Column Entry: Give Use Friends (May)
Column Description: If you hang around long enough, mingle with enough folks in enough places on this fragile planet, and pay attention at least part of the time, life happens. And with life, stories. In this monthly column, Dennis Smith, former President of the World Association for Christian Communication, shares communication insights and wisdom gleaned from 43 years of service as a Presbyterian mission worker in Latin America. Through mission service, God gifted Dennis with quite an assortment of relationships. Through them, the Divine whupped him upside the head and “invited” him to pay attention. To be present. To bear witness.
Give Us Friends
I’m sitting at the dinner table with an old friend, a Brazilian Presbyterian pastor. We’re at a church assembly and the menu is typical: rice, black beans, greens, and a main course of beef or chicken.
We’re talking about relationships between congregations in Brazil and the United States—short term mission trips, youth work groups, medical and dental teams, building projects, evangelism campaigns. The whole complicated web of exchanges that has become how many in the U.S. understand what it means to do mission in the world.
My Brazilian colleague has related to different U.S. churches for a long time. He pastors a growing congregation of several hundred members in a middle-class, urban area of Brazil. He keeps track of current thinking in both Brazil and the U.S. on how to make Sunday worship—and all congregational activities—spiritually grounded, intellectually challenging and aesthetically pleasing. He knows his people.
As we sit down, plates full, he comments that you can seldom take mission relationships at face value. Some congregations he visits in the U.S., he senses, see their partnership with a Brazilian congregation through a utilitarian lens. It has become a way for them to restore their own sense of vitality. Over the years they have become stuck in their churchly routines; their world has become too small, their vision for ministry clouded. For them, mission trips become a way to restore a sense of purpose and immediacy to their ministry. They can also be a great fundraiser!
Of course, he notes, this expectation is seldom expressed to the Brazilian partner.
I respond that, for the U.S. church, traveling to Brazil and encountering “the Other”—who are almost always poorer, darker-skinned, and less educated than those from the U.S.— is far more exotic than figuring out how to address the urgent needs of the immigrants or the unhoused or the victims of domestic violence in their own community.
That gets us started on “mission partnerships.” I suggest that the word “partnership” can become shrouded in warm fuzzies that sidestep such endemic problems as paternalism, dependency, and colonialism. In the world of business, we agree, any successful partnership starts by recognizing what each partner brings to the table. Then they incorporate ways to share risks and responsibilities, agree how benefits will be distributed, and hold each partner accountable for the results.
My colleague affirms that resources provided by U.S. churches have often been a source of great blessing to Brazilian communities. Scholarships have trained a new generation of local church leaders. Water systems installed by visiting church groups have improved community health. Buildings financed and built by U.S. churches have opened new horizons for local youth.
But sometimes, he remembers, U.S. churches have imposed their will on Brazilian partners, telling them what they think the Brazilians need and—with the particular omniscience that comes with privilege— how they should solve their problems. Sometimes, he confesses, Brazilian church leaders have sought out such partnerships, using them to get privileged access to international trips and cushioned budgets, with only perfunctory regard for the true needs of their communities.
My friend observes how visiting church groups can be nonplussed to find that his congregation is vital, creative, includes plenty of faithful and responsible professionals, and generates enough resources to sustain its ministry. Sometimes visitors from the U.S. can’t figure out how to deal with Brazilians who, socially, economically, and culturally, are their peers. He knows that his members are already involved in a variety of social, educational, and pastoral ministries to their community and are not looking for handouts.
More common, we agree, are cases where the social gap between the two groups is great. We also agree that for U.S. church groups, their situation of privilege can be invisible. In such cases God’s Spirit can work through mission encounters to evangelize the privileged, calling them to a gospel of humility.
We know that faith communities have always been impacted by their position in society. When a church enjoys the favor of the powers that be or has become entrenched in the status quo, they often misunderstand their situation as being God’s will.
To unveil privilege, one must unpack thorny issues of history and class, race, and gender. How is it that one’s group came to enjoy access to healthcare, Western-style education, food and shelter, banking, technology, stable employment, and access to a retirement fund? And how does all this impact how one understands the sacred texts and the history of Christian mission?
To name and acknowledge the power imbalance that mission partners bring to the table is an important step. U.S. partners have had to learn how to name and value the gifts that less powerful Brazilians bring to the table. Resilience. Tenacity. Hospitality. A practical spirituality deeply rooted in prayer. Vulnerability. Frugality. The complex primacy of family. The courage to organize and challenge abusive authority in the name of the God of Life.
There is nothing romantic about poverty and oppression. Both bludgeon the human spirit into apparent submission or sow seeds of violence. But the same happens to the privileged who have been cowed into silent conformity by the benefits they receive from the current economic and political order.
To learn how to receive gracefully and—and with empty hands—gifts like hospitality, trust, and friendship is to embrace one of the deepest truths of the gospel.
Our conversation turns to communication. I confess the obvious: my spoken Portuguese is shabby. But I’ve got a good ear and can usually get by using my Spanish interspersed with a few dozen Portuguese verbs. In church partnerships, language will always be a barrier. But perhaps the greater barrier is finding something to talk about. Building a life in common, we have learned, requires that time spent together be invested not in doing something for, but rather with, the Brazilians. Partnership is relationship. Building a life in common requires setting aside time to share family stories and faith journeys.
We agree that we can never approach the table of partnership without acknowledging our own sinfulness. The will to power, the ghosts of greed and dependency, won’t disappear without hard, painful work. When Brazilian and U.S. partners have walked this challenging path, they have had to learn to trust one another, working through all the messiness and contradiction that always accompanies such encounters. Partnership, we agree, means learning to listen, committing to transparency and mutual accountability, and learning that – even in our brokenness – God desires that all might thrive.
As we go back to the buffet to scout out the dessert options, I mentioned to my friend an anecdote from the World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1910. V. S. Azariah of India was one of the few representatives present from the global South. In his presentation he proclaimed: “Through all the ages to come, the Indian Church will rise up in gratitude to attest the heroism and self-denying labors of the missionary body. You have given your goods to feed the poor. You have given your bodies to be burned. We also ask for love. Give us friends!”
If you’d like to dig deeper into mission as companionship, check out this new book co-authored by friend and colleague Hunter Farrell, Freeing Congregational Mission: A Practical Vision for Companionship, Cultural Humility, and Co-Development, https://www.ivpress.com/b-hunter-farrell
Dennis A. Smith, May, 2022