No Proselytizing, Please

San Diego — A report from Sri Lanka in this morning’s New York Times about Christians from the U.S. proselytizing while offering humanitarian aid concerns me deeply. In my opinion this is not acceptable for many reasons.

I need to be clear that I am writing
personal opinion. I am not speaking for, or on behalf of, my denomination. I
do know, however, that this behavior is avoided scrupulously by all the major
aid organizations with religious ties.

Let me first state that I
understand the genuine desire of people who have found Christian faith to be a
life-changing experience of the goodness of God’s grace and their desire to
share this good thing.

I also
understand an overflowing sense of gratitude that is rooted in this experience
that results in a desire to reach out and relate to others and, more, to serve
others, particularly the poor, the vulnerable, the lonely, the imprisoned and
those in grief.

This makes faith
vital.

But the scriptures also say
that to everything there is a season. A humanitarian crisis is not the season
for proselytizing (if there is ever such a
season).

Dropping into a crisis
area, sharing faith in a way that is upsetting to local sensitivities, bundling
faith with humanitarian aid, and flying out in a week or two is, to put it
bluntly and as kindly as I am able, a bad idea. You can read into this language
that I feel a bit more strongly than just “a bad idea,” but I’m trying to remain
charitable here.

Here’s why: It’s
insensitive to the religious sensibilities of people who are already faithfully
practicing Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions at a time of great
vulnerability.

It’s also insensitive
to those persons of the Christian community who reside in the affected area and
who must live there long after the proselytizers are gone. They know the
culture, they know the people of the community, they know how to get important
work done. To behave as if Christians were not already present is disrespectful
at least. To make their lives more difficult is simply
unconscionable.

Whether intentional
or not, such behavior can put the good work of aid agencies related to Christian
religious communities at risk even if they do not engage in this practice. It
leaves the appearance that humanitarian aid is tied to a particular religious
perspective and this can leave the appearance of coercion. It can create
difficulties for them with local authorities who already have their hands full
attempting to meet basic needs, coordinating emergency services and absorbing
volunteers and material aid. This can be an overwhelming
task.



And finally–and most important–this
behavior puts lives at risk. In many areas affected by the tsunami religious
tensions exist. In a few places there have been incidents of property damange,
and in fewer still, outright conflict resulting in death. To exacerbate these
dynamics is irresponsible, not only in the present but in the long-term future.

Local Christians will continue to
live in these communities. They will continue to face minority status. And try
as they might, they will find it difficult to separate themselves from those in
the Christian community from outside who have engaged in these practices. So,
perhaps I’m not as charitable as I intended at the outset.

It’s enough to offer food to the
hungry, water to the thirsty, comfort to the bereaved, medicine to the sick,
hope to the hopeless. But in this situation no proselytizing,
please.

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