by Jim Reapsome
My sari must have attracted some curiosity, for I was invited to speak to a number of groups about my country. Some had heard of India, some had no idea where it was…
My sari must have attracted some curiosity, for I was invited to speak to a number of groups about my country. Some had heard of India, some had no idea where it was. . .
I had been invited to address a ladies club. The club secretary had advised me that perhaps a dose of history with a pinch of politics and culture would be wonderfully suited to their taste. I obliged.
After an excellent tea served on fine silver, I started to talk. I talked of the past, of struggles, of despair and poverty; I talked of the present, of political battles and world maneuvers, of challenges that lay ahead; I spoke of the right to learn, the right to self-awareness, of the chains of tradition and the poverty of women.
I did not notice for a long time that the faces around me had begun to twitch, that the women were shifting restlessly. When I suddenly became aware of the growing discomfort, I stopped. "Does someone have a question?" I asked.
The club secretary rose and drew me to the window.
"My dear," she said in a low voice. "It is history and culture they wish to hear about, not misfortunes."
"But the truth is not misfortune; it is the truth," I replied in a whisper, thoroughly confused.
"Of course. But can’t you leave out the bad parts. Talk about the maharajas. And there are the elephants and the tigers, and you can even tell us about your beautiful sari, and show us how you put it on."
I looked down at the floor. There was an exquisite Persian carpet under my feet; I hadn’t noticed. I remained by the window for a few minutes. The secretary had returned to her seat, and there were smiles and expectation on a few faces.
"Ladies," I said, "my deepest apologies for meddling with your fantasies. Since I do not share them, and India is not a fairy-tale or a novel by Rudyard Kipling, I must say goodbye. Thank you."1
That Indian girl’s experience could be matched by that of many missionaries, who, upon returning home, have found it virtually impossible to tell the truth about the countries where they have been serving. Not because they are dishonest, but because many people in the churches don’t care about the truth, about the big issues that are confronting not only India, but every country.
"Show us how you put your sari on … tell us about the elephants and tigers. " Is this not often the extent of peoples’ interest in missions and missionaries? They certainly don’t want their missionaries meddling with their fantasies about what missionary life is all about.
But what missionary dare rebuke his audience the way this young student from India did? Is there not some other way to accomplish the same thing?
There is. It begins with a recognition that in one sense missionaries themselves, for nearly a century now, have been fathering the kind of expectations church people have. They have told about quaint clothes, unique animals, and ignorant superstitions. People were brought up on that diet and it is hard to wean them.
Next, missionaries must carefully prepare ahead of time how they are going to report on what is actually happening overseas, so their meddling with fantasies will be intelligent, up-to-date, and related to their work and the work and witness of their national brethren.
It is easy to come home without giving any hard thought to what the big questions are, e.g., the kind of things the girl from India talked about. Consequently, when the ladies want to hear about saris, the missionary tells them, because she has nothing else prepared to say.
Meddling with fantasies is an unpleasant but necessary missionary responsibility. We are pleased that some mission board publications are doing it, but the missionary himself must summon great courage and wisdom to do it himself in every church, youth group, and Sunday school class where God calls him to speak.
1. Shallini Venturelli, In The Christian Science Monitor, April 7, 1977, p.
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