You don’t need to dig around the SCM Press backlist for very long before you come across some real gems – books which have made their mark on the theological landscape and which continue to shape the Church today. One such book is Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan. It’s a good read, a fascinating mission story, but also so much more. Published in 1978, it is still considered the classic text on contextual theology, offering an important and provocative challenge to anyone interested in mission in different cultural contexts. In an interview with the Chicago-based magazine Christian Century in 2014, Samuel Wells, vicar of St Martin in the Fields, named it as the one book he would recommend to someone embarking on pastoral ministry. In the same year The Church Times listed it amongst the top 50 Christian books of all time. Even from the very first chapter, extracted here, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that, nearly 40 years later, Donovan’s voice still needs to be heard.
One would think it would be a fairly simple matter to define missionary work, to describe it, to explain its meaning, its purpose, and the methods by which it must be carried out. One would think, also, that a missionary from East Africa, for instance, would find no difficulty in communicating with a colleague working in South America. Both thoughts might be true if missionary work had not been carried out in history. But history has ensured that communication is virtually impossible between the aforementioned missionaries. And history has offered the opportunity to deflect and distort the meaning of missionary work in every age.
History, of course, has also offered us the opportunity to understand better the mission of the church, but for some reason we have rarely availed ourselves of this opportunity. The history of East Africa in modern times, an era that coincides with the time of the missions in that area, is a good example. Right from the beginning of the missions in East Africa there have been factors at work which have deflected missionary work from true center and which leave us today, in any discussion on the matter, floundering on the periphery.
Consider the problem facing the first missionaries who came to East Africa just over a century ago: slavery. It is not easy for us, so far removed in time from that period, to imagine the dimensions of the problem. Before slavery, as a system, came to East Africa, the people had an orderly, fairly stable way of life. But when the Arab slave traders and their European backers arrived on the scene, they brought havoc and confusion and misery unimaginable. There was scarcely a section or a tribe of East Africa that was not affected by it in one way or another. Anarchy took the place of the order that was once the life of the East African tribes. The Arab raiders went far inland to get their slaves and they drove them back to the coast toward Zanzibar. The last stop on the mainland was Bagamoyo.
It is said that Bagamoyo takes its name from the two Swahili words, bwaga and moyo. Bwaga means to throw down, or put down, or let down. In a long safari, the one leading the safari, at different points, would yell to the porters, ‘Bwaga mizigo,’ ‘put down your loads.’ Moyo means heart. Bwaga moyo would thus mean, ‘Put down your heart.’ Bagamoyo was the place where the captured slave, after his long trip from the interior, would put down his heart, lay down the burden of his heart, give up hope – because it was his last contact with his own country before the trip to Zanzibar and a life of misery.
It is easy to understand the feeling of the missionaries who arrived on the scene in the last century, their concern with doing something about the system of slavery which was the cause of all these horrors. They did the only thing they could in the circumstances. They bought the slaves. They bought them left and right, with all the money they could get their hands on. They bought them by the hundreds and by the thousands – and they christianized all they bought. Buying slaves and christianizing them became, in fact, the principal method of the apostolate not only in East Africa, but on the entire continent. There were exceptions to this method, such as the work in Uganda, which was begun some time after that in Zanzibar and Bagamoyo.
Money for this vast enterprise was supplied by Rome, by Protestant missionary societies, and by antislavery societies in Europe and America. The missionaries were, in good conscience, fighting the system of slavery. But in looking back, one wonders if the best way to fight a system was to buy the products of that system.
The missionaries bought those slaves, took care of them and fed them by means of huge farms and plantations, run by the ex-slaves themselves. One would feel reassured if the missionary journals of that time showed evidence that the lot of the ex-slaves was noticeably better than that of their slave counterparts on Zanzibar or elsewhere. Physical cruelty, of course, was never part of the mission compound regime. But the word ‘free’ might not be the most accurate word to describe life on the mission plantations. And even for that freedom, such as it was, there was a price to be paid – acceptance of the Christian religion.
