Posts Tagged ‘Masai’

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.

Shepherds and sheep

September 7, 2013

Pentecost 16

Luke 15:1-15

Marian Free

 In the name of God who will not be bound by human convention or constrained by human wisdom, and whose love extends to all. Amen.   

When we were in Tanzania, we observed the local Masai herdsmen (often children) herding their sheep to pasture in what seemed to be a harsh and unforgiving land. Each person had somewhere between ten and twenty sheep and they were kept together with a switch. I don’t know, but I assume the loss of one sheep due to carelessness would have been a serious matter when the total number was so low.

How different from the Australian experience! When I was young I visited a sheep station that was 100 square miles in size. The boundaries were fenced as were the interior paddocks – no opportunity for sheep to wander off. Shepherding was required only when it was time to move the sheep from one pasture to another and then it was done from the back of a motorbike – no switch and no personal relationship between shepherd and sheep. I can no longer remember how many sheep the landowner stocked on the property, but I clearly remember a delivery of sheep. A double, two-layer sheep trailer disgorged its contents in front of us – probably in the vicinity of two hundred sheep. In the crush of the transport one had died. The farmer immediately took out his knife and skinned it in front of us. Before our holiday had ended, that sheep had contributed to at least one evening meal. When such large numbers of livestock are involved, there is no room for sentimentality. Pragmatism rules the day.

But back to our Tanzanian experience which is a much better illustration of today’s parable. Small herds are not only more precious, they are better able to be cared for in a more intimate way. There is no need for them to be herded on to freight trains or abandoned to their own devices far from the homestead. Small herds can be protected from wild animals which Australian fences do not deter and it is easy to recognise when one is missing. Every evening the animals are returned to the village where they are contained behind a fence in the centre of the huts so that they will be safe until morning. Every morning they are taken from the pen to once again find pasture.

From what we can gather, herding in Jesus’ day was similar to that of the East African experience. There were some notable differences. The Palestinian herdsmen didn’t necessarily return to a village in the evening (think of the shepherds to whom the angels relayed the news of Jesus’ birth). Instead, crude walls out of stones were made in the pastures to protect the livestock from predators. These sheepfolds seem to have been ad hoc structures – in any case, they were constructed without a gate. In the evening, the shepherd would herd the animals into the enclosure and then lie in front of the opening so as to be able to prevent wild enemies from entering. The shepherds may have built fires for warmth and added protection, but all that kept the animals safe from harm was their shepherd’s ability to aim a sling or to otherwise deter or frighten off an attacker.

Seen from the perspective of shepherding in Israel, Jesus’ parable about the lost sheep is far from a benign, feel good story. Jesus’ audience would have justifiably been shocked and outraged. What sort of shepherd abandons ninety-nine sheep to the wolves in order to go off and search for one that is missing? Wolves or hyenas could cause far greater loss to the shepherd among ninety-nine unprotected sheep, than to one isolated sheep. In other words, for the sake of the one, the shepherd is risking several, if not all, of the others.

You can almost hear the gasps of Jesus’ listeners – the Pharisees, the tax collectors and the sinners. They are not herdsmen, but they have some idea of animal husbandry – even the biggest cities of Palestine are not far from the countryside. Is this shepherd crazy they must be wondering? What is one sheep when you have ninety-nine safe and sound? It gets even worse.  Not only does the shepherd abandon those sheep which have kept close to him, but when the shepherd recovers the sheep which has strayed, he calls all his neighbours over to rejoice with him. Surely that is an over reaction. A party for a lost sheep?

Jesus has almost certainly caught the attention of his listeners. They are probably beginning to wonder what sort of meaning he can draw from the story. How can he use a story about a lost sheep to defend eating with tax collectors and sinners which, in the eyes of the Pharisees breaks the codes of purity and implies that he overlooks their obvious sinfulness. What they have not realised is that the story is a not so subtle attack on their own arrogance and self-satisfaction and a challenge for them to re-assess their understanding of God. Jesus piques their interest and then he goes in for the kill. This is what heaven is like he says. God (we are to suppose) seeks out not the upright, not the law-abiding, but those who have strayed. The people whom the Pharisees despise, exclude and denigrate are the very people whom heaven will seek out and rejoice to welcome home.

What a slap in the face that must have seemed to the Pharisees.  From what we can tell these righteousness and law-abiding people, believed that behaviour set them apart from those around them and assured them of a place in heaven before all others. Jesus’ story about the lost sheep is an affront to everything they had been led to believe and it was a direct attack on their attitude towards those who didn’t achieve their high standards of behaviour. They think that entrance into heaven is something that has to be earned by keeping the law, by prayer and by fasting, that God has particular standards that people have to reach before God will grant them salvation. At the same time they are so sure of that they are right that they have made themselves both judge and jury of the behaviour of others. Anyone who doesn’t conform to their standards is, they believe, automatically excluded from the heavenly realm.

Jesus puts the lie to that belief. Contrary to God’s abandoning and turning his back on sinners, God does what for the Pharisees is unthinkable – God seeks out those who are lost and takes more pleasure in the return of a sinner than in those whose very goodness leads them to forget how much they need God and who believe that their righteous behaviour sets them apart from and above everyone else.

