by Nancy Heisey
Four clusters of attributes that are called for by those from any culture, especially western cultures, who are going to do service and mission work around the world.
Anyone who is not good in their own country should stay home. Please do not send abroad anyone who has not proved to be good at home. They will only ruin the church elsewhere. Those who are extremely good at home, and are humble, are needed anywhere. We welcome them. But what counts first is who you are, before what you can do.—Angolan pastor.
We are much more concerned with the attitude of people who come than with their background. Workers should come, not as parents, but as brothers and sisters. They must be open to learn. People who say, "We have the truth," should not come. We need people who know who they are and what they believe but are open to other perspectives.—Guatemalan professor.
—I give you a new commandment: love one another.—John 13:34.
—Do not think I am giving a new command; I am recalling the one we have had before us from the beginning: let us love one another.—2 John 5-6.
My aunts are missionaries. I have an early memory of driving to New York City to see one of them off for Africa. We got a tour through the Queen Elizabeth, and then we stood on the dock and waved as the ship slowly maneuvered out of port. Missionaries came to visit our church when I was a girl. The woman wore a pink kimono; she and her husband bowed ceremoniously to each other, and then they passed seaweed around for all of us to taste. Another speaker, a missionary nurse, told us about watching for several days over a sick boy in her hospital, praying that God would give her wisdom to know what kind of treatment would help. Then one night as she was sleeping, she saw the word "meningitis" written in red across the wall, and she woke up knowing what she had to do.
Most of us grew up with missionary images as part of our church and family life. These images were mostly positive, and even exciting. Missionaries lived in different houses, perhaps with thatched roofs. They could speak other languages. "Jesus loves me" sounded like "Jesus ayo asho ni" to them. They had amazing adventures like killing cobras and helping to pray away evil spirits. They knew people who looked and acted differently than we did. They were helping these other people to learn that Jesus loved them, too.
Most of us have also experienced in some form the deep questioning of the worth of the missionary enterprise that characterizes our time. The positive images have been challenged and failure stories have spread. These questions and challenges have come to us not only from the world outside but from within the churches of which we are a part. In his book A Spirituality of the Road, missiologist David Bosch described what has happened: "The validity of what the missionary is and stands for is doubted, not only in the countries of the Third World, but also in his home country, if he comes from the West. Some years ago an American missionary in Korea complained as follows: ‘In my father’s day coming home was a kind of triumph. The missionary was a hero. Today he is an anti-hero. Even in Christian churches I am eyed askance as a throwback to a more primitive era …’"
When we begin to discuss what the next generation of Christian internationalists should look like, we are expressing by the very title our own ambivalence. We obviously believe that we should be a part of God’s work throughout the world in the years ahead. But we are not sure about what part we should play. The term "Christian internationalist" is a gem of an effort to squeeze into two words both the positive connotations and all the cautions about who we are in connection with God’s work in the world.
Our title suggests that the ambivalence—or if you prefer tension, or even paradox—is an inevitable part of becoming a "Christian internationalist." This understanding began to grow for me during a conversation with a British professor who had worked in China as a missionary be-fore the Revolution. He said, "It is exciting that you Mennonites are experiencing a new enthusiasm for mission. My question is, is that enthusiasm based on nineteenth or on twenty-first century perceptions of the world?" It was not difficult for them to point out many mistakes of the "old" missionaries. But they could also ask: "What is wrong with these new missionaries? Why do they get discouraged so easily?"
The bulk of this presentation will outline four clusters of attributes that are called for by those from any culture, especially western cultures, who are going to do service and mission work around the world. Using illustrations from conversations that my husband, Paul Longacre, and I have had during two years of traveling in 45 countries, we will look at physical, educational, psychological-emotional, and spiritual characteristics that have been described to us as important for the next generation of Christian internationalists.
Before beginning that outline, however, I want to make a few comments about the call for persons with a nineteenth-century ("The Great Century of Mission") commitment and a twenty-first century perspective. Defined briefly, nineteenth-century commitment includes a willingness to face the unknown regarding location, job description, and the way personal needs will be met It includes openness to a long-term commitment, with the concomitant acceptance that career may not be enhanced thereby. Broad aspects of a twenty-first century perspective-and this is an area that needs a great deal of further thought-are accepting the ownership of others over one’s work and the undesirability of putting a personal or organizational stamp on one’s presence; moving beyond denominationalism to participation in the work of the church of Christ, earnestly seeking fresh positive approaches to the modem realities that challenge this church.-secularism, religious pluralism, religious fundamentalism, and Marxism/post-Marxism.
