Bearing Witness: Reflections on a Life in Mission
By Dennis Smith *
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.
September 2021 / October 2021
“The Other – The Image of God”
The conceit behind this column is simple: 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.
So, I have stories.
My training is in communication and education. Through mission service, God gifted me with quite an assortment of relationships. Through them, the Divine has whupped me upside the head and “invited” me to pay attention. To be present. To bear witness.
Each month in this column I’ll be sharing stories re-membered from 43 years of service as a Presbyterian mission worker in Latin America. I may even connect the dots from time to time to what’s going on around us today.
Many will be stories I’ve told before to other audiences. In the retelling, they will be re-membered to create between us a significance that is just ours. Yours and mine.
So, talk to me.
Together we create meaning that has never existed before. Such is the sacred mystery of communion. Of creating meaning in common. Of communication.
By way of introduction, I’m not an academic, although I’ve presented more than my share of conference papers and advised a number of graduate students. Nor am I ordained clergy, although I’m no stranger to the pulpit. I’m neither a working journalist nor an editor, but I derive great pleasure from helping others find their true voice.
There was a time when I thought of mission as something we as Christians do – a function of our devotion, our initiative. Little by little I learned that wherever I went in mission, God was already there. In some mysterious way, every people of every tongue – even in our common brokenness – was embraced by common grace. I came to understand that all are called as servants of God’s mission – not the mission of my religion or my denomination.
In that sense, I learned that my God was too small. Too specific to my language, my history, my position in society. To walk alongside those of a different culture, a different lived experience—and specially to walk alongside those on the edges of our society—broadened my understanding of how and where God is present in this world. Indeed, I came to understand that my salvation was bound up in the salvation of all of humankind.
My task as a mission worker was not to be a God-bearer but to be a fellow pilgrim as we discerned together how and where God is present in every time and place. And how God was calling all of us to faithful service in building the common good.
It was, maybe, 30 years ago now. I was talking with José Ignacio López, a pastor from Kaqchikel Presbytery in Guatemala. We were remembering the life and testimony of a common friend, Manuel Saquíc. Manuel had led his Presbytery’s human rights commission and had been murdered by a death squad because of his courageous witness.
“As Mayans,” said José Ignacio, “we understand that sometimes we are given the opportunity to say goodbye before we die. Do you remember, Dennis, the day Manuel and I dropped by your office to talk about that Christian Education project.”
“Yes, I remember. It was the last time I saw Manuel alive,” I recalled.
“Exactly,” said José Ignacio. “Manuel was saying goodbye to you that day.”
I thought to myself, was I paying attention? I had been welcomed into another way of being, embraced by this deep, intuitive hospitality. Had I noticed?
Our worlds are so small sometimes. And so easily that small familiarity becomes our normal: people who look like us, talk like us, eat like us, work like us, play like us. In this small familiarity, difference can become a threat. But when we follow Jesus, we discover that God is present in “the other”—Imago Dei, the theologians call it—“the image of God.” God is present even in that person we so quickly discounted as a threat.
That person, too, belongs to the family of Jesus.
Following Jesus into real relationships with real people teaches us to live with ambiguity and contradiction. Life in Christ teaches us not to judge but to be generous, gracious. And on that path, we discover that all truth, all beauty, all justice flows inexorably from the Creator. That’s why, as followers of Jesus, we can boldly build alliances with all people of good will as we seek the common good.
Now, halfway through my 70th year, I’m no longer driven to affirm formulas that are beyond my knowledge. I’m no longer surprised at how deeply we are flawed, nor how life and hope still find a way.
Under the Mercy,
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* Author bio: Dennis has served as a mission worker for the Presbyterian Church USA since 1977. He recently retired as regional liaison for South America. He was based in Guatemala, training church and community leaders in radio and citizen journalism. He also taught theology of communication and was active in the local ecumenical movement. In the 1980s, he began to travel throughout the region and work with Latin American colleagues in social research on media, religion, and culture, as well as the role of media in the growth of new religious movements in Latin America. From 2008–2015, he served as President of the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC), where he focused on promoting communication as a human right.