home about, which is lucky, because writing home is key to a missionary’s livelihood.
Now we cringe so hard at that picture, having since developed ethical objections to the use of people as fodder for the Christian-Missions Machine. After seeing firsthand the troubling results of foreigners engaged in exactly that kind of drive‑by ministry, today Steve would not agree to join in, but the eagerness he showed that day, that willingness to jump right in, is exactly the kind of thing that made him a really good missionary.
I did not cannonball into a stranger’s baptism. Instead, as the family’s communications director, I summarized our new life as missionaries and promised readers great adventures to come. I must have been feeling very precious the day I tapped out my first blog post, because I wrapped it up with a single sentence that would come back to mock me.
“I am pleased to report that being a missionary is pretty darn cool.”
Sweet Jesus. Was I high when I wrote that? I don’t know. All I know is that eighteen months later, I couldn’t have disagreed more.
The rose-colored glasses I wore flouncing into the mission field quickly shattered and (metaphorically speaking) stabbed me in the eyeballs. I was dying to tell the truth about messed‑up missions and messy me. . . . The question was, how could I break the bad news to all those people who still believed that everything missions was awesome and amazing? Should I just admit that I’d been totally wrong? Being a missionary wasn’t pretty darn cool; it was super goddamn hard. But was I allowed to say that? Could I share what I had learned during my first year and a half in Costa Rica: that, nope, it’s not enough to just show up ignorant and ill prepared and expect God to work miracles? Could I say something about the alarming number of weirdos, jackasses, and dipshits out there who were also called missionaries? I just wasn’t sure what would happen if I publicly suggested that maybe God and the world deserved so much better.
I gave all of this two whole minutes of serious consideration, and then I thought, Fuck it. Who am I here to impress? I began to write straight from my crooked little heart. Fortunately, there was no shortage of material.
I kept our blog (creatively titled The Wright Family in Costa Rica) up to date for months without a hitch, and for the most part people appreciated the new vibe of blunt honesty and the funny, straightforward approach. Of course, not everyone agreed with my thoughts or liked my style or approved of the way that I freely used the entire spectrum of the English language. The price of authenticity in missions became all too clear when, during the worst year of my life (which I promise to tell you about later), I wrote this post:
This Really Happened
The other day I was putzing around the house in my PJs, picking up breakfast dishes, sipping coffee, and doing whatever it is I do all day. The boys were at school, Steve was at work, and the house was quiet and still. Just the way I like it. I took my Mac and my coffee to the couch, where I plopped my butt down to get some work done. (We all know that “getting some work done” is code for “aimlessly scrolling Facebook,” right?) So I was “working” and sipping and enjoying the quietness and stillness of a new day. And then this happened.
As it tends to do when you drink eleven cups of coffee before 9:00 a.m., nature called. And called. And called. Until, at the last possible second, I set my computer aside and sprinted off to, y’know, take a pee. Anyway. I swooped into the bathroom, swiftly dropped my drawers, and took a seat, and when I glanced down, I was shocked to find a pair of black beady eyes looking up at me. It was a gecko--ON MY THIGH--not three inches from my lady goodies. Like, apparently this critter had just been chilling out all morning inside of my pants.
This really happened!
I. Had a lizard. In my pants.
Of course, I did what any good missionary would do. I wildly smacked at my thigh while I screamed, calling on the name of my Lord and Savior, Jesus (Shit Balls Help Me) Christ, to smite that little bastard and damn it straight to hell. And in case you’re wondering, yes, this all happened midpee!
I’m telling you, if you’ve never had a midpee emergency, you should count yourself lucky. It took every ounce of control I could muster to remain seated, finish up in a calm and orderly fashion, and retreat quickly back to the living room. That’s when I lost it, pacing back and forth like a stark raving madwoman, wheezing and muttering, “I did not sign up for this. I did not sign up for this. I did NOT sign up for THIS.”
And then God and I had a little heart-to-heart.
In my hysteria, I let God know quite clearly that I had had enough. “I did not sign up,” I said, “for lizards in my pants! I didn’t sign up for mushrooms growing on my T‑shirts. I’m not down with having my butt grabbed by a dude on a bicycle. I am not okay with an ant colony living in the sofa. Nope, not okay. And I especially did not sign up for having my house robbed, my car stolen, and my credit card used in Vegas. . . . But this, God? . . . THIS?? . . . This is the last straw! I cannot live like this. With lizards in my pants.”
And then I started to ugly cry. Like, really sob, with snot and tears and everything.
“God, are you even there? All I really wanted was to serve you. All I wanted was to honor you and obey your call. All I wanted was for you to bless us for being here. You were supposed to bless us,” I bawled. And then I lay down on the floor and cried out a year’s worth of anger and frustration. The hysteria drained out of me, and eventually the tears and snot dried up. You can just imagine the vision of beauty I was by the time it was all over and my house was still and quiet again. Just me and the gecko . . . and God.
I guess I’m not one of those people who learn about God in tidy, conventional ways, like going to church or reading a book. I learn about God when a creepy crawly with suction-cup toes makes it almost all the way from my ankle to the land of milk and honey. And so it took a pervy gecko to help me redefine the way I think of God’s blessing.
Listen, I’m not an “audible voice of God” kinda girl. Though I believe it can happen, it never happens to me. But on that morning, while I was wailing like a lunatic, ticking off my laundry list of hardships to the God who’d let me down, I want to say there was the faintest whisper . . . like a breeze, like a breath of air, a response to each of my grievances. I was with you. . . . I was with you. . . . I was with you. . . .
I am with you.
And I was reminded of the real blessing of God: that He is with me. He has always been with me. He was with me before I even knew Him.
His presence is His blessing--Emanuel--God is with us.
About five seconds after I posted that story, one of our supporters called to report me to our sending agency and to tell them she would be withdrawing her fifty-dollar monthly donation. I barely knew her, but she sent me a lengthy e‑mail detailing her great disappointment. In her letter, this angry old lady shared that she’d had growing concerns about my “demeanor” for some time, but the breaking point had been the post about the gecko in my pants. In her e‑mail the mother of all church ladies said I was “the worst kind of missionary,” accusing me of tarnishing the reputation of decent missionaries everywhere, and making good Christians look bad with my filthy mouth and irreverent attitude. She was “appalled” and “dismayed” and she would not support “such blasphemy.”