A Secular Missionary Movement

If there’s one upside to this freakish election, it is having exposed the cultural divide between the America that has largely recovered from the Great Recession (as exemplified by the tech boom in SF) and the America left behind: 7 million men – that’s one in nine men between 25 and 54 – no longer even looking for work, 40% on painkillers (NYTimes).

The winner of this election will not bridge this divide: Hillary because nobody trusts her, and Trump because he’s never done anything that doesn’t benefit him.

But that’s not really relevant anyway, since culture isn’t something that changes by fiat from a distant leader on high. Culture is changed from the bottom-up, through a diffuse network of agents who operate up close and face-to-face.

Anyone who works in software already knows this. Agile development, articulated 15 years ago, has often met with resistance to culture change. The key to overcoming that resistance is most often the guidance of a Tech Evangelists, giving workshops and demos, posting tips and advice, nudging each individual team team along towards eventual adoption and realization of the benefits:

And that’s what America is going to need after this election: a 21st century Missionary movement. By which I mean people literally picking up and moving from the comfort of their hipster enclaves in SF, NYC, LA, Seattle, Portland, and Austin, etc and moving to small towns in Appalachia and the South.

Where the missionaries of earlier eras proselytized the twin gospels of Christianity and democracy*, these new missionaries will spread a new set of values:

  • diversity: dispel the myth of a PC conspiracy to elevate minorities at the expense of whites, but as win-win deepening of perspective

  • rationality/scientific literacy: how to evaluate and filter conflicting information, to offset our increasingly hyperbolic media and greater access to primary sources
  • mindfulness/meditation: a better treatment for chronic pain than opiods (JAMA)
  • agency: a path out of “learned helplessness” towards a sense of control over one’s destiny (Hillbilly Elegy)
  • family counseling to reduce domestic violence
  • coupled with infrastructure investment: solar, telecom, transportation, local produce

It won’t be easy.

Scattering a population into towns that are economically depressed, drug riddled, and politically hostile takes a lot of support: logistical, financial, and emotional. It’s not coincidence that the driving force behind past missions were churches, which could provide all three (especially the latter) and to a lesser degree government, such as Teach For America and Americorp.

Obviously most churches disqualify for this kind of outreach, hostile as they are to so much of modernity. More subtly, TFA and Americorp – valuable though they are valuable to our nation – are also unsuitable, oriented the wrong way with respect to government dependency vs. individual agency. Plus, working within government is fraught with too much red tape and bureaucracy.

So what then, if not church or government? Well, in line with the spirit of diversity, there are a number of possible directions**:

  • meditationyoga studios: especially embedded in schools (CNN) as an alternative to police (CNN) for achieving discipline
  • Maker clubs to learn tech hands on through affordable Raspberry Pis
  • Korean-style after-school tutoring academies, which are gaining in popularity in California
  • Gordon Ramsay/Michelle Obama-style nutrition programs
  • local chapters of club networks such as improv (iO Theater), public speaking (Toastmasters) and humanism (Oasis, UU church)
  • Martial arts and boxing gyms: the template being Cutty Wise in The Wire, who upon release from prison starts a boxing school to keep kids out of the drug trade

Anyway, The common thread is learning, which makes sense: it’s easier to convey an abstract idea (the value of diversity) off the back of a concrete one (the value of being able to punch with either hand).

But the focus on education taps into another important consideration: access to government funding. For private tutoring, the NCLB law provided subsidies, with several states having variations of the same. For other types of programs, there are TANF grants, though the latter is a bit tricky***. Outside the education space, the ARC is probably the place to go for support, especially infrastructure-heavy projects, and Kickstarter to raise seed funds for building and equipment.

Beyond straight funding, these missionaries will need a network of support – perhaps piggybacking off existing groups such as Oasis, or perhaps something entirely new. Either way, a forum for those out in the field to interact with each other and with their home communities to share structure, personnel, ideas, resources, and morale. The latter being most important: like missionaries throughout history, some may be met by the locals as welcome guests, but others surely with hostility. The language of civil war having already entered our discourse today (Post), it’s a small step to lash out against carpetbaggers and scalawags tomorrow. This is an uphill fight in which we’re not allowed to hit back.

So there we have it: a vision for a new breed of Missionary. A migration by the thousands out of the coastal hubs into the towns and counties of Appalachia and the South that made Trumpism possible. Dotting the landscape with an assortment of startups teaching everything from algebra to improv, Java to jiu-jitsu, boxing to yoga. Subsidized by TANF and NCLB grants and supported by a network both of their peers and those back home. Evangelizing the benefits of diversity, rationality, startup/risk taking, and mindfulness.

So let’s make this happen, and ensure the circus show of the 2016 never happens again.


the title of this post was revised from A New Missionary Movement to A Secular Missionary Movement

* full disclosure: I’m atheist. But as my sister pointed out, the dominant faith in this country isn’t Christianity, but American Exceptionalism. The distinction between which is an entire discussion unto itself (and happens to be the subject of my last post)

**upon further consideration, it might make sense to operate a single, consolidated community center offering any/all of the above services. That aligns with the template of traditional missions where a single building would serve as church, school, and hospital. It would certainly be more efficient, both in terms of cost of site and also pooling talent and outreach, magnify impact and outreach, and allow continuity as participants rotate in and out.

***TANF was born of Bill Clinton’s promise to “end welfare as we know it”, due to the public’s distaste for direct cash assistance for the poor. The preference was for education and consultation programs, but those gradually shifted towards middle class beneficiaries (Slate). While this is clearly a misallocation of resources away from their intended beneficiaries, the reality is that direct cash assistance remains unpalatable so the best we can hope is to redirect funds towards education programs that at least target the needy.

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