“You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2 And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. 3 Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4 No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer. 5 Similarly, anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules. 6 The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops. 7 Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this.” 2 Tim. 2: 1-4
On this Mission Focus Sunday, were you expecting to see slides like this one, showing the stereotypical White Western missionaries in Jungle Jim pith helmets, posing for the camera with some allegedly benighted natives somewhere in the tropics, who are effectively serving as trophy converts for the folks back home, so as to keep the money coming from the churches? That sounds cynical, I know, but that’s Christian mission according to novels like The Poisonwood Bible and movies like Hawaii or Black Robe. In them, missions and missionaries are all imperious, clueless, arrogant, insensitive, repressive, oppressive, disruptive, destructive, colonialistic, and worse. And there’s just enough history like that to make those charge stick sometimes. When Becky and I were vacationing in Mexico a few months ago, I went into the sanctuary of the local church and saw above the altar a big mural depicting Cortez and his Conquistadores coming off the boat in battle formation, ready to commit genocide against the Aztec Indians, along with priests carrying crosses and baptizing Indians. That was to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the conquest and, obviously the start of the church in Mexico. That gave me the willies, and I lost any interest in staying for worship.
But, then again, consider the many pioneer missionaries who brought their personal possessions overseas in their own coffins, fully prepared for malaria or dengue fever to cut their lives short. The grave of one such pioneer missionary woman was not far from where Becky and I lived in Burkina Faso. As missionaries.
Jesus’ last instructions to his church of twelve, recorded in Matthew 28: 18-20, are: “As you go into the world, make disciples from all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.” If Jesus has since rescinded those words, I never got the memo. And we just heard the words of one missionary, Paul, to another, Timothy, in particular: “What you have heard from me entrust to other faithful people, who will teach others.” There’s nothing about guns, swords, conquest or colonialism in those words.
During the 1980’s and 90’s in Burkina Faso, Mali and Ivory Coast, you could read those very words on some bumper stickers stuck onto the rear fenders of motorcycles, in the Jula language. Usually the smaller mobylettes that people there called, “Poponin,” because they went “po-po-po-po-po” down the road. You got that bumper sticker by participating in the Jula language basic Bible survey course that the Christian and Missionary Alliance church developed for lay leadership training in the churches of Burkina Faso. In the years that Becky and I lived there, in the 1980’s, I used that material with the lay leadership of several Mennonite churches, in smaller, more hard-to-reach towns. We used Christian and Missionary Alliance materials because nothing else had been developed in the Jula language yet, and because it was easy to “Anabaptize” and add a Mennonite emphasis, and also because of a special partnership between Mennonites and CMA in that country. Our CMA friends knew that they wouldn’t have the missionaries nor the linguists available anytime soon for the ethnically diverse southwest corner of Burkina Faso. So they invited the Mennonites, whom they knew and liked through Mennonite Central Committee workers, to go there. Soon, the first Mennonite mission workers came to Burkina Faso in 1978. They were Dennis and Jeannie Rempel, and Loren and Donna Entz.
For most people in that part of West Africa, Jula is not their native, tribal language. It’s a trade language which they use whenever they get together at the market, or the mosque, or at work with people of different tribes, like Swahili is in Eastern Africa. But to touch people’s hearts, to scratch where they itch, the Mennonite mission plan was to have missionary linguists learn a local tribal language, develop a writing system for it, start translating the Bible and other helpful materials into that language, teach people to read and write, and then the Holy Spirit would do the evangelism, using the Bible in their own language. And so a new tribal church would grow that was totally home-grown and authentic to their culture and language, rather than an alien implant from a foreign colonial power. If it strikes you as ironic that foreign missionaries would come so certain of their ironclad plan for a church that would not depend on foreign missionaries, well, I confess that we didn’t catch the irony at first.
The majority religion in Burkina Faso is a mix of traditional magic, Spiritism and parts and pieces of Islam. So even non-Muslims regularly thrown in Arabic language phrases like “Insha-Ullah,” or “God willing” into their talk. A common proverb says, “The human proposes, God disposes.” That certainly applies to the original missionary plan. For one thing, the tribal languages are head-crackingly hard for Westerners to learn. One missionary linguist told me that at the rate at which he had learned some basic greetings, questions and answers in the Siamou language, he expected that he would be fully fluent in about 637 years.