One wonders how many missionaries of the time questioned the wisdom of what they were doing. Because what they were doing was sheer folly. They were trying to build the church in the most artificial way imaginable. Following baptism of these ex-slaves, and the training of many of them in the work-shop schools, the mission arranged marriages among them, hoping to settle them as Christian families and villages on some part of the vast ‘mission compound.’ According to the normal rate of progression, by our time a century later, the number of Christians descended from these ex-slaves should have reached gigantic proportions. But just the opposite is true. Their number is negligible in East Africa. The apostolate to the slaves had been a miserable failure.
But perhaps more serious in the long run – this early missionary effort in East Africa has left its subtle mark, the mark of slavery, on all succeeding generations of missionary work. The mission compounds are still in evidence in East Africa. And the questionable motivation for baptism, the subservience and dependence of the christianized peoples, the condescension of the missionaries, are themes that have returned again and again in the intervening hundred years. And the distortion as to the purpose and meaning and methods of missionary work has taken us far from true center.
Bagamoyo stands like a ghost town today, with its huge and empty cathedral, its slave blockhouse, its tall coconut trees with their branches hardly stirring in the stupefying heat, and its melancholy graveyard filled with the remains of so many young missionaries, with the sleep of a century upon them.
Bwaga moyo indeed – ‘leave here your heart and hopes,’ a fitting symbol for the thousands of slaves, the many missionaries, and a half-century of missionary work in Africa.
Up From Slavery
There was one man who was worried about the apostolate to the slaves – as far as missionary work was concerned – and did something about it. Just after the turn of the century, about the year 1906, Joseph Shanahan, bishop of Southern Nigeria, took money which was coming from Propaganda in Rome, money sent specifically to ransom slaves, and used it to begin the building of the extensive school system of Southern Nigeria. He not only affected the destiny of a tribe, the Ibos; he helped to change the missionary history of all of Africa. A new era began in the African missions with Bishop Shanahan.
Not long after Bishop Shanahan, both East and West Africa took up the school system as a new apostolic method. The schools were not much to begin with, mostly catechetical or bush schools, where reading, writing, and religion were taught. Religion was the main subject. And the main character on the scene was the catechist. He became the mainstay of every mission compound. He was usually a dedicated and good-living man, not young, and not trained. One aspect of the apostolate to the slaves carried over into the catechetical period – an emphasis on children, the parents of tomorrow. The catechist has persisted on the East African mission scene even until the present time – but with nothing of his former importance. An alarming fact was noted in a survey which was made in the early sixties, a survey which covered all of East Africa. It was the fact that ninety percent of all religious instruction was being given, not by the missionary or the priest, but by the catechist. Even in this directly religious task, preaching the gospel such as it was, the missionary was not immediately involved, was not at the center, but was off somewhere in the periphery. But worse than that, these untrained catechists were ignorant of the true Christian message, and they passed on their ignorance to others. It was not a comforting thought in the early sixties to realize that a major portion of the edifice of the church and of Christianity in East Africa rested on that shaky foundation.
The catechetical schools gradually developed into schools of secular learning; into primary schools, middle schools, secondary schools, teachers’ training colleges. The battle of the schools was on. Catholics and Protestants joined earnestly in the battle. It is hard for someone who was not there during that time to understand the intensity and bitterness of the struggle. Whoever got the schools in a certain area was sure to get the Christians who came out of those schools. The basic premise underlying all of this was that if children entered a mission school, they would not emerge from that school without being Christians. And the premise was essentially correct.
Now, in the place of the catechist, the teacher of secular subjects became the main figure on mission compounds and in mission outstations. He became the right hand of the missionary and the instrument of missionary policy. It is no exaggeration to say that the school became the missionary method of East Africa. This was a policy eagerly backed by Rome. In 1928, Monsignor Hinsley, Apostolic Visitor to East Africa, told a gathering of bishops in Dar es Salaam: ‘Where it is impossible for you to carry on both the immediate task of evangelization and your educational work, neglect your churches in order to perfect your schools.’
