Archive for the ‘Augustine of Canterbury’ Category

Mission as mutual enrichment

May 25, 2019

St Augustine’s Day (Easter 6) – 2019

(John 14:23-29, Acts 16:9-15)

Marian Free

In the name of God who goes before us into the world. Amen.

“Dear Bishop, …Suddenly I feel the urgent need to cast aside all theories and discussions, all efforts at strategy and simply go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa. I would propose cutting myself off from the schools and the hospital and just go and talk to them about God and the Christian message. Outside of this, I have no theory, no plan, no strategy, no gimmick, no idea of what will come. I feel rather naked. I will begin as soon as possible.”

In the mid 70s a young Jesuit priest, Vincent Donovan, was sent to a missionary post in Kenya. The Jesuits had been in the nation for over 100 years, but had not managed to convert even one member of proud Masai people. The mission station boasted a hospital and a school. Children came to the mission school to be educated the the Masai brought the sick to be treated. The Jesuits were welcome guests at significant events, but had long since given up any real attempt to bring the Masai to faith. Vincent was young and enthusiastic. He had not come to this far away land to sit and wait for people to come to him. He had become a missionary so that he could share the faith that was so important to him. The Bishop gave his approval for Vincent to carry out his experiment. What happened next was truly remarkable.

In order to begin Vincent sought the permission of the elders of the various Masai communities. They were willing to hear him but, being herders who woke early to take their flocks to pasture, they could only spare the hour before dawn. Undeterred, Vincent rose early and met with the communities before they left with their flocks for the day. His method was to tell the story of Jesus through the gospel of Mark. Each morning Vincent would meet with the people and explain the gospel to them. Along the way he learnt about the culture he was interacting and adapted his teaching to fit. For example, parables that were meaningful in the agricultural society of first century Palestine did not not speak to the pastoral society of the Masai who competed for land with the agriculturalists to the south. Jesus’ teaching had to be shared in another way.

Not only was Vincent sensitive to the surroundings in which he found himself, he was also open to the wisdom that preceded him. He did not assume that the Masai had no culture or spiritual life and was therefore able to learn more about himself and his faith from those with whom spoke. It was clear to one of the tribal elders that at times Vincent appeared to be lost. He took Vincent aside and explained to him that the Masai understood God to be like a prowling lion and he observed that the lion was following Vincent and he challenged Vincent to stop and take stock and to ask himself what it was that he was running away from! Instead of rejecting this advice Vincent took it to heart

Vincent had come to Kenya share the gospel that he loved with those who had not heard it, but he was respectful of their culture and their experiences and willing to learn from those around him. He did not assume, as many have, that he was interacting with heathen savages but recognized that the Masai belonged an ancient culture that had its own beliefs and wisdom. He spoke to their situation and in turn was willing to learn from their experience.

To me the most stunning aspect of Vincent’s story is this. At the end of the process, after endless mornings of pre-dawn discussions, Vincent asked the villagers whether or not they would like to be baptized. Some said ‘yes’ and others said ‘no’. He did not try to persuade those who said ‘no’ to change their minds nor did he use the fear of hell. He had shared the faith, but he was not willing to impose it. The choice was theirs to make.

Centuries before Vincent stepped foot in Kenya, Augustine landed in Kent from Rome. Augustine had been sent by Pope Gregory to convert the Angles. In Kent Augustine and his band of monks received a cordial welcome. The gospel had in fact preceded them and the Queen, Bertha, was already a Christian. Just as Vincent had a base from which to work, so too did Augustine. In both cases there was a small Christian presence, but most of the people remained unchanged, their culture and their customs untouched by the gospel. We know little about Augustine’s methodology, but from a letter to the Pope, we know that he was unsure what he should do with regard to local practices and holy shrines. In his wisdom the Pope suggested that the holy places be retained and put to use, thereby adapting earlier practices for use by those who now professed Jesus as Lord. Instead of destroying that which preexisted Christianity, Gregory encouraged engagement with it.

The approach of Augustine and Vincent differ markedly from that of many of the colonial missionaries who often sought to conquer and suppress the cultures they encountered, who failed to listen to and understand the peoples whom they desired to change and who, in their arrogance and ignorance, failed to see that God was already at work in the ancient cultures they encountered.

The association of mission with colonialism has given mission a bad name. So much damage has been done in the name of Jesus that we are cautious and timid, anxious not to be seen as those who impose our will on others. Yet we have a great treasure that cries out to be shared – not by tramping rough shod over ancient traditions and wisdom, not by arrogantly assuming that those whose lives are different from our own are necessarily impoverished, not by imposing our will or ourculture on others but by starting where people are, by showing respect for and interest in those whom we meet, by being willing to learn and to have our own lives and faith deepened and enriched as a result. In the end, the gospel belongs to God and God will speak to the hearts of others as God has spoken to us and God will use us if we make ourselves ready and available, humble and willing to learn.

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