Another unforeseen factor: Sometimes Christians from other tribes moved into the area and looked to the missionary linguists for support with their faith, and for connection to the wider Christian world. So these Western Mennonite missionary linguists sometimes became reluctant pastors and church planters before they could get around to learning the local language and translating the Bible. That was especially true of a church that I’m going to tell you about, in a town several hours by po-po-nin to the north of where we lived, a town called Banzon.
By the way, here is a map which shows where Burkina Faso is in relation to other countries in West Africa, including Niger to the north and east, where four US Navy Seals were recently killed, and Mali, to the West and North. In this next map of Burkina Faso itself, you might just be able to make out, in your lower right hand corner, up against the border with Mali and Ivory Coast, the name of the town of Orodara, where Becky and I lived. Banzon would be to the north and east of Orodara, along that river you see as a thin blue line.
Sometime in the late 1970’s, the Chinese put in a rice project there. That drew in people who had been displaced from their homes by drought and the southward advance of the Sahara Desert. Some of these refugees were already Christians. After they settled there, their leaders came south to meet the Mennonite missionaries and asked for help and support, especially with basic Bible teaching. They became one of the first Mennonite churches in Burkina Faso.
Then these new Christians in Banzon approached the local land chief to see if there was any available land they could farm, to supplement their insufficient income from the rice paddies. Now the land chief is a traditional religious authority figure who knows the history and fertility of every hectare of land in his tribal territory. He knows how long any parcel of land should rest before it is farmed again, who had it before, and says who farms where and when. So his knowledge of the local human and natural history is encyclopedic.
To the new Christian immigrants, the land chief said, “I’m sorry, but with all the newcomers here like yourselves, there’s really no acreage available except for a forest in the bend of the river. But no one has worked it for years, because it has a longstanding spirit curse on it. Anyone who enters it dies, gets hurt, or goes crazy with evil spirit possession. You don’t want to go there.”
To which the Christians replied, “A Spirit stronger than any evil spirit in that forest protects us, the Holy Spirit of Jesus. He will protect us should you let us go and farm there.” So the land chief reluctantly agreed to their request.
Down to Orodara came the Banzon church leaders again, to ask Dennis Rempel to come lead a service of exorcism, to drive out the spirits infesting that forest. Dennis later confided in me that he had never taken that class in seminary. Nor does our Mennonite minister’s manual carry any such service. But he wasn’t going to tell them, “Hey guys, get with the 20th Century,” especially since delivering the demonized was such an important part of Jesus’ ministry, and that of the apostles. Maybe that’s one thing these African Christians have something to teach us Westerners, among others.
So Dennis prepared a service from scratch with some Bible passages and prayers and songs in Jula, and with a few other Burkinabe Christians, led a worship service in that forest that included prayers for protection and the expulsion of evil spirits. Nothing dramatic, worthy of a Hollywood horror movie happened, by the way. No screams, no howls, no things going bump in the night. Just a quiet confidence among the Christians to start preparing the land for farming. That in itself I find powerful and miraculous.
The sparks flew later, as their neighbors came to visit their new Christian neighbors and ask, “What gives you the nerve to even enter that forest, let alone chop down those spirit-infested trees and work that spirit-cursed land? Don’t you know what might happen to you? Don’t say that nobody ever warned you!” Sometime within the first month of fieldwork, a snake bit one of the church leaders, Phillipe Drabo. His leg swelled up, and it looked like everyone’s warning was right, for the next stage is usually death.
The Christians in several churches prayed, and three days later, Philippe was fully recovered and back working in the field with his hoe and his machete. That brought the land chief around to ask his new Christian neighbors, “Do you think that your Jesus Spirit can protect me and my sons in that field, even if I don’t convert? You see, as land chief, I have to do certain ceremonies and practices that I don’t think your Jesus would approve of. But if we help you in that field, for nothing more than our fair share of the harvest, and if you pray for us, would this Jesus protect me and my sons too? Especially if I give my blessing to my children to convert and join your church, if they wish?” Soon the land chief and his sons were working that field in the bend of the river, along with their new Christian neighbors. And the foreign Western missionaries were surprised by an evangelistic strategy more relevant and powerful in that context than their own, because it came out of the local Christians so naturally, authentically, and courageously. It was a presentation of the gospel that scratched where people itched.