Young missionaries followed that advice and spent their lives acquiring, building up, supplying, and teaching in schools of every description. This activity continued down into the sixties. There is no doubt about it, it was a heady experience being in the forefront of an adventure that was bringing education on an enormous scale, to what was then called an underdeveloped country.
But to return to the original question of this book what is the purpose and meaning of missionary work? Once again, historical factors had intervened and thrown out of focus the essential notions of this important issue. I think few missionaries of the time of the educational apostolate could have given a straightforward answer to the question.
The colonial governments were slow to recognize the value of the school system, or perhaps were afraid of its implications. At any rate, it can be truly said that the school system of East Africa was the creation, by and large, of the mission. Eventually the governments did move in on the educational field, and with increasingly feverish activity as independence neared, tried to take over more and more of the program. But they had a late start. At the time of independence in Tanganyika, for instance, in the year 1961, seventy percent of all the schools in the country were still being run by the missions.
By the time independence came to the three East African countries, the missions had come to maturity. All three leaders of these countries had been educated in mission schools, and two of them continued to be professing Christians. The parliaments of all three countries were filled with Christian legislators. The number of Christians had grown to sizeable and representative proportions of the countries involved. Education was not the only benefit Christianity had brought to Africa. Western medicine and other elements of civilization had penetrated the most remote areas. There was reason for immense satisfaction in looking at the credit side of the missionary ledger.
But let us look at the debit side:
1) Missionary and church work had become even more child-oriented than ever it was in the slavery and catechetical days. 2) Religion had become a subject taught in the school, similar to mathematics or Swahili. 3) Liturgy had been entirely neglected. 4) After close to a hundred years of the church’s presence in the country, the first African bishop was set up as an Ordinary in a diocese of Tanganyika, in the very year of independence. There was none in Kenya. 5) African clergy, numerous among certain tribes, were few in proportion to the overall number of Christians. In the important and large diocese of Nairobi, there was only one African priest. Such African priests as there were had become, through their training, almost completely un-African, and extremely conservative and suspicious of any change. 6) In this educational period, an old familiar price had come to be exacted from those who sought a new freedom, freedom from ignorance – and that price was the acceptance of Christianity. 7) As far as the Christianity itself was concerned, an inward turned, individual-salvation-oriented, unadapted Christianity had been planted in Africa. 8) The Christian churches were made up of subservient, dependent people. As far as finances went, there was scarcely a diocese or a parish that could have stood on its own, without continued outside support. 9) The Holy Ghost Fathers, the White Fathers, the Maryknoll Fathers, the Capuchins, and the Benedictines were firmly established in East Africa, but it is doubtful if the church was. Mission compounds resembled nothing so much as foreign outposts. 10) Missionaries, who should have had pride and contentment in their accomplishments, were in the greatest quandary of all. Few of them had really wanted independenceto come, and when it had, many of them had lost their nerve, their sense of direction and purpose. 11) The newly independent governments were to become increasingly jealous of the schools as their prerogative, and by 1970 all mission schools in the new Tanzania, for instance, were taken over completely by the government. By this one swift move the government was to rob the missionaries of their main, apostolic method, and to render the advice of that Apostolic Visitor of 1928 hollow indeed. 12) Finally, the meaning and purpose of missionary work had been so thoroughly distorted that it was scarcely recognizable. Missionaries were at a loss to describe meaningful missionary methods in the existing situation.
A badly deteriorating situation almost received its ‘coup de grace’ from the turbulent events of the sixties.
