I was talking about missionary work with one of my college students recently, specifically about the shadow side of missions. The history of missions is a checkered one with all sorts of graces and challenges, from the miraculous and inspiring to tragedy, violence, and the many problems of colonialism. Today short-term missions is a multi-billion dollar industry plagued with its own challenges among the stories of grace and good news.
The life and ministry of Bishop John Coleridge Patteson is one such that is both inspiring and terribly tragic. In 1855, Patteson answered the call of New Zealand Bishop George Selwyn for volunteers to go to the South Pacific to preach the Gospel, and eventually was ordained Bishop of Melanesia in 1861. The grace: Patteson founded schools and was a brilliant linguist. He eventually spoke 23 of the 1,000 languages spoken across the many islands. He also translated some of the Gospels into the Mota language. The tragic: he was killed by natives on the island of Nukapu in the Solomon Islands in what is believed to have been a misunderstanding or mistaken identity.
Even though slave-trade was technically illegal, merchantmen, also known as ‘blackbirders,’ would decieve or kidnap natives, taking them to work on plantations in Australia or Fiji. It was originally believed that Patteson was mistaken for a blackbirder and was attacked. Later historians also came to consider two other possibilities. The first: because missionaries like Patteson often took boys away to schools, it was possible the natives did not distinguish between missionaries and blackbirders. The second: Patteson brought gifts for the women, which would have gone against patriarchal norms, and so natives would have seen him as a threat to their social order.
Mission work has been and is always messy and risky, filled with graces and challenges.
I was first invited to an international short-term mission at a youth Happening retreat in the Diocese of Upper South Carolina. My friend Cameron Vivanco is a missionary in Ecuador and one of the founders of Education Equals Hope. She hosts short-term missions and is very intentional about the formation of her teams. In teaching about how to bear fruit in and from their experiences, Cameron speaks about 4 challenges we must overcome to create space for God to work in our hearts and relationships.
- We must die to our Intellectual Prejudice. We must resist the temptation that says we are smarter or know more than the next person, no matter their education or socioeconomic status. We must adopt a servant mentality and give respect to the wisdom, experiences, and intellect offered by each individual.
- We must die to our Cultural Prejudice. We must let go of our own cultural biases to fully engage the culture of another person. Go the extra mile, take a humble posture, and seek to immerse yourself, embrace the new culture, and learn.
- We must die to our Spiritual Prejudice. We often get caught up in how we like our liturgy or worship. We have our preferences and the ways we like to do things. But in the mission field, we have an opportunity to experience worship and spirituality in a variety of ways.
- We must be willing to set aside our Self-seeking Ambitions. Mission trips can be marketed like vacations. We may approach missions with our own goals and desires, hope to have certain experiences. But mission is about following and orienting ourselves towards Jesus. Mission is about partnering with the Kingdom of God. We must set aside our own desires and seek the movement of the Holy Spirit.
I believe these four challenges have at their heart the words of Jesus in Mark 8, “‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
What I’ve come to learn, and this is really at the heart of Cameron’s teaching, is that these challenges are not simply limited to Ecuador, Melanesia, or some other far off mission field. Afterall, Anglican missionary bishop Lesslie Newbigin reminds us the mission of God is also in our local neighborhood and backyard.
When we talk with our kids and families about how our Christian faith informs our engagement with the experiences of Black, indigenous, people of color, these four challenges give us grounding and guidance. These challenges are vital for engaging issues of social justice, as well as for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. The application of the challenges is broad and deep. They help us to live into the posture taught by Saint Paul, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” We are empowered to live more fully in the space where the grace of God flourishes.
Which of the four challenges do you find most difficult?
How have you experienced God’s grace in missions?