Mutual Transformation

A Letter from Tracey King-Ortega, Regional Liaison for Central America, based in Nicaragua

June 2017

Write to Tracey King-Ortega

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This year Presbyterian World Mission is celebrating 180 years of engaging in God’s mission around the globe. If you haven’t already, you should check out the latest issue of Mission Crossroads, which highlights how much God has shaped us over nearly two centuries.

As a Presbyterian mission co-worker, I am proud of how we have grown during this time in the way that we do mission. In contrast to the violence of imposed Christianity during colonial times, Presbyterian international mission tried to give voice to the social message of the gospel. We sent people to “teach, preach, and heal” by establishing schools, churches, and hospitals. We left quite a legacy. However, in retrospect, it was predominantly about u s doing good for the people we served. The way we do mission has evolved tremendously since then. Today we engage more intentionally in a mission of partnership, coming alongside local Christians who are best able to discern God’s work in that place.

As part of this changing face of mission, many of my colleagues around the world serve as I do, not doing traditional missionary work, but placed to facilitate healthy mission involvement. As regional liaison, I invest much of my energy in accompanying others and facilitating experiences so that mission won’t be focused on what we accomplish but on maximizing the potential for mutual transformation. I try hard not to be a glorified tour guide when hosting mission teams and not just to provide opportunities for a feel-good ministry that merely responds to needs created by poverty without seeking to understand why these people are impoverished. I understand my role as one that serves the church, helping build our capacity to become a community that transforms and is transforming rather than just helps, provides services, or does for others. Foundational to the work I do is the understanding that mission is best done in partnership.

When I work with mission teams, I always insist on scheduling time for a coyuntura. There is no good translation for that word, but essentially it is a presentation about the country’s history, politics, economics, current affairs, etc. Even for groups that come year after year, this is an essential piece. Understanding the context of the place we serve is important because we are all products of our histories, Nicaraguans and U.S. Americans alike. We hear about colonization and agree that it was bad, but we don’t often stop to think about how that history continues to impact us today. We don’t see ourselves in that narrative, but the truth is, it has shaped our identity and how we see the world. I see it all the time when Nicaraguans insist that, because a product comes from the U.S., it must be better. The way in which my Western culture rushes in to identify needs and fix the problems before really seeing and listening to the people is a by-product of centuries of being in control. If we are to work together as equal partners, we need first to understand all that makes us who we are, which, whether we like it or not, includes a long history of violence overlain with myths of inferiority forced upon people in order to dominate them. The relational power dynamics that have resulted are the opposite of what God desires for humanity.

I’ve found myself reflecting on these ideas a lot lately. Because mission is about building God’s kingdom, reconciling it with our sordid history, staring with colonization, is disturbing. Perhaps God’s mission today needs to be about the transformation that can happen when we strive for true partnership. The HOW we do mission can be more important than the WHAT. Perhaps we can’t fully shed our Western viewpoint, but my hope is that our involvement in mission will help transform it.

I have witnessed that the most effective way to set ourselves up for that kind of profound transformation is by doing mission in partnership. I want to share with you a testimony of a pastor in southern California who has been active for more than 10 years in a partnership with a rural cooperative outside of Leon here in Nicaragua. Whenever a team comes to visit from the U.S., we have them spend a day or two in retreat with their partners, learning about each other and planning next steps for the partnership. She writes:

At the end of our first day of retreat one of the cooperative leaders said, “You know, this has been an amazing day. Not once did I feel less than any of you. And we are ignorant, we only have a third-grade education. And you all have education and all these skilled jobs. But not once did I feel less than you today.” And I remember thinking to myself, “They only have a third-grade education? They have been so much more articulate than we have the entire day.” I had known that, but my experience that day made me forget that, because that day, through skill and formation, the playing field had been leveled. And it changed me to understand that the humanization of mission is essential for not only the transformation of communities in poverty, but of my own. Of me. There was so much joy in this. So much joy in me, being released from what I hadn’t even known I had been held captive by, which was my own biases, prejudices, racism, imperialism, my own inability to see. It was a seminal moment in my understanding of what was essential in mission. And it made me want to go back and redo all the mission I had done in the past.

How blessed am I to play a small role in facilitating this kind of transformation! I believe deep down that everyone is called to participate in God’s mission. I also believe that mission is not just something we do, but who we are as followers of Christ, builders of God’s kingdom. I may also dare to say that God calls us to mission not just to transform the world, but to be transformed ourselves. If the mission work we are involved in doesn’t transform us, perhaps we need to reassess how we are “doing” mission. Mission, when done right and focused on relationship first, can lead us to wholeheartedness. It can help us understand and experience our humanity. Cross-cultural experience breaks us. If we challenge ourselves to go into the other’s space, we are vulnerable, and God will touch us and transform us. Addressing the root causes of poverty should break our hearts, but it can also fill our lives with joy when we mutually give and receive, teach and learn, and witness the transformation that happens when we no longer limit God by just becoming preoccupied with doing good. This is the fruit of 180 years of laboring in God’s mission. I want to thank you for your support that makes my being a part of this possible.

Blessings and peace,

Tracey


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