(Not) On a Mission from God

Overlooking a black sand beach at my guesthouse on Santo Antão, a squat, bespectacled Belgian man waved his hand at me and asked, “I overheard you on the phone, are you an American?”

“Indeed I am!” I beamed, “nice to make your acquaintance, I’m James”.

Still suspicious, he asked “but you speak Portuguese, too?”

“Yup, I do”, I responded.

He finally got to the point: “Are you here with a church?”

My face answered his question, and he sheepishly admitted to me that I was the first American he had met in 21 years coming to Santo Antão that wasn’t a missionary. Informal conversation afterwards with Cape Verdeans also surprised to meet an American confirmed his first instincts.

As a Portuguese colony, Cape Verde was long an exclusively Catholic country. African slaves that had been forcibly brought to the island, of course, practice different religions and held different belief structures. Nonetheless, over the course of the ensuing years since slavery ceased to exist in the Portuguese Empire, Roman Catholicism became the near-universal expression of Christianity on the islands.

In the past several decades, this has begun to change with the arrival of evangelical Protestant and other Christian missionaries from overseas. Some come from Brazil, taking advantage of the cultural affinities and the linguistic overlap. Most, however, come from the United States, including a large Mormon presence and an even larger presence of smaller evangelical sects that have been successful in drawing Cape Verdeans away from the Roman church.


But am I a missionary after all?

It always seems that Americans are selling something when they are abroad, and I’m not entirely convinced that the majority of Americans have ever grasped the idea of travel for travel’s sake (at least not with the same vim and vigor as Europeans). When we travel, when we leave, when we spend money to be elsewhere, there has to be some element of work involved. American airports are noisy palaces for stressful people desperate to make meetings, foreign airports on the whole (not looking at you, Frankfurt and Heathrow) are often much more relaxed affairs.

American modes of transport are inherently designed to prioritize productivity over leisure, be it the slow but always there Wi-Fi on American trains and planes, the jacks to make sure electronics are never lacking connectivity, or the rough-and-ready airport lounges made for conference calls but lacking anything you’d want to eat.

Even this American (decidedly not a missionary) falls into this trap, feeling the need to blog, write, post, and generally record his trip for others to share. I’m writing to convince others to visit the places I’m visiting, or to know and care about the places that I know and care about.

Towards the end of my trip, I sat in a chair on the outdoor corridor of my hotel in São Filipe, Fogo, typing away on my newish laptop. A Germanic-looking retiree strolled by dripping wet in one of those age-inappropriate European Speedos, followed by his wife.

“Verking?” the wife asked impishly.

I replied a bit annoyed, since I was trying to fill in the gaps for an interview that canceled on me the day before.  “Indeed I am, I’m writing”.

“Vell be sure you make zum time for zis beautiful zunny day”, she retorted with a perfect German schoolmarm air.

So I did, finishing my thoughts, and set off into the city.

Ten minutes later, I ran into that man who canceled my interview the day before. We chatted and I was thankful to ze German lady for pulling me out of my little world of work, making me realize that, when traveling, it’s the unexpected and unplanned that often make it all worthwhile.




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