We heard many stories about westerners whose inability to find a balance on health care issues was a joke or an affront to local people. There was one woman working in South America who wiped off the doorknobs of her home after every local person entered or left. Another woman was so uncomfortable with the hospitals in a European capital that she had to return to North America to have her baby.
Service and mission workers need to be in good physical health. They also need to be able to deal with illness and with the reality that health care systems in other parts of the world will be different. Being different does not necessarily mean that these systems are inadequate or unhelpful. Mission and service workers need to be careful, but not worried. They need to be willing to be sick at times, especially while they are adjusting to a new climate and new "bugs," and sorting out ways in which they can accept local hospitality without putting themselves constantly at risk.
We think of health hazards in tropical climates as particularly threatening, probably because they are so different from hazards to which we are exposed every day in our own home environments. Often it is also in tropical climates where health care systems, as we recognize them, are least functional. Service and mission workers need to accept more responsibility than we are used to "at home" for monitoring their own and one another’s health, while resisting the tendency to hypochondria that runs under the surface of many expatriate communities.
While physical health should be the norm, it is also possible that being ill itself provides an opportunity to be served and to understand better. One Canadian worker who suffered a long illness while on assignment wrote: "Generally speaking, we North Americans operate from the conscious/unconscious assumption that we deserve to be happy…. Unhappiness is a ‘fault’ in something or someone. We deserve to be happy, and something is ‘wrong’ when we’re not. And if something’s wrong, we fix it, change it, or trash it, don’t we? I don’t think Ugandans think that way. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to be lonely. It’s even, I’m slowly learning okay to be sick."
Some North Americans in international settings also have to live with the reality that they simply are not able to accept the health care options that local people have no choice but to accept When we plan for emergencies and long-term health care, we need to acknowledge that sometimes our needs are unjust. We must be honest in trying to draw the line on special treatment for ourselves.
Often agency job descriptions put emphasis on the academic training that is required for a given international assignment. This fact reflects two realities-that we place high value on training and academic status, and that many other countries, for whatever reason, now also want to assure that Westerners coming to work in their countries are "qualified." There is no doubt that pre-service training is important. As one person in Korea put it: "Missionaries do a job. They should not come to this country thinking they are doing something a Korean cannot do, but they should have a skill." At the same time, many expatriate workers make too much of their skills, or put too high a priority on exercising them. It is important for international mission and service workers both to have a skill at hand that they are ready to use and to have the patience and willingness to do nothing, or to do something for which they are less skilled.
In addition to technical skills, many informants underlined the importance of biblical training for Christian workers from North America. There are some settings where providing Bible teaching is the primary role for the expatriate worker. We have also observed that many people see this role as a particular gift of Mennonites. In other settings, we heard people saying that, whatever their assignment, mission and service workers should be able to "preach."
Ability to use concepts from the social sciences is another important background skill for international workers. Social sciences-anthropology, sociology, psychology-give workers tools that help them to ask the right questions about their new environments and relationships. When those tools push workers to quantify or explain away their situations, or lead them to plan too far ahead of those they work and live among, social science tools can also impede the work.
Most people, however, put the main emphasis less on academic and background training and more on intangible skills learned in the new setting. Without exception, our informants underlined the absolute necessity of language ability cultural understanding. One indigenous Argentine wept as he described the liberation and sense of self-worth that had come to him through a missionary who learned his language and ate the food indigenous people offered him.
There has been a great deal of missiological discussion about the methods by which this cultural and language learning take place, and I do not mean to advocate any particular method here. I only want to point out that the significance of such learning, described to us both by the successes and failures of North Americans in other parts of the world, was clearer and more unanimous than any other thing we heard.
A related idea is that learning from the local setting and the ability to use skills are intimately intertwined. One rural Tanzanian pastor said: "When the first project workers came to us, they learned from us and we from them. We ask that people stay long enough that first they can learn from us and then use this learning in their work."
I want to be very cautious in attempting to discuss psychological or emotional attributes of international mission and service workers. Yet a great many observations made to us by informants about the attributes they look for in international colleagues seem to fall into this general category.
Internal realities. Some of the emotional questions relate to what I call "internal" realities, and others to external realities. Some of the internal realities have been studied and discussed a great deal-they often form the center of our orientations for outgoing workers. "Bonding" and "culture shock" are two of the key terms. Additional emotional realities which need more attention are those which I call "extended intercultural tension," and the development of a "bi-or multicultural personality."
I define extended intercultural tension as the experience of one who lives and works for a long time in another environment, still experiencing a great deal of discomfort with the patterns and behaviors of the new culture. Some workers are never able to come to a sense of peace about the way things are done in the new culture. This inability seems to increase when Westerners live and work in such a way that their primary contacts are with other Westerners even while in the new culture. Several mission workers who deliberately moved away from Western "enclaves" to settings where they were closer to the host community after years of being "inside" noted how much differently they perceived that host reality from the new vantage point.
