In 2006, when I came to Elkhart, Indiana, the "M" word—mission— was certainly not part of my vocabulary. Mission, in my view, was the method used to accomplish the goals of colonialism—cultural genocide, coercive baptisms to Christianity, wealth, and resource extraction.
I vividly remember reading an issue of Mennonite Mission Network's Beyond magazine in 2004 on Christian-Muslim dialogue. There were three vignettes of agency encounters with Muslim people. Unfortunately, these "friend-making" conversion stories just reinforced my negative views of mission as coercive and disingenuous.
Then I encountered Galatians 1:11-12 as a primary sermon text, and was transformed. I realized I had missed the point of the Beyond stories. My frustration that our Christian mission workers must have had an agenda all along, got in the way of me being able to accept that the "revelation of the gospel of Jesus Christ" is so powerful and infectious that it makes its way into the hearts and lives of people of all kinds. My liberal assumptions, I came to realize, created walls, not bridges.
God chose to perform the Pentecost miracle in Jerusalem in a specific way. Scripture does not say that everyone was able to understand one and the same language. Rather, each person heard God's words through the Galileans in their own language (Acts 2:6). This happened to me. Galatians 1 got through to me.
Hearing God's word, God's message for us in our own language … that is often the challenge. Even the word "mission" is a loaded word, carrying very rich and fruitful images for some, and fraught with all the negativity of colonialism for others. As my colleague James Krabill would say, "People of all cultures are hungry for the Bread of Life, but many choke on the Western-cultural wrapper we place it in."
Several stories have been central to my expanding view of this "M" word. Of the six stories I shared in a recent Missio Dei booklet, I have chosen three here as illustrative of my journey.
Irene Weaver "getting out of the way" of the church in India
Irene Weaver was born into a missionary compound setting in India in 1910—just 11 years into the first overseas mission endeavor of North American Mennonites. In 1935, married to Edwin Weaver, the mission agency asked the couple to accept a post back in India. Irene soon overheard an Indian woman say that "living in a White person's house must be what it would be like in heaven."
"Those words burned shame into my soul," Weaver admitted. "I began to question many things. I decided my strategy of work in a foreign country would be different from anything I had experienced before." The Weavers began to realize that Western mission had encumbered Mennonites in India with colonial structures that hampered their capacity to fully be God's people.
In later years, when the Weavers were invited to undertake new ministries in northern India and West Africa, they made a commitment to practice an "incarnational" approach to mission, respectful of local cultural values and patterns, and wary of introducing unsustainable Western structures and institutions.
Reflecting back on the early India experience, Irene noted, "When the church in India finally shook off our trappings, when we were out of the way, then they could take charge of things."
Lavish hospitality at Jubilee House
According to Luke's account of Jesus' ministry, sharing a meal defines hospitality. But as Luke tells it, the emphasis is more on being a gracious recipient than on being a host. I learned about acts of extravagant hospitality in Elkhart, Indiana, through Jubilee House—a Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) unit cosponsored by two congregations, Fellowship of Hope and my own Prairie Street Mennonite Church. For a number of years, the Jubilee House unit hosted a weekly gathering to share fellowship and food with neighbors, church members, friends from the community, and family members.
Southcentral Elkhart, where the MVS unit is located, is a culturally diverse and socio-economically challenged community. But as one MVS volunteer astutely observed, "In God's abundance, everyone has something to contribute, whether telling a good story or helping with dishes. This reminds me of what the kingdom of God looks like, feels like, and how it moves."
Indigenous expressions of the Christian faith in the Argentine Chaco
Mennonite missionaries were deeply engaged with the Toba people in the Argentine Chaco already in the 1940s. Initially, these efforts did not go well as missionaries, operating in the dominant culture theology and practice of the day, established a walled compound … and received natural resistance from the Toba/Qom people. The Mennonite workers, discouraged with their lack of progress, decided to seek counsel in 1954 from United Bible Society staff. The advice they received: Abandon traditional missionary blueprints and approaches, and focus on learning from and interacting with Toba/Qom people, indigenous church leaders, their culture, and locally-generated goals and vision.
This alternative style of mission is best summarized as walking as Jesus walked—with others who are seeking the life of Christ, prioritizing the integrity of groups and individuals, and with weakness and vulnerability instead of attitudes of superiority.
In 2016, Mennonite workers and local believers completed the translation of the Bible in the Qom language. Juan Victorica, a Qom leader who led the translation celebration, shared how in the past, people told the Qom that "being a Christian was making yourself like the people of European descent and leaving behind the Qom language. The Qom have now reclaimed their cultural identity in Christian expression." Victorica added that, "Now I know God is a Qom God!"
How will the church and the world view our efforts at faithfulness 50 or 100 years from now? Will we be charged with new forms of cultural insensitivity? What are we yet guilty of today?
Of these things I am certain:
• God continues to speak. May we continue to listen … with sensitivity and faithfulness.
• God's presence of healing and hope carry the global church through all the challenges of daily life.
• We continue to be called by God to establish global ministry connections.
We worship an active and loving global God who has sated the hunger for the Bread of Life in partnership with the church, but, also, all too often, in spite of it. Our historic encounters with people "outside" our worldview of Christianity include the genocide of the Crusades, the oppression and imperialism of mission-allied colonialism, and the decimation of North American indigenous peoples in order to replace them with "Christian" settlers, including Mennonites. As a church, we must name these behaviors and repent of them.
In the midst of these destructive social, political, and church movements, we celebrate the Christians whose witness was to listen to "the other" and whose mission—in addition to sharing the gospel—was to stand with people in their context.
We celebrate God's wonderful ability to use our words and actions, limited, flawed, and sometimes harmful though they may be. May God continue to reconcile all things and set things right with the world!