by William D. Reyburn
Time: July 1948.
Place: a deserted street corner in Guatemala City. I could feel the heat of the rough cement sidewalk against my hands and body. In front of me a machine gun rattled and spat out hot empty cartridges that rolled down aimlessly and tumbled into the gutter. I lifted my, face in the acrid air and saw two men crawling from a shattered vehicle up the street.
Time: July 1948.
Place: a deserted street corner in Guatemala City. I could feel the heat of the rough cement sidewalk against my hands and body. In front of me a machine gun rattled and spat out hot empty cartridges that rolled down aimlessly and tumbled into the gutter. I lifted my, face in the acrid air and saw two men crawling from a shattered vehicle up the street. Again the machine gun hammered out a long burst, then all was silent for a moment. The two revolutionaries manning the gun snatched it up by the tripod and started to run to a new position farther ahead. Suddenly they stopped and called back to me, "Hey, americano, if we lose, you never saw us, eh?" I waved as they raced with their weapon across the open street. I crawled back into a protected doorway and thought, but there was only one really live impression: "Americano, you are a very sad revolutionary, eh?"
Let’s face it. Most of us, whether we have been in a war or not, are from backgrounds where we have not learned to live in sympathy with revolutions. Revolutionaries are hungry, desperate people overthrowing the government by force. Yes, I know. It’s unconstitutional and all that kind of thing. For the grim characters who manned the gun on the sidewalk in front of me it was nothing of the kind. The constitution was wrong and they were planning to make a new one. The constitution was not sacred; only the right to revolt was. The scene for me has changed from Latin America to Africa, but I still hear the echos of that July revolution as I travel l about Africa in my work.
Missionaries today are frequently discouraged, disheartened, and dismayed. Sometimes the schools have turned out politicians of a low order. The medical assistants may have disrupted the healing function of the hospital. The church leaders sometimes have stolen the funds and there is a gnawing ache for justice where injustice seems to be the norm. Only the morally blind could in these cases shrug off what takes place. The theft, revolt, lies, moral vacuity, are in some instances as obvious as the leaves on the trees. And this kind of thing leaves its mark on the missionary. In some cases there is little outward reaction, but I believe it would help if we would turn our gaze from these events and look at the way the greater trend of events in recent African affairs has created on the part of many missionaries an awareness of something being taken away, a sense of loss that in the end deeply affects the attitudes we develop as we continue to face the growing complexity of our dilemmas. There is a variety of losses, but the following are probably the most telling.
In several African cities I have heard people express deepest concern over the way the Africans have allowed the once beautiful city (speaking, of course, of the European quarter only) to turn into a shambles. The grass is no longer cut, the buildings aren’t painted, the roads aren’t kept up, the water is no longer drinkable, the electricity and water are cut off every time they’re needed, the native markets are spreading all over, the people use the sidewalks for toilets, the stores are run-down and no decent European merchandise is available, the lovely European residences are streaked with smoke from cooking fires and there are no spare parts for American automobiles. In short, the whole place has deterioriated.
The person who suffers from this kind of loss can best recover by just deciding that for the next umpteen years he is going to live and like it. There is an easier way, of course, the escape-recovery. This requires a more or less permanent return to the bustling supermarket where the sufferer can push his grocery cart up and down the merchandise canyons, thumping his foot to the rock ‘n’ roll beat as the cars swish past on the freeway outside. Escape to the shrines of his faith will reassure the sufferer that the thing-world is still a solid fact ofexistence so essential to right living.
The loss of belonging is perhaps the most bitter of the lot. It is expressed in such words as: "Well, you know, we don’t send out a form letter any more. There is just nothing worth telling the churches at home." Or, " I haven’t been asked to serve on a single committee since the church became independent."
