02 April 2014

Missionaries Must Come Like Family Not Tourists

We were riding on the dirt roads on the small island of Camotes, Cebu, from the boat dock to a small beachside room where our kids would happily play in the white sand and cool waters. Our children eagerly leaned over the railings of the open vehicle to wave at everyone we passed. Everyone.

"I'll wave on this side, and you wave on that side, Mommy!"

But I couldn't. I watched them--my preschoolers and my toddler--bring great smiles to the unsuspecting Filipinos.

The grandmas hanging laundry outside look up and brighten at my children's calls.
The school girls walking together in their matching skirts squeal and wave back.
The men digging trenches pause and grin at the unreserved greeting from little voices.
The smallest ones wave back then run after our car, calling out their responses to new friends.

It was all very fun and encouraging for my kids, but something kept me from joining them.

While the Philippines advertise themselves as a tourist destination, much of what you see between destinations is everyday life, and that life is poor. We were seeing these people in their day-to-day, almost all dressed in clothes torn and faded, working hard. And there we were whizzing by--on vacation.

What must they think of the foreigners who spend so much money to come to their homeland on holidays? Certainly people do not come to live as Filipinos do. Tourists come to be pampered, to be served, to be entertained. We visitors experience luxury beside their poverty.

Yet they waved back at my children.

My children expressed joy and friendship and innocence. They saw no line drawn between the first and third worlds. They only saw people, and they only felt happiness, and they simply wanted to share it.

And even though I also saw people and also felt happiness, a hesitancy kept me from waving at the locals as we passed them, thinking they would only feel exploited, pitied, or even teased. In a moment's glance, could they know me and my heart? No. And this realization set me thinking about missions, family, and tourism.


I grew up among tourists on the island of Oahu. I'm pretty sure I saw one on a daily basis, and we locals thought we had them all figured out. Hawaii is the #1 vacation spot in the country, but most visitors forget that it is also a residence. So we stereotyped them, and they stereotyped us. We knew they wouldn't stay. They knew we wouldn't follow them home.


Many of you may not know I'm a mestiza. Hapa-haole. I'm half-Caucasian and half-Filipina. So I have been to the Philippines several times before when visiting my relatives in Ilocos Norte. How very different! Those trips hold some of my favorite memories ever as I was embraced by an entire town of cousins, welcomed despite how different I looked, awkward I acted, and oddly I spoke. I would trail behind my aunties as they shopped in the open market. I would skip hand-in-hand with my cousins through a dry riverbed, eating calamanse and guava right off the branches. I would watch in shock as they butchered and prepared pigs through the night to prepare for a party (for us!) the next morning. I would lie beneath mosquito nets and whisper with my brothers about the large geckos crawling above us on the ceiling.

Belonging is everything. The Philippines is a beautiful place. But more beautiful are the people, and you cannot know them as a tourist.


So I've come to see that missionaries can approach a culture with either of these perspectives: coming as a tourist or as family.

Tourists keep themselves distanced, knowing they don't really belong there or intend to stay forever. Tourists romanticize the good and sadly overlook the bad. Tourists care much about comfort, photo ops (of themselves and landmarks), great stories to tell people back home, and probably have a sense of entitlement. Tourists can help (literally with the economy and figuratively with humanitarian aid), but they are not personally invested and cannot see the people for their lovely hearts.

Family connects, touches, sees. Family throws themselves right into a situation and lives side-by-side with each other. Family comes to see people not landscapes, and the most precious pictures taken are of faces. Family feels appreciation, understands the sacrifices made on their behalf, and gives generously out of love. Family does not come to help but rather to be--to live life alongside, to love and give and laugh and teach and learn and bless and share and enjoy.

Missionaries must come as family not as tourists, and while we will not be immediately accepted (as I was in Ilocos Norte), we must set our hearts on being instead of helping, on people instead of places, and on a lifetime instead of a season. Only then can we see their hearts and allow them to see ours. Only then can we wave enthusiastically and enjoy a likewise response, bonding us together and eliminating the lines between our worlds.

Abide in Him,

Do you see other similarities between tourism and missions? Will you share them with us?

Related articles you may also enjoy:
The Boastful Pride of (Missions) Life
Rules . . . and What Our Hearts Beat
Flying with Young Children (a mini-series on air travel with toddlers)


  1. Beautiful post! Brings back lots of memories of my time living in the Philippines. Thanks for sharing some important thoughts.

    1. You're welcome! It's such a special place, isn't it? I loved being back in the Philippines last week.

  2. Malia, this got me ALL excited!! Your take on missions is so wonderful, plus, I did part of my growing up on Oahu and lived in Kapahulu where my Dad was a pastor. I graduated from Kaimuki High :-) and then, to top it off, my husband was born in the Philippines and grew up there as an M.K. My friends would forget that I was a haoli it was really funny.

    1. Wow: so many connections! I'm sure you understand me (in this post specifically) on a deeper level, and I'm grateful. :) Thanks for letting me know how alike we are, and thanks also for your kind words!

  3. Wow! Yes! As a missionary who is married to a local, I can definitely relate to everything you said here. What a beautiful description AND family! I"m following on G+. I'm so glad to "meet" you!

    1. Rosilind, I'm happy to "meet" you too...although you don't realize I already know who you are. :) I'm a GMG regular too and have visited your missional site. Thank you for blessing others with your translating and blogging. I hope we can talk more...even over blog posts. :) And thank you for reaffirming the points here about missionaries coming like family. It means a lot coming from someone right here with me, experiencing it all.


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