Passport Power

02 Jun 2023

Some passports are more “powerful” than others—people with a specific kind of passport can more easily gain access to countries than others. We don’t earn passport power. It’s a function of the relationships between nations. It is commonly measured by the number of countries a passport holder can visit without needing a visa or at least having visa-on-arrival privileges. There are several places that I, as a US citizen, can access with a “visa on arrival” (either free or for a nominal fee) that others can’t.

Passport power impacts missions because it determines how easily workers can get from point A to point B. It’s often (but not always) reasonably easy for local workers to move around within countries. For example, from Uttar Pradesh to Bihar. It can be problematic but not impossible to go over near national borders: from India to Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, or Pakistan. But getting to far destinations has often been restricted to those with both logistical means (transportation costs) and passport power (will they be allowed in?). It would be challenging for a Senegalese missionary to work in China or even [shoutout] for a Korean missionary to work in the UK.

Those with “powerful passports” are often able to do certain roles (like global missionary researcher) and those without passport power can’t. A Kenyan missionary researcher may be just as capable as an American or British one. Still, the American (or the British researcher) can go places, and get into meetings, because of the blessing of their citizenship and passport.

This makes me pause to think–what should be the role of a person who has the blessing of passport power? Should he get to direct efforts around the world? Or take a more “servant” role? The Biblical answer seems obvious, but what are the practical realities?

Before we start riffing answers, let’s put a pin in that and take up the flip side: a sort of “inverse passport power” happens inside countries. “Passport power” is shallow and comes with a cost: I can get in, but how far in? There are plenty of places I can go, in India or Indonesia for example, only if I don’t care about returning. Since I have a wife and four children I love very much, those aren’t places I’m likely to go to on a whim. So I can get in, but I can’t go as far as a local missionary researcher can.

“Passport power” thus becomes “passport weakness.” I can enter, but I won’t necessarily be welcomed. (Also a function of skin color and language.) So power is great for tourism and conferences but less so for actual field work. It is both power and constraint.

Given this, if we are going to travel some place and try to serve others, how can we do so in a way that delivers real value to them, in exchange for the time and hospitality they share with us?

If we’re not careful, we can see “all the places to go” but think very shallowly about “what good can we do.” In that direction lies the worst excesses of short-term-tripping and conference-attending. We need to think about the expense and the value proposition: how can we use our ability to connect on a very shallow basis to offer ideas and things of real value without damaging the people we serve?

Back to that Kenyan researcher–I can use my passport to serve him, and all those who cannot travel as broadly as I, but can work more deeply where they are. I can broker connections, bring them into networks, and transfer knowledge: “Oh, you have problem X? Let me tell you about how network_A solved this with solution_J.” And this can contribute to the development and effectiveness of local ministries. I’ve seen people bring ministries together at places where they could both meet and transfer solutions from one movement to another that enabled massive scaling.

The challenge is: discovering what is actually useful requires great understanding, and I often overexaggerate my estimate of the understanding I have.

Understanding requires deep engagement through long-term relationships, language fluency, cultural sensitivity, and trust-building. These are just the sorts of things that are difficult for me to get through short-term visits or conference attendance alone.

So, I have to approach my engagements with local peoples with a huge dose of humility. Ask lots of questions, knowing I won’t necessarily understand the answers. Remind myself I likely don’t understand just how valuable their expertise and work really is, because I often barely understand what is being said (linguistic differences) and rarely understand the context. Remind myself that my assessments of the value of something could be shown, in the long run, to be very wrong.

So give it the long run. Genuine relationships require multiple contacts over long periods, honored with mutual respect, and seasoned with this humble understanding that I may not fully understand.

Sure, shallow service is easier, quicker, more transactional. I can serve you: fill your coffee cup, deliver your dishes, humbly facilitate a workshop where other people talk, show you an app I’ve found useful. And, shallow service, done with humility, can be very helpful. It can even open the door to deeper service.

But there’s also a temptation: you ask to sit with me over lunch. You briefly tell me a handful of problems and I, sensitive to your time, humbly-but-quickly tell you everything I know about those problem categories, and you are impressed with the breadth of my knowledge, and thank me for the advice, and I tell you it’s No Big Thing, but I think I’ve Really Helped You, and you aren’t actually helped at all, because none of my advice is useful in your context (and so your time may have been completely wasted).

Deeper service comes out over shared cups of coffee, where you talk about the issues that deeply impact you, and I struggle to understand. And we keep talking–over days, weeks, months, years. And when I offer some sort of piece of advice, I season it with a lot of caveats, questions, and assume that this advice may not be helpful at all, and ask lots of questions about what it might look like locally, understanding that it will always be different in every place.

I think most of us instinctively know this. But somehow, we occasionally forget that just because we can travel to lots of places, it doesn’t mean we’re better qualified to tell people in those places how things should be done. In fact, it probably means we’re less qualified—we are observers, but we often don’t know what we’re observing. When we think ourselves strong, that’s exactly when we are very weak. But if we acknowledge that weakness, and ask the Spirit to fill that moment, then it can become a moment where God does some amazing things between us, filling it with His strength, wisdom, revelation, and power.