Among the first ones to jump into the void of missionary thinking were the African leaders of newly independent countries. Very capable and thinking men, these leaders addressed themselves time and time again to the missionaries in their countries. They lectured them on the meaning of missionary work. Thanking them for their past contributions, they reminded them that the day of the school apostolate and the medical apostolate were swiftly passing away, and they called on them for a new missionary contribution. They invited them to take part in the battle against ignorance, poverty, and disease. They encouraged them to take an important part in nation building and in aid to developing countries of the third world, as they were now known. They asked them to be servants of these developing countries, to serve under the respective governments of these countries, to help them carry out their policies both internal and sometimes even foreign – as regards Rhodesia, Portugal, and South Africa. They were specifically invited to be ‘agricultural missionaries’ in one country. The president of another East African country was actually asked to address the General Chapter of one missionary congregation, involved in the up-dating of its missionary aims and purpose. There is no doubt that he influenced that congregation tremendously. The similarity, even to wording, between his speech and their new guidelines is remarkable.
One cannot doubt the intelligence nor the sincerity of these African leaders. They are extraordinary men, and any missionary who has even had contact with them, cannot but feel a deep admiration for them. And they can give us a deep insight into the aspirations and needs of the African people. They can even serve as signs of the times for us. But the question still must be asked: When we are searching for the deepest biblical and theological meaning of missionary work, is it to statesmen and politicians that we should turn for the answer?
The decade of the sixties was also the time of the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath. One of the most important discussions of that assembly was the debate on the mission of the church. It was a very intense debate, which tension does not fully appear in the finished documents of the Council.8 It was a debate over whether the deepest meaning of the mission of the church concerned itself with the evangelization of pagan peoples, or with the reevangelization of Christian peoples. There were some firm principles enunciated with regard to the primacy of first evangelization, as it was called, but there was also compromise allowed when it came down to spelling out the all important distinction between missionary and pastoral work. In another important section of the Council proceedings, the Catholic church went on record for the first time in its history in support of true freedom of conscience and tolerance for other religions. Every missionary was grateful for the immense amount of light thrown on the missionary situation by the Second Vatican Council.
But shortly after the Council, one began to hear such statements as, ‘France is the mission. Holland is the mission,’ or, ‘Chicago is as much mission as Nairobi.’ Young Dutch members of missionary congregations began to desire to be missionaries to the Dutch, to the people of their own country, especially the young, who needed them as much as any people in foreign mission stations ever would.
Then the voice of tolerance began to be heard questioning missionary work among peoples of non-Christian religions. This voice insisted that it was a violation of conscience to convert any people from their own beliefs to beliefs of your choosing. Finally from all of this there emerged the new definition of missionary work: aid to developing countries, material help to these countries without any strings attached. Conversion was out of the question. A new breed of missionaries appeared – behind the plow, laying pipes, digging wells, introducing miracle grains, bringing progress and development to the peoples of the third world – a kind of ecclesiastical peace corps. This is the new and exciting meaning of missionary work and of missionaries – a discovery of our time.
I wonder if one would be allowed to ask what is new about it. Material development? Isn’t that what was involved from the beginning in the work in East Africa, with the freed slaves, the workshops, the plantations, and in the building and running of schools? Perhaps the only thing new about it is the machinery available today, and the motivation of the missionaries.
By the very nature of the case, this new breed of missionaries must condemn the previous system of missionary work – and one would have to agree with them in their condemnation. To bring freedom or knowledge or health or prosperity to a people in order that they become Christians is a perversion of missionary work. But what of a system that would bring them progress and development for its own sake? Is that not just as bad? Nazism will stand forever as the ultimate indictment of progress for its own sake. How would a Christian missionary involved in such work be differentiated from agents of socio-economic systems such as communism or socialism, or even from workers for the United Nations? Or should no such differentiation be made, as some insist? Have we come to the end of the era of the mission? Are they no more relevant than the British Foreign Office for colonial administration?
Or is it possible that none of the systems already described throw essential light on the true meaning of missionary work?
There is no mistaking the fact that missionary work is in a shambles. Born in slavery, disoriented by the school system, startled by independence, and smothered in nation building – mission in East Africa has never had the chance to be true to itself.
To make any sense out of mission, out of the meaning and purpose of missionary work, one has to start all over again – at the beginning.
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