There are times in our lives when we wander from the path, and when we do, God seeks us out and brings us home rejoicing. At other times we find ourselves safe and secure in the fold. At such times it is important that we remember the love sought us out and that we do not begrudge the fact that God extends that love to those who in the present are lost. Having been found, it is important that we do not allow ourselves to be smug or self-satisfied, that we do not think that we better or more worthy than others. We are all beneficiaries of God’s love and we are all dependent on God’s forgiveness. God’s loving forgiveness seeks us out, overlooks our faults, restores us to the fold and welcomes us with rejoicing into the realms of heaven.

Sharing the Gospel

July 6, 2013

Pentecost 7 2013

Luke 10:1-12,17-24

Marian Free 

In the name of God who equips us and sends us into the world to proclaim the gospel. Amen.

Some time ago now, I read a book written by a Jesuit priest, Vincent Donovan. He tells of being sent to a mission in Kenya filled with enthusiasm to share the gospel. When he arrived he discovered that even though the Jesuits had been in the country for 100 years, they had not converted one single person to Christianity. That is not to say that they had had no impact at all. The local people, proud and independent Masai, were very happy to make use of the mission school and to bring the sick and injured to the hospital. It was some time however since any of the missionaries had left the mission station except to drive the ambulance to pick up or deliver a patient. The youthful and enthusiastic Vincent was dismayed. This was not why he had travelled so far. He had come to take Jesus to the people, not wait until they came to him. He asked for and gained permission to go out into the villages to share the gospel.

This was not easy. First, Vincent had to gain the trust of the chief of the village, then he had to arrange a suitable time for the teaching to occur. He discovered that the best time in the day was four in the morning. As the Masai are pastoralists any later would have found them scattered with their herds. Having gained a welcome and made a time to meet, Vincent’s approach was to share with the people the Gospel of Mark. This too was not without its difficulties. Many of the parables in the gospels relate to an agrarian culture – the mustard seed, the sower and the fig tree all relate to agricultural practices. To repeat these parables might well have led to confusion if not outright antagonism among his hearers. The Masai, being pastoralists, might not have understood the references to sowing. Worse, as those who needed pasture for their flocks, they were in conflict with neighbouring cultures who used the land to produce crops not pasture and may not have taken kindly to stories about growing crops.

Vincent navigated all these difficulties – teaching the gospel with sensitivity and respect for the culture of the people. At the end of the time he asked them if they would like to be baptised. If they said: “yes”, he proceeded with baptism. If they said: “no”, he respected their decision and did not press them to change their minds.

Having grown up in a barely post-colonial era, I found this a refreshing account of mission. Unlike many missionaries before him, Vincent demonstrated respect for the local culture and made no attempt to compel his hearers to abandon their culture or to convert. This is a vastly different approach from the missionaries of the 19th century who, sent out from their respective nations, undermined and denigrated local culture sometimes with devastating results. The problem seems to have been an inability to separate faith in Jesus Christ from the culture and mores of the nations from which they had come. Acceptance of the gospel in their minds equalled acceptance of Western culture. There were of course some wonderful missionaries who tried to learn local cultures and languages, who brought medicine and education that improved the lives of those whom they served. Others simply imposed their faith, their will and their culture on those whom they felt were inferior and lacking in morality. They had no regard for the people and no understanding of the cultures they were destroying.

For many then, the idea mission has left a bad taste. The arrogance and presumption of some that western society had reached some sort of pinnacle of moral goodness and knowledge that meant that it was the standard by which others had to be judge leaves those of us who know its weaknesses embarrassed and ashamed.

This creates a dilemma. In the multi-faith, multi-media world of the 21st century, how do we make sense of Jesus’ sending out first of twelve and then of seventy to proclaim the kingdom? What is our responsibility with regard to sharing the gospel today? Do we, you and I believe that it is our duty to ensure that as many people as possible are “saved”? Do we live in a state of terror that those who have not heard the gospel will be eternally damned? I suspect that the answer to both those questions is “no”. If anything, our behaviour tends to reflect a live and let live attitude a belief that while our faith is good enough for us, we do not need to inflict it on others.

Our response to the mistakes of the past should not be to do nothing. We believe, or at least claim to believe that Jesus’ life and teaching are transformative, that Jesus’ death and resurrection have reconciled us to God, that the Holy Spirit inspires and empowers us. This surely is something worth sharing.

In an increasingly secular world, many people are hungry for meaning, searching for something to nurture their soul. Our task is to get alongside people, to listen to the stories, to try to understand their dreams, to recognise their hurts, to help them deal with their modern day demons of loneliness, busyness, stress, to try to bring about healing of minds as well as bodies, to respond with integrity to their questions, to be open to their doubts and equipped to share with them our journey of faith.

“How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” (Rom 10:14)

It is not our task to impose the gospel on those who do not want to hear or accept it, but unless we take the time to share something that is important to us, how will others know the difference it might make in their lives?


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