May 31, 2008

The Three R’s of Mission (long post alert!)

Reconciliation is the dominant idea underlaying the mission theology that I’ve been sent here to propagate. Essentially, the idea is that God’s mission has always been one of drawing people closer to God and closer to each other and our goal is to figure out what part in that mission of reconciliation we can play. (If you’re interested in more on this idea, I recommend Titus Presler’s “Horizons of Mission.” My sermon from way-back-when is heavily cribbed from that book.) When we first discussed this idea at mission training, I was wholly supportive of it and nothing that has happened to me since has changed that feeling.

But I would like to add to it a bit and these additions are rooted in some reading I’ve been mulling over for quite a few months now. When I arrived in South Africa and was looking to learn more about this country, I happened across a book of Desmond Tutu’s sermons, which was fortuitous as not only is he a famous South African, he is also one of recent history’s most forceful advocates of reconciliation. In his funeral sermon for Steven Biko, he says, “For true reconciliation is a deeply personal mater. It can happen only between persons who assert their own personhood and who acknowledge and respect that of others. You don’t get reconciled to your dog, do you?” That is, reconciliation doesn’t happen between people who don’t know each other for who the other truly is.

It seems, then, that reconciliation is not something where the Nike motto of life will help you. You can’t “just do” reconciliation by showing up with the right attitude and expecting all of a sudden reconciliation to happen. Particularly if you show up in a new culture and language setting, any reconciliation you claim will be kind of hollow if you can’t communicate with the people or know a little about how they live. And even if you’re ready for it, it’s tough to reconcile to someone who doesn’t know you and may have little interest in your vaunted concept of reconciliation.

All this is a long way of saying that I think there are two important steps prior to reconciliation we must condition ourselves to expect and go through (or endure). The first is reification. I’ve already written about this idea and if you’re really interested in where this post is going I recommend you go back and read that previous post now. Briefly, what I said earlier is that the great gift of this time in Mthatha has been that it has “made real” just how our brothers and sisters in Christ in Mthatha (and by extension South Africa and beyond) live. I’ve learned - in a way I can’t from news reports and in a way I won’t soon forget - the toll HIV wreaks on families, the amount of work people have to do on a daily basis to survive, how far the health of some people can sink without intervention, the effect of poverty on numerous aspects of life, and on and on and on. Before I can even think about reconciliation with the people in Itipini, I need to learn about who they are and how they live. That is an ongoing process.

As I learn more about how people live here, I am naturally drawn into deeper relationship with them, through both the tragic and joyful parts of life, those serious and the light-hearted moments that make up a day. More than anything lately, and with a clarity I didn’t have before, I have seen the core focus of my “job” here to be building relationships with the people of Itipini. This has, I think, been implicit in a lot of my posts thus far and I’ll have more to say about it in later posts. For now, though, I think that it is only natural to say that when you encounter new people, when you learn more about them, when you are drawn to them (as I have been here), it is only natural to begin to relate to them. This is as true for second-graders on the playground as it is for missionaries overseas. Like reification, this relationship-building is an ongoing process for me. I can point to ways in which some relationships are deepening by the day while at the same time noting relationships that are only just beginning.

It is now finally at this point that true reconciliation can begin to take place. My thinking is still a little spotty in this area, though, because I’m having trouble separating relationship from reconciliation. What is it that makes reconciliation more than an empty buzzword and something more than “just” a fancy word for relationships? I believe there is a difference but I haven’t quite put my finger on it, at least not in a way that is reducible to a pithy little paragraph.

Let me conclude with a story that, I think, illustrates all this. For the last several months, I have been cultivating a relationship with Vuyelwa, the 18-year old daughter of one of our employees. She has a fourth-grade education and a year-old son named Bulumko (he is one of the ones whose development I have been privileged to witness). Her English is quite good (a huge help in building the relationship) and she likes styling hair, particularly her own. I’m no judge of this sort of thing but people ask her to do theirs so she must have some talent.

For quite some time, she has been talking to me about how she wants a job and how much she wants to work and how she really wants to provide for Bulumko but just can’t on her mother’s salary alone. (Because of those rising food prices, the family the other week had to decide between baby food for him and rice for the whole family. Before it was both-and.) We talked about this over several weeks and eventually I learned she has a friend who works on a city block downtown with a number of other women who style hair on the street and, judging by the business they conduct, make a not-inconsiderable living. This led into a conversation about how she could join them, if she wanted to join them at all, and what barriers there were to her entry. One barrier was Bulumko - she couldn’t bring him with her and she didn’t have any money to pay for daycare. The cost of the daycare is a small fraction of what she could earn and I told her I would lend her the money for his first month. There was also some supplies she would need and I told her I would lend that money as well.

This has not been confined to one conversation but has evolved in the course of numerous interactions over the course of a few months. In the interim, there have been myriad distractions and obstacles. Her niece has been quite sick and for a while she had to look after her other niece while both children’s mother was in the hospital with the sick child. A major setback - and right now the one we are stuck on - is that at the moment there is no room for her on the street. I’d like to be able to bring this story to “happy” ending by telling you she is now working hard and raking in money hand over fist but we’re not there yet (process, not product, remember).

The point is that over all this time - at least two months I think but likely more; my memory is a bit fuzzy - we were together building a deeper relationship and the idea of earning one’s living by styling hair on a street corner was being reified for me (and the concept of a loan for her). Both aspects were critical: the relationship part because it allowed me to gauge how serious she was about the idea and her to learn more about the idea of a loan and for us to discuss how it would be repaid; and the reification idea because when we first started talking about job ideas, this was not one I would have naturally considered nor a loan one she might have contemplated.

The ideal end state of all this work is for her to be able to use her God-given gifts to continue to live into her God-given dignity, which I am pledged to respect by my Baptism. That for me will mean we’ve reached reconciliation. It’s not clear what I get out of the deal but perhaps “what do I get” is the wrong question to ask about reconciliation. And maybe the most frustrating thing of all is that reconciliation’s results are not tangible in the way our results-oriented society demands.

You are familiar, I am sure, with the “three r’s” - reading, writing, and arithmetic. I would like to suggest that there are three r’s of mission work as well - reification, relation, and reconciliation. You’ll note they all have the virtue of beginning with r.


Anonymous said...

plant the seeds - tend them - then tend them some more - God will work out the rest. And you will probably never know what that "rest" is. But God will most certainly smile. -- jane