February 22, 2008

The Evolving Missionary

I am approaching the six-month mark of my time in Itipini and I’ve realized that my approach to and attitude about the work here is changing in a pretty fundamental way.

Those of you regular readers of this blog will know that for some time I have been pre-occupied by the distinction between doing and being. What I’ve been forced to learn is that in many cases who I am is more important than what I can do. This is a lesson that I struggle with on a daily basis but have gradually come to accept and come to see as part of the job and one of many important life lessons I’ve learned and re-learned here.

But lately I’ve been noticing myself actually doing a fair bit. I’m teaching English after school, dealing with parents who want their children to go to school, taking patients to the hospital, and so on and so forth. Essentially, I’ve been finding my niche here and trying to exploit its potential. My workday has been lengthening in reflection of my added tasks. (You might recall that at one point I found it quite short.)

It has reached the point where I can look at a situation and see new tasks (and not just opportunities for being) for myself. My English classes are currently confined only to people who are actually in school right now but I know many young mothers who would benefit from a similar class but have dropped out of school. There’s a group of unemployed young men who hang out in our gym every morning and I’ve been wondering what I could do with and for them. It is a new and uncomfortable feeling for me here: the obstacles to my doing something here are less cultural or language-based (though of course those are still dominant) and more centered on my own willingness, drive, and inspiration to make something happen. There’s no reason I can’t start an English class for young mothers not in school tomorrow. What’s stopping me is my own hesitation about adding another commitment and my own uncertainty about just what sort of form it would take.

As the doing/being distinction fades (comparatively), a new frustration is rising to take its place: ineffectuality. I can do all I want and I can do it as often as I want and yet – to paraphrase the first chapter of Ecclesiastes – NOTHING EVER CHANGES! I can try hard to prepare a good English class and the students still walk away living in desperate circumstances with a limited knowledge of the language. I can read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” with some high school students but that doesn’t help them feed their young babies. The scale of the problems is so gargantuan and what I can do so limited, it is impossible not to feel like a vanishingly small worker in an overwhelmingly large vineyard.

Maybe the distinction I need to start thinking in terms of is process/product. That is, I’m conditioned to judge the results of my action by its product or results. (This is what grant applications want to see – how will you judge your success?) Perhaps what I need to think about is the process I implement that will, say, set students on the path to better English comprehension even if that is not evident now-now (as South Africans like to say). Perhaps by giving students books to keep forever, I am beginning a process of reading that will continue for the rest of their lives. Perhaps the way in which we do something is more important than what is actually done. (Oh… is that a little too post-modern?) Perhaps.

Doing/being say hello to your heir: process/product.


Elizabeth said...

I can relate very well to this post! What you DO is important, and who you ARE affects your attitude to your actions. A day in the life of a missionary can be hard to plan. If you have a more loose schedule, you have time for hospital visits, playing with kids, counseling someone, etc. Yet you may appear lazy or feel guilty about not being active every second. Having a regular job may bring discipline and make you a good witness, but you won't have as much time to just drop everything and help someone. As in all walks of life, it takes Wisdom from Above (James 3:17) to find the balance.