“Your job while you’re here is to hang out with the boys. Play football with them on the beach. Be their friends. Love them. That’s it.”
This is what the cheerful, bearded missionary told us as we sat around in the sweltering room, surrounded by mosquito nets and sleeping bags.
“This doesn’t sound very much like mission,” I thought.
When I was a teenager, and for some time in my twenties, I felt called to be a missionary. Overseas, naturally, and in a poor country. There were some good reasons for this: I’ve always loved meeting people from different countries and learning more about their culture and different way of life; I was a natural linguist and excited to learn new languages; I wanted to be someone connected to the world, not ‘parochial’ and insular – and I wanted to serve God wholeheartedly.
The last reason carries some extra baggage with it: in the circles of church I grew up in, being a full-time Christian worker was Special, and for those who were Called, but being an overseas ‘Missionary’ was Extra Special, the Olympic Gold of callings. It would be hard, you may risk your life, but it would be worth it because of the incredible meaningfulness of your work and how much you could change the world. At least, that’s what I surmised as a teenager.
Missionaries stood on podiums at big Christian events and recounted stories of how they were influencing the government to change the law in favour of justice, or relieving poverty, or mini-revivals, with hundreds becoming Christians,. There were pictures of dark-skinned happy, grateful faces. I thought of how important these missions were compared to normal careers, how much need there was, the possibility of change.
Then I actually went on overseas mission – to Mozambique. I was prepared to work hard, serve wholeheartedly – others had built orphanages, and had bricks and mortar as a legacy for their mission. That would actually have been a relief – to point at something I had done that was Useful and Purposeful. I was so desperate to make a difference.
Then there was the issue of the money – all the money people had paid in order for me to Do Something Useful for God – and here I was, on the beach, playing football with some parentless boys. (Badly).
After two weeks, I had changed nothing, I had contributed nothing. All my skills (language-learning, analysing complex texts) were completely irrelevant here, where the boys had their schooling needs taken care of, were skilled in woodwork and craft so they could make money with carpentry. The boys all spoke English, though that seemed to be for our benefit rather than theirs, as the local language was Portuguese. I had nothing to offer. I had never felt more useless in my life.
The True Purpose of Mission
I wish the anxious twenty-year-old me had been able to read DL Mayfield’s new book, Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary, which tells her story of changing from being someone who wanted to be Useful (like 20-year-old me), to understanding what ‘mission’ truly means – living with and loving people. DL Mayfield (Danielle) felt called, just as I did, but her calling was with Somali refugees who lived in her local area. So she put her money where her mouth was, and moved (with her husband and young kids) to an area where the rent was the cheapest (because no one wants to live there) to simply be in community with refugees. She started writing about the virtues of ‘downward mobility’, and God’s love of the poor.
In DL Mayfield’s book the purpose of mission slotted into place for me in a way I hadn’t been able to articulate before: to be drawn towards a people group or country doesn’t mean you swoop in to fix their problems, or try to make them assimilate to your culture, but to listen and adapt yourself to their culture. It is to open your eyes to the weaknesses and arrogance of your own culture, and to change not the people but yourself. True mission is not so much about giving as learning to receive; not so much about speaking as listening.
From ‘Doing Witnessing’ to ‘Being a Witness’
Danielle describes how her understanding of her purpose shifted from thinking she had to ’do witnessing’ (i.e. tell her new friends about Jesus), to ‘being a witness’ (i.e. being someone who witnesses firsthand the multiple and complex problems of being a refugee, and shares something of their pain, their frustrations, the joys and sorrows).
What I loved about this book was its compassion and gentleness. Mayfield somehow manages to walk that line of being passionate and compassionate. She’s passionate about social justice, not inuring yourself against the pain of the world by ignoring it. She’s also compassionate: to her refugee friends as she tells their stories (without exploiting them); to the well-meaning but slightly crass attempts by other Christians at do-gooding; and above all to herself, and her mistakes and mixed motives. It was the compassion that made me shed tears throughout this book.
By realising how little she had to give, how useless she was, she rediscovered the grace of God, and the presence of Jesus in every new face she encountered. Similarly, to read the book is to re-encounter the grace of God and the wonder and love of Jesus.
I want every wannabe missionary to read this book, anyone who’s ever supported missionaries, but also anyone who’s ever wondered what life will be like for the refugees now entering our countries, or anyone who just wants to see the face of Jesus afresh in the people around them.
It is easy to cause harm by being a missionary, but there is also so much good to be had in cultures mixing together and learning from one another.
So many of my Christian friends at university wanted to be missionaries, and to do good things for God. Some of us really wanted to be missionaries because we wanted to do good and change the world. Most of us didn’t end up as missionaries, and that is probably a good thing. Living in a different culture is hard – draining and stressful. What starts as a fascinated, ‘gosh! They squat instead of sitting on chairs and they’re free from the Western obsession with time and achievement’, will eventually turn into, ‘Argh – why can nobody be on time in this place! (And my legs are killing me).’ What starts as, ‘there are so many problems here – someone has to do something’ can end up as, ‘there are so many problems here – and I don’t even know where to start, or whether anything can be fixed.’
It is often a dispiriting and unrewarding work, and you can’t just fly in and fly out – friendships take time to form, it takes time and hard work to assimilate to the new culture, and it’s best to be there for the long-term. Those of my friends who ended up as missionaries are those who loved and deeply respected the people they now live and work alongside.
Love and friendship are perhaps the best motivation for moving from your comfort-culture to an unfamiliar culture, and it is only love that will keep you there.
“Love them. That’s it.”
I look back at my experience in Mozambique, and I realise that, though it was short, it was the best, most true, snapshot of life as a missionary I could have had. I’m glad, in retrospect, that I didn’t build an orphanage. I’m glad I felt so useless. I’m glad that my heart was ripped apart by witnessing abject poverty, and I’m glad that my heart never fully got un-ripped. I’m glad that I now carry a disconcerting discomfort with my own wealth, and a seemingly futile desire for life to be more fair.
I did not change anything for those boys, but they permanently changed me. I went there to give, but found my hands empty, then open to receive. I’m grateful for their openheartedness, their hospitality to us, their sense of fun. I’m glad I played football, badly, with a bunch of boys on a beautiful beach.