March 11, 2009

Sacrifice, vulnerability, and being a missionary

People often tell me what a great sacrifice I am making to be a missionary. (This is often part of that erroneous “noble pursuit of a missionary” thing.) Sure, it’s true, I make some sacrifices to be here. There’s no Mexican restaurant, movie theatre, or quality library in Mthatha and I miss all of them equally. I miss out on family events and regular contact with close friends. All these are pretty obvious but it’s a price I’m willing to pay for the experiences I get in return here.

Another sacrifice missionaries make is their time. Instead of sending a cheque over to South Africa (treasure), missionaries look to the root meaning of sacrifice and “make holy” our time and, presumably, talent in the cause of global reconciliation by choosing to live in a different place for a sustained period of time. (All those cheques are what enable us to do it.) Lots of people do this, however. They invest immense amounts of their time and talent in worthy causes closer to home. That’s as much a sacrifice as mine.

There’s another kind of sacrifice that missionaries make and I’ve been looking for the right kind of vocabulary to describe it. Basically, it has to do with the idea of vulnerability, of opening oneself to difference and all the nerve-jangling, mind-warping, and uncomfortable effects that creates. It means acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers and being open to the idea that answers might come from wholly unexpected places. It means setting off into the great unknown, knowing that the unknown may contain surprises we don’t want to encounter.

In our society, we look for as much comfort and as little vulnerability as possible. We try to create protective cocoons, in our familiar social circles, in our gated communities, in our usual routine haunts, and so forth. The sacrifice of the missionary is to forgo that (perceived) comfort and be open to what ensues.

Here’s an example. I’ve taught some of the pre-school children that if they squeeze my nose, I’ll make a honking nose. But occasionally the honking machine malfunctions and I blow a great big buzzer on their hand. Hilarity ensues. When you think about the lack of hygiene and cleanliness in Itipini, by letting children put their hands so close to my mouth, I’m making myself vulnerable to getting sick. And sometimes I do get sick. But it’s worth it to play that game and have a slightly deeper relationship with those children.

I don’t like to equate myself with the heroes of the Bible but what I’ve described is exactly what they did - let children squeeze their noses. No, I mean, give up the cocoon of comfort and set out. Abraham, Isaiah, Jonah (once he got it), Daniel, Paul, and, of course, Jesus did this. So did many others. They sacrifice the comfort of the known for the vulnerability of the unknown. Clearly, I think this sacrifice is worth it. I’ve found that by opening myself to new experiences - even ones that make me uncomfortable and uncertain - I learn more, gain more, and get a better idea of what’s going on in the world.

Vincent Donovan, the former Catholic missionary, writes at the end of his book Christianity Rediscovered, “a missionary is essentially a social martyr, cut off from his roots, his stock, his blood, his land, his background, his culture. He is destined to walk forever in a strange land. He must be striped as naked as a human being can be, down to the very texture of his being.”

This is crackpot entomology but the “vul-” in vulnerability are also the first three letters for the Xhosa word for “open.” It is a reminder of the connection between openness and vulnerability. That openness and that vulnerability are the calling of the missionary. It’s a sacrifice but one that is well worth the price.


Anonymous said...

Jesse-thanks for this wonderful entry. You and I haven't met but are peripherally connected - I'm the former youth minister at St. Francis in Holden MA and our rector Rich Simpson just shared a note you sent to your email list... and that led me to your blog. I am one of the group which recently went to El Salvador for a week in Feb. (it was actually my second trip) and you summed up a really vital part of our trip. It was particularly helpful to see it so well articulated b/c we can all get so caught up in what to do when doing mission (be it long or short term trips) that we run the risk of losing sight of the faith journey that is so much richer when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
Many thanks, and God bless you in your continued journey-
Lori Churchill