Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Modern Day Missionaries

I’ve written before that in my teen years I was an atheist.  My opinion of Christianity was not high at the time.  And I particularly was repulsed by what I knew of missionaries.  At that point in my life, my very limited exposure to Christian missionaries taught me that they were mostly white people who typically came from deeply racist cultures with segregated churches, but who nonetheless went to proselytize in countries where the people were not white. 

There seemed to be an attitude of condescension from what I could see of such missionaries.  There also seemed to be a great deal of cultural ignorance and insensitivity.  I also viewed the missionaries’ work as hypocritical because they were often worshipping with people in other countries whom their home churches in the U.S. would not welcome because of the color of their skin.  At the time, the Poisonwood Bible had not yet been published, but if it had been, the character of Nathan Price in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel would have reflected my image of missionaries.  Not a flattering picture.

When I was a young adult in college, I became a Christian, but my attitudes towards missionaries did not change overnight.  They began to change a few years later when I taught in a parochial school in a poor parish in San Antonio, Texas.  My boss (i.e., the school’s principal) was a veteran nun.  Sister Rose was a tough lady, but also very compassionate and soft spoken.  It was the mid-1990s and she had just returned from several years serving as a missionary in Liberia.  Her order had long sent nuns to work in a very remote area of the country.  Sister Rose had not wanted to leave her work in Liberia, but her order had reluctantly decided that the civil war violence made it too dangerous to continue.  The order closed its mission in the country, much to the disappointment of the nuns like my boss who willingly risked their lives to serve the people of their adopted home.

During the year I worked for her, Sister Rose told me about her order’s work in Liberia and it was fascinating to me.  They were like no missionaries I had ever heard of!  They did not explicitly proselytize to the people they served in Liberia.  In the Catholic denomination, the theology is different from that of Evangelical Christians who focus on “saving” souls.  Catholics pray for souls even after the death of the physical body.  In Evangelical theology, there is no point.  One’s fate is sealed once the physical body dies. 

Because of their theology, the nuns were in a sense liberated from explicit proselytizing and instead focused their work on ministering to the crushing poverty of the Liberians where they lived.  In particular, the nuns focused on two goals: providing clean water and education.  They drilled wells, built schools and taught the children.  The nuns believed that showing God’s love in such tangible ways was doing his will. 

They also believed that such a Christian witness was ultimately more effective than explicit proselytizing.  If they were asked, the sisters were certainly willing to share their faith with the Liberians they served.  But that was not their primary goal.  And they didn’t believe you could force God’s love on anyone.

I was so impressed by this form of missionary service.  The focus was not on words and outward professions, but instead on tangible expressions of God’s love.  It has been over 20 years since I worked with at that parochial school, but this model of missionary service has really stuck with me. 

In recent years, I’ve become more and more interested in missionary work.  As a mother with young children, this is not the season in my life to go off to a remote corner of our planet.  But it is something of increasing interest to me. 

My husband is currently studying to be an RN.  We aspire that at some point he might become involved with medical mission work.  I half joke that I could go with him to hold his medical bags and do the in-take paperwork.  Probably not a lot of need for corporate tax lawyers in the places he might serve!

Because of my interest in missionary work, I’ve done some reading on the topic in recent years.  The next few posts will focus on the work of modern missionaries.  I find it very inspiring and hope you will as well.

Matthew 28:16-20

 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this, very informative and reminds me a lot. I thank God for every moment I wake up in the morning, I know that there's a purpose for my mission today.