The growth of a bi-or multicultural personality may be a phenomenon either opposed to extended intercultural tension or somehow interrelated with it. Some Westerners find much pleasure living in a new culture. They may understand and accept the discomforts of the new environment while taking advantage of all the opportunities, or they may shield themselves within an enclave and only sally forth to seize some advantages of the new environment. In any case, they find life in their culture of origin dull or even depressing. It is very difficult for mission and service workers to learn that, having once left home, they will never again feel entirely at home anywhere. The feeling of delight in and call to their home culture is irrevocably changed-and for some apparently permanently lost.
An additional internal matter is the question of how and when mission service workers should be open with persons in the new culture about the emotional and psychological stress they are experiencing. "Why don’t missionaries ever talk to us about their problems?" asked a Zairian pastor. "They seem to know all about our problems but do not want to share any of their own problems with us." A willingness to be open about personal problems with trusted persons in another culture is a characteristic that mission and service workers need to develop.
External realities. In response to external stimuli, the psychological characteristic of flexibility is perhaps the one of highest value. Informants placed a great deal of emphasis on the significance of this characteristic, particularly in relationship to pressure put on church and expatriate workers by government and to the way in which expatriates work under local church structures. In several countries, governments are putting more and more restrictions on what expatriates do and even whether and how long they can live in those countries. In response to this pressure, informants called for mission and service workers who are respectful to regulations-who comply with financial reporting procedures, for example, or who do not cover prohibited activities under the guise of tourism.
Mission and service workers must live patiently with the suspicion that greets all outsiders, especially Westerners, in some cultures. Some people we talked with recognized this suspicion as a problem within themselves. Others justified this suspicion by their experiences.
Of even greater importance to many was the ability to be flexible in matters related to working under national church structures. Here, as on the question of language and cultural learning, the voices were clear and unambiguous. "We want to be able to talk with you as doctor to doctor and not as doctor to patient," said one. People who are not able to do this, who resist it or circumvent such conversation or corrupt the system, are not welcome as mission and service workers. On all continents, people wondered aloud why North Americans find it so difficult to think of themselves as working on a team that would include local personnel as well. A Colombian pastor described their invitation to new North American workers: "We wanted them to come not as pastors of a newly emerging congregation, but as partners in the leadership team."
"You cannot do it alone," said a Venezuelan pastor. "When you are placing a new worker, match him or her up with a local worker." A church leader in Hong Kong worried about the fact that Western mission agencies have often responded to the problem of expatriates working under local churches by having those workers step aside entirely. "That is the wrong approach," he said. "Foreign missionaries need to find new roles; they can play an active part in ‘people’ rather than organizational work."
Transferal of loyalty. One of the most complicated psychological-emotional questions for mission and service workers is the issue of total or near-total transferal of loyalty to the new host culture. We encourage workers to immerse themselves in the culture and language. We speak positively of bonding. We say it is right to work under/in teamwork with local structures. We encourage the search for deep relationships with people from the new culture. But sometimes Western workers "cross over"—become advocates for people in the new culture to the extent that they question or contravene policies of the sending agency. In the early period of workers’ assignments, it is hard to sort out what leads to this experience. But in places where the ideological stakes are high, especially if there is significant conflict between deep relationships in the new culture and the ideology of the culture of origin, some workers feel the pull to cross over. Is this positive? When and how should it be encouraged? When should the agency continue to be a part of the process as the person crosses over and when should the agency encourage the person to develop new support ties in order to carry on the work?
I have no easy answers to these questions. I believe that at times cross over can be good, and that it should not be considered a threat by the agency. The worker in question should be encouraged to be as honest as possible about what is happening. Communication with significant persons from the home culture-family, friends, or pastor, if agency administrators cannot do so-should be part of the process. A careful look at lines of accountability in the host culture should be encouraged. Workers continuing in assignments in areas of physical and ideological conflict should be given special opportunities for study, reflection, and discussion as part of the process of determining their long-term role in those environments.
"The missionary who comes should be truly converted," said a Zairian church leader. Trying to decipher all that was meant by that brief comment could take an entire paper in itself. However, several comments help to define the meaning of this conversion. Almost all of those we talked to put an emphasis on the centrality of commitment to the teachings of the Bible. Many insisted that mission and service workers should be willing to teach only what the Bible says, without adding cultural or religious values to it. Second, most informants emphasized the importance of belief in Jesus and a true presentation of who Jesus is. For many, a foundational understanding is that belief in Jesus Christ somehow brings in or includes people rather than excluding them. "Do we believe Christ belongs to all? Or do we believe people must accept our particular Christ?" one priest asked. "We should serve people and present Christ to them. People have good values. Let them be themselves, but bring them to Christ."
