Charitable motives and ulterior motives

I recently returned from a trip to Nicaragua where I was involved in a project to help build latrines in a remote and extremely impoverished community. Spending time with people who are so poor and yet so warm and welcoming can be a life changing experience.

On the plane trip to Managua, a fair number of the passengers were all wearing the same t-shirt that indicated that they were part of some sort of American based religious based mission trip. Similarly, on the return trip, a different group of people were all wearing a different t-shirt that indicated that they were also participants on a religious mission trip.

There is no question that helping the poor is often a religious imperative. Certainly the Bible talks about this. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable that states, "for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." But they question I had was whether the people on these mission trips had ulterior motives in whatever it was they were doing. Were they building schools for its own sake, or were they also "saving souls" on the side?

In talking with some other people who were on the same project that I was, and who had some familiarity with these sorts of religious based mission trip, the answer appears to be in most cases that that these service trips have a component of proselytization.

If this is true, then I find this particularly offensive. I think that proselytizing is bad enough under any circumstances, but to do so as part of a mission directed at helping those who are disadvantaged, I it is doubly offensive. If one is going to help the poor, by all means I think they should. But if there is an ulterior motive, if proselytizing is part of the same mission as well, then it seems to me that one is essentially holding those one helps hostage to one's good graces. "Sure, I'll help build your school, but only if you'll listen to me tell you why my religion is better than whatever you currently believe."

I have this silly idea that helping others in need should serve as its own reward, should be done for its own sake. I have no problem with demonstrating that acts of charity and social justice are performed as an expression of one's religious faith. But there is a difference between saying, "I help you because my faith says I should," and saying, "I am going to use this opportunity to help you in your time of need as a means of trying to convert you to my faith."

Even the wearing of identical t-shirts on the plane seemed like a way of advertising their religious faith. I am reminded of what Jesus said about prayer in Matthew 6: "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." Perhaps I am being too harsh, but I can't help but wonder if a group of people all wearing a t-shirt on the airplane boldly advertising their religious mission trip is a little bit like praying in public to make a show of what you are doing.