The loss of belonging is often genuine. For some it is an opportunity for creative living. But for others it is a disorienting disturbance which shakes the foundations of their security. Since being at the station, the school compound, the hospital, this type resents that he has never been invited into an African home. It isn’t always his fault; the Africans may prefer it that way. The European families in town that used to exchange visits have returned to Europe. The old tennis players have disappeared and the pre-independence friends have dwindled to nothing. Thanks to Pope John the Catholic fathers now drop by for visits and assure us that the war is over, but how much belongingness can you feel through all those whiskers? And the deepest stab of all came when the national church outlawed the annual missionary fellowship meetings. Strange bow Africans impute political motives to a gathering as innocent as that. These meetings only lasted ten days. As one lady remarked, "Today the Africans are joining everything, political parties, clubs, tribal unions, contests and conspiracies, but look at us poor missionaries. Everything we belonged to has been dissolved."
Any solution? Yes, but too little and too late. Some missionaries who suffer from belonging loss should have belonged to the church they were instituting, and perhaps today they wouldn’t be in pain. In some cases, the tragic sense of belonging loss is fought by intensifying the justification for not belonging. Of course white people aren’t wanted and the best way to prove it is to point out how all these African clubs are made up of tribal snobs. It is best in so doing to show how the local European government club, the missionary meeting and other similar organizations were always open to African participation. The fact that these were always made up of French or British administrators, Greek and Lebanese merchants or American missionaries is irrelevant. One shouldn’t give in to these ugly post-independence tribal practices.
There is nevertheless a healthy note in this sickness of not belonging. It makes missionaries get up off their stations and go sit down in the villages where they find again the sense of belonging at work.
Going to the village does awaken, however, another loss, the loss of privacy. You see, the mission station tucked away five miles from the nearest native settlement was strictly for health reasons. Then some queer missionaries of the exploding population generation came along and found the bustling town or city more congenial to their way of life and a more realistic field in which to work. These upstarts confused the mission board and now they are all living in African quarters spread around this miserable city. Oh, the good old mission station with its acres of green grass! Those lawns so inspiring in the rainy season, reaching out protective arms in every direction and giving warning of the riffraff’s approaching. If you can’t stomach that, then I’d appeal to your financial sense. Think of the employment created by keeping those lawns mowed. But that’s all gone now. The African church has taken over the stations and the grass is neck high.
Here in the town one is watched every time he moves. Can’t close the shutters because it’s too hot, and the mission won’t pay for air conditioning. Everyone used to have his own car, but now it’s just a bicycle. Can’t get away without taking the train, and if he does he may have to hold some mammy’s soaking pickanniny on his lap.
Theeffects of the loss of privacy show more in one’s eyes than anywhere else. One learns to live without seeing anybody. I can usually tell when a person has made a successful adjustment. I stand at the door knocking for five minutes before the privacy-loss-adjusted type will look up and ask what I want. Being extremely proud of him I ask if he could direct me out to the mission station where I could speak with an African pastor and get a quiet night’s sleep. He smiles understandingly and obliges.
Stripping off another layer we come to that haunting sense of the lost future. There was a time when being a missionary was being a career man or woman. Young Mr. Brown went to college and seminary, then to the mission field. Periodically he came back home and gave glowing accounts of the work. When he reached the age of sixty he began the countdown for retirement. In a dignified and conventional manner he threw a big lemonade party, inviting all the administrators, mission officials and African helpers and then went sailing off to green pastures in a newly-purchased Florida swamp (reclaimed, of course).
But what about the man who at fifty-five doesn’t know if the national church is going to fire him for withholding answers from students on examinations? What about the missionary-pastor who twenty years ago disciplined a church member who is now the chief immigration officer? Or the missionary who for fifteen years has brutally, aggressively and innocently every phrase, clause and sentence of the now-sacred national language? Ten years before retirement and the national church says, Go home.
