It is World Missions Sunday this weekend. Here is a missionary's tale and
In the past 25 years, a quiet revolution has taken place in missions abroad. ALICE KEENLEYSIDE has been a lay missionary in three countries. Now she recruits amd prepares others WDWDAT DO YOU DO? "I'm a Depending on the company, such a statement usually either leads to embarrassed silence or to disapprovingly argumentative statements. A sign of the times, that what was once a socially acceptable calling is now rather suspect.
Our understanding of who a missionary is and what he or she does has become less clear than in former days. The fact that I am a lay person makes people even more confused for Catholic missionaries are still expected to be priests or religious. Lay persons might work alongside missionaries in foreign countries as "volunteer" nurses, teachers or, in latter years, as development workers, but were they missionaries?
Our understanding of the terms "mission" and "missionary" has changed dramatically in the past 25 years. The Mil; Hill Missionaries have done a great deal in the English-speaking world to change this understanding. In 1972, they became the first missionary society in this country to invite lay people to share their apostolate. At the same time, other movements were also beginning: the VMM for example.
What Mill Hill was attempting to do was address the idea that all Christians are called to be missionaries, whether lay, cleric or religious. At the same time, in inviting lay persons to join them, they were presenting a holistic vision of mission, reflecting the teaching of Corinthians which recognises the variety of gifts or ministries all working together for the welfare of the community. I have been a Mill Hill Associate almost from the beginnings. After an intense period of formation, I signed a contract of Association with the Society as a missionary for three years. Since then I have renewed that contract several times. Most of our more than 100 Hill Associates have served a three-year period; some, like myself, have spent longer with the Society. It has been a very interesting and challenging road to travel. To walk new roads with many diverse companions has been a little like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
My first companions in helping me to discover both who I was as a missionary, and what my "mission" might be were the people of Malaysia. I spent three years in the diocese of Kuching in the State of Sarawak. Coming from the West, I was quickly immersed in the milieu of two of the world's great religions: Islam and Buddhism. I suddenly felt that I knew nothing neither of my own faith nor of the faith of others. I felt gauche and uncivilised before the gracefulness, gentleness and graciousness of the people there.
Al-TER SIX MONTHS, living first in a Chinese family and then • with the Bidayuh people, I was allowed to begin working. For a Westerner in her early twenties to spend six months doing nothing (as I thought) was a severe test on my patience. It is only with hindsight I can appreciate the lessons I was taught during that period. I learnt how to receive graciously.
In one longhouse, which I visited fairly regularly, there
lived a widow who was very poor. Her longhouse was a good six hours walk from the road on which the bus passed to the town where I lived. While staying in the longhouse, this lady has been concerned about my hair, because among the ravenheads, brown hair was only seen among the extremely poor a sign of malnourishment. Some time after my first visit, a bus driver arrived at my door with a large parcel. He explained that the green vegetable was from the widow, and that it contained iron. If I ate it regularly, my iron deficiency would decrease, and my health would improve. For a year, this woman walked to the road every month to send the parcel of vegetables.
I was appointed as a diocesan catechist, supported financially and guided by the cathedral parish. I was responsible to the local Church and a missionary from the community in which I lived. I was dependent not on my blood family or my own culture so much as my Chinese and Bidayuh families, and learnt to work out of their culture. To look through the eyes of another at the gospel message is a revelation. I realised that I had a very confused notion of Christianity in which I was unable to distinguish between
the gospel message and Western culture. I felt not only physically ungainly, but religiously so.
After three very happy years, I was transferred to Kenya. The leaving experience was painful, heart-breaking. My new companions were vastly different, and I had to become a learner all over again. It was a very different Church and a very different culture. Here I met vigour, celebration and laughter.
One afternoon, driving from the cool hills of Kish into the heat of the South Nyanza plains, I reached a long straight stretch of road. Ahead of me a group of workmen were doing repairs. Not many cars passed at that time of day. When I was about five hundred metres from them, all the workmen moved not to clear the road for passing traffic, but, putting the plastic cones on their heads, to perform an impromptu dance for someone crazy enough to he travelling at that time. I smiled my way to my appointment. Laughter is a deeply healing medicine.
My third move was to Sincih, the southern province of Pakistan. My. missionary life was certainly becoming one of tremendous contrasts! Immersed in Islam, I found myself in a minority world of
Christians and Hindus, poor not only materially, but in all ways a marginalised minority. The call to prayer five times a day and the bell of the temple disturbed me, challenged me to question how much a part of the fabric of my life was prayer. Pakistanis are on very intimate terms with their God.
Faith and the nitty gritty of life are not conveniently compartmentalised. Because of this, in responding to events, God has a voice in the discussion.
Perhaps the greatest challenge I had to face in Pakistan was helplessness. The helplessness of being able to do absolutely nothing so many
times in the face of poverty, loss, sickness or injustice. Nothing except to be there. To my amazement, I discovered that often this was the most important thing for people. I learnt not to run away from or ignore those things about which I could do nothing, but to accept my helplessness. I discovered that this is the point where God comes and sits beside you.
HAS ALL OF THIS helped me to understand who is a missionary, and what a missionary does, whether priest, religious or lay?
It has certainly changed me, taught me to thirst for the gifts of graciousness and gracefulness, gentleness and laughter, prayer and endurance, and the acceptance of helplessness which allows God to sit down beside me in compassion. It hasn't given me a blueprint about the "doing".
Somehow, the doing, the striving for results that we Westerners are so attached to, seems not to have disappeared from my motivation, but to have been contextualised. As St Paul, speaking from experience, says without the attitude of love, it is all banging gongs and clashing cymbals.
After all these journeys, I now find myself back at home base, as coordinator of the programme: recruiting and preparing others who wish to share in the missionary call of the Church as lay persons those who are prepared to give part of their lives and be enriched in the process.
The Mill Hill Missionaries still invite committed Catholics to share their apostolate. If you would like further information, contact: The Associate Coordinator,
St joseph's College
Lawrence Street Mill Hill LONDON NW7 4:7X