Once I was functional in Jula, I went several times a month to Banzon during the dry season, to visit with the church leaders and talk about what they were studying in their basic Bible study book. I very quickly ran into a real head-cracker of a problem, however. If I ran a class the way I was accustomed to in the Western world, that would very quickly reverse the social order of honor, humiliating the elders and elevating the young, simply because the young had learned to learn with books, paper and pencil, while their elders had not. And yet the real fount of wisdom lay with the elders. So, instead of monitoring or grading their workbooks, I would just review the questions and let verbal discussion happen, in which all the generations present could show and share their wisdom. And then we’d get on to questions and problems on their minds.
Besides, those whom we politely call “pre-literate” people are not ignorant nor uneducated. They still have entire libraries’ worth of knowledge, wisdom, science, stories, poetry, history, genealogy and other information in their heads, often connected with songs and dance, often in several different languages. They have to be that smart because they can’t say, “I’ve got a book on that,” or “Let me google that.” People were still learning and sharing the Bible even without paper, books and literacy, but by more traditional, relational means. We witnessed an explosion of creativity, in which new Christians were putting Bible verses and stories to new and old melodies in their tribal language and style of music, and even non-Christians were learning and singing them. That wasn’t part of any foreign missionary plan, either. Are you starting to see a pattern here? “The human proposes; God disposes.”
I had the privilege of returning to Burkina Faso for a month in 2011, which included a return visit to Banzon. The administrative director of the national Mennonite denomination, Nicodeme Coulibaly, took me there on the back of his motorcycle. If I might do a little shameless promotion for next year’s 40th Anniversary celebration there, let me show you what the trip to Banzon would be like, again, but not by the little French Motobecane po-po-nins. Bigger Japanese Kawasaki motorcycles have replaced them. It will be in November, during the dry season. So we may have to negotiate a livestock traffic jam. Then we’ll go through fields like banana plantations, and corn fields ripe for the harvest, past people harvesting other crops, often to the accompaniment of music. Then you cross the bend of the river, and find the church, not only still farming in that liberated land, but worshiping there, for that is where their sanctuary stands. Some of them even live there. The church in Banzon is now made up of three different ethnic groups, each with their own language, but the teaching, preaching, and much of the singing is in Jula, which they all understand. They also have their own part-time pastor, who farms with them, and helps with preaching, teaching, Christian education and leadership development in other churches, too. In effect, he is doing, in Banzon and from Banzon, what I used to come out to Banzon to try and do, only without any language struggles.
I tell the story about Banzon, in the Bend of the river, because, in similar ways, the whole worldwide Christian mission movement, Mennonite and otherwise, is at a bend in the river. It’s still the same water of life, flowing from the throne of grace. But it has taken a turn away from dominance and direction by white, Western, European and North American churches and agencies, and has become more of a joint partnership among nations and denominations from all over the world, with the initiative being local, not foreign.
I’m glad to say that North American and European Mennonite mission and service agencies have been quite gracious and visionary, over these last 50 years, in preparing and welcoming their overseas partners to be their equals, even their leaders, in mission and service work. Which is what Paul was doing with Timothy when he said, “the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” Christian mission, at its best, is transmission, the transmission across barriers of culture, language, and custom of the life, the love, the grace, the gospel, and the mission which others have transmitted unto us, thanks be to God. At its simplest, Christian mission is the transmission of that same mission of transmission. If the church loses its passion to transmit gospel life, love and leadership across barriers of culture, language and custom, and focuses only on its own survival and its own kind of people, then not only will it have no mission outside of itself, it will have no future. And from where will come new Christians to teach us a thing or two?
I’ll end with the church of Banzon singing a hymn, in what language, I don’t know. The people who are not singing are not bored or disaffected. They just don’t know the language. But they’re happy to wait until another song is in their own language, or one that they know. Other people you’ll see include Phillippe Drabo, the survivor of that snakebite, and the last elder from that first generation who came down from the edge of the encroaching desert. Next to the man playing the balaphon is a son of that local land chief who let them farm that land…. in the bend of the river.