Another aspect of "true conversion" is having an attitude of repentance. Mission and service workers may be more or less aware of the hurts that come from past mistakes. While they should not be paralyzed by the knowledge, they should be willing to find ways to express repentance for such wrongs whether or not they themselves have personally been involved. A Zairian woman teacher expressed her hurt that in earlier days missionaries seemed to find excuses not to eat in her home. She expressed appreciation for one young Canadian who quickly and warmly accepted an impromptu invitation to share a meal together. She would not have described his action as one of repentance, and perhaps he would not have done so either. But the business of turning around, making way for healing of hurts, had taken place.
In several settings, Christians asked for missionaries to come back and help loose ties that had been bound tightly by earlier generations of missionaries. "Our elders cannot accept our young people saying that women should be allowed to speak, or that it is all right not to cover the head in worship. If someone comes from your church and tells that those things have changed there, we may be able to change too," a Nigerian seminary student observed.
Mission and service workers should be willing to give themselves to ministries of listening and hope. Christians in countries where their own interaction with the outside is strictly controlled expressed a deep desire for outsiders to come to listen to them. "We cannot go out," one Burmese Christian said. "We welcome the chance to talk with you here." A Nigerian university professor remembered an old missionary: "We would see him sitting down to talk with crippled and blind people. He could not change their situation, but by taking time for them he gave them hope. That is why we remember him."
People we met also talked about the call to be peacemakers and what forms it could take for expatriate mission and service workers in situations of conflict. In Nicaragua one church leader criticized mission workers who were unwilling to help local believers think about political realities. A Filipino sister urged service and mission workers from the West to participate in the struggle against the United States military presence in her country. Some people expressed a need for an ability that they have often found among Mennonites-the ability to think about conflict and injustice from a biblical point of view. "We need your emphasis on biblical living, strong fellowship, and political critique in light of the Bible," said a Hong Kong pastor. "Help to support the lonely struggle of people who are working for change in their own countries!" was the cry from Korea and Egypt and El Salvador and South Africa.
Two paradoxes inform the understanding of spiritual attributes that are called for in mission and service workers. One, as cited in the statement of the Guatemalan professor at the beginning of this paper, is that workers must both know what they believe and be open to all perspectives. The second is that there is a call for the biblical message, especially about Jesus Christ, but that message must be spoken in terms of the context where it is being received. Western mission and service workers, who tend to be very uncomfortable with unclarity in exactly these areas, must be encouraged to develop the ability to survive and even thrive in the midst of such tension.
Several random thoughts fall together into the conclusion. First is the story of a Mennonite missionary in South America. When he first left North America, he was 27 years old. He had bachelors of arts and theology degrees. His church work experience was as a song leader and as a member of a congregational visitation team. He had done Civilian Public Service in a mental hospital. Thirty-five years later, the agency works on finding a replacement for him. A job description was prepared calling for someone with cross-cultural experience and a masters degree (at least) in linguistics and/or anthropology. A fellow mission worker, looking at the draft job description, commented: "We have been trying to get sister churches in the region interested in being mission partners with us in this work. But when they see this job description they will conclude there is no way they would ever qualify." One thing we need to understand and have patience for is that "the best" mission and service workers are not born. They are made.
Second, a month ago I made a presentation similar to this to a group of European Mennonite mission leaders. When I had finished one of them, whose daughter is currently serving in Cambodia, said: ‘There is no one in the world who could fill the bill you have laid out before us." I had to agree. Reflecting then, I suggested that the four quotes listed at the beginning of the text say all that we really need to know about attributes of the next generation of mission and service workers.
Third, I have concluded that the last word comes to us from brothers and sisters who have received our mission and service efforts over the past century. They have seen us succeed at times, and have seen us fail often. Our conversations with these people indicate that they are better able than we are to understand and accept mistakes, and even to see the good things that may come out of mistakes. "If missionaries here made mistakes," said one Argentine pastor, "they did not do so out of bad intentions. Anyone who tries to do things makes mistakes."
"I am convinced that North Americans find it very difficult to be rid of their prejudices against blacks," said a Beninois church leader of long experience. "We need to accept this fact in love, to accept you and you us. If missionaries, even feeling that way, had not come here, how would I have come to know Christ? So we can say that nothing is useless, nothing is really negative. The things which seem negative we must accept as part of the sinful human condition. God can work even through that."
Copyright © 1990 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.