What shall we say to this one who suffers from the loss of future? We might say, Be sure not to fail any student, or, Be careful, the man you’re disciplining for theft may be the governor next term. (I’m sure this advice has been well practiced down through time.) Perhaps the career idea was a bad one, something we inherited along with other myths of our time. At any rate, it has no secure footing in a revolutionary world. While the mission board may be able to put the future loss sufferer back to work in a challenging job somewhere else, we have still to face future loss as a future problem for missions. Could this be why missions don’t appeal to young creative minds today? I personally don’t think so. The reasons are tied up with the way youth looks at traditional, conservative institutions in their culture. Nevertheless, the loss of future is a reality in missions. But it is significant that the orientation of modern youth is also future-lost.
We live our days as days and there is no guarantee for tomorrow. The events of an atomic age have produced a generation of youth many of whom are honest, realistic, and toughminded. They are not pitying themselves because they suffer from loss of future. They have been born into the world without a future. Who could function better in a missionary world than these youth? The task of the church is, then, to present the facts of the mission of the church is all its starkness. remembering that it is speaking to a kind of youth who are new to traditional missionary orientation. These future missionaries expect nothing from the world no promises. They merely hope for a chance to live meaningfully for today, not to age sixty-five.
Let’s pull away another layer of loss where we find those people who suffer from loss of power. These are the ones who, before independence of state and local church, had great hopes for the African. Why shouldn’t they have had great hopes? They had been the African’s model and guide for years. As one man put it: "I have spent my life teaching these folks to live by Christian standards and look what has happened: the pastor has committed adultery, the teachers have brought in a union and forced up their salaries, the workmen have sued me in court, the church treasurer has stolen the catechists’ funds, and the medical assistants-have to be bribed to give a patient treatment. The whole place is going communistic."
What about our friend? How do we diagnose his loss? He was an ardent advocate of independence and was anxious to see the French leave. He preached freedom and urged the idea in every sermon. He encouraged the women to be free from the men, the people to be free from colonialism and sin. He had his idealistic moments, but since independence he has changed much of that. The Belgians were right after all, the people weren’t ready. Instead of freedom from sin it has become freedom to sin.
The really bad part about this loss is that it shows on his face. Our friend is disappointed, disillusioned, and the local people are sure there has been a death in his family that he isn’t telling them about. They too feel constrained to hang on a sad look when they see him. Sitting in church with their fallen faces they all sing about the joy unspeakable.
What can be said for this sufferer? Again there are two solutions, the easy and the hard. First the easy one. All that talk about freedom meant power to his listeners. He should have known it. Had he put himself into their bare feet when he preached he would have felt its meaning. But that’s past now. He is worried about himself. The ones who didn’t have the power now have it. He’s worried about someone else’s power over him. The hard solution is to accept peace in the place of power. My peace I leave with you."
The easy solution is to restore the loss. Demand it, don’t give up. You’ve got your rights. They can’t do this to you. Show yourself strong. Don’t give in to this iniquity. They can’t keep a good man down. Come on, fight to the bitter end.
If our power loss friend hopes for the easy way out, may tension and turmoil be his portion and may all the separatist churches he gives birth to dance and beat their drums through his sleepless nights.
What about the hard solution? It’s the paradox. The Christ who had power over Satan, sickness and death, gave no power but peace. "Peace is my parting gift to you, my own peace such as the world can not give. It is apparently much easier and more natural for humans to struggle for power than to accept the gift of peace.
The revolutionary situations in the world are loaded witb new opportunities. They are characterized by a loss of the old and a struggle for the new. Nothing could be more out of harmony with this movement than the person who indulges in self-pity for his losses. No one can speak to such a world if lie is seen to be yearning for the old to return. The missionary who suffers from loss of things, privacy and belonging, suffers most from loss of power and loss of a traditional future.
Those of us whose roots go back to the age of career missionaries should learn the lessons of our time and move with them. Let us not pity ourselves for our lessons, but be transformed by renewing our minds to the facts of a new age, an age of revolution where every loss must be seen in the light of the loss and gain of the Cross.
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