Mission Matters


José Luis Casal

A monthly update from World Mission, a ministry of the Presbyterian Mission Agency

The Mission Matters column addresses the impact of Presbyterian mission in the world and the issues that affect mission co-workers, the people we walk alongside and assist in service to God, and our partners around the globe.

August 2018 — Experiencing God in the hope of Africa

Debbie Braaksma, Area Coordinator Africa
Presbyterian World Mission

Debbie Braaksma

Photo credit: Kathy Melvin

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has gained considerable renown not only for her novels and short stories but also for her TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” In this talk, which we have used in mission co-worker orientation, Adichie challenges the misrepresentation of various cultures that occurs when we tell “a single story.”

The “single story” for Africa is often very negative. I was privileged to attend the recent All-Africa Council of Churches meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, where the newly elected General Secretary the Rev. Dr. Fidon Mwombeki pushed back on this caricature in his acceptance speech, stating, “I am aware of the bad image Africa has sadly among Africans and beyond Africa. It is identified with poverty, death, dirt, diseases, conflict, totalitarianism, refugees, illegal migration, etc.; for some it is a lost continent which needs pity [from] the rest of the world. … My perception of Africa is different. Africa is to me a continent of hope. … I want to contribute to changing the narrative about Africa by focusing primarily on great achievements and opportunities available every day in Africa, while not ignoring the challenge and problems we are facing.”

As a Presbyterian engaged in mission in Africa, I am challenged to take the words of Adichie and Mwombeki to heart. I have had the privilege of serving in Africa mission, either as a mission co-worker or administrator, for a span of more than 30 years, and I have experienced the hope of Africa, the vibrancy of the African church, and the warmth and hospitality of her people. But much of the work that Presbyterian mission is engaged in involves accompanying the church in the “hard places,” because whether we are in the U.S. or Africa, that is what mission is about, isn’t it? We are called to follow Christ to be in ministry to and with the most vulnerable. As our church partners ask us to accompany them in their work of addressing extreme poverty or working on issues such as human trafficking, we need to tell the stories of our mutual work very carefully, to avoid presenting a single story of Africa.

Mission co-worker Janet Guyer and I recently presented a workshop at the Churchwide Gathering of Presbyterian Women on Preventing and Responding to Violence Against Women and Children in Africa. We prefaced our presentation by talking about violence against women and children as a global phenomenon that exists in each of our communities, not just Africa. And we strove to tell the story through a lens of hope, focusing on what brave, resourceful African Christian women are doing to combat such violence, and how their faith in Christ strengthens them for their work, emphasizing that such violence is not the whole story of Africa but one story that our African sisters have specifically asked us to tell. It’s a journey they have invited us to accompany them on.

Janet’s accompaniment of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian Women’s Guild in Malawi is so very important to them, and it reminds me of the danger of a single story in terms of mission co-workers. The first President of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, shared one narrative about missionaries. He said, “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.” And this is one true story. In many contexts, missionaries colluded with colonial powers and it was ugly. We need to listen to that story, acknowledging that we have a history of colonialism that we must constantly be on guard against, being mindful of issues of power and privilege that can warp our relationships.

But, it is not the only story. In the book Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World, But Changed America, David Hollinger tells another true story. In his historical review, Hollinger writes that mainline Protestant missionaries were “precursors of the most defensible aspects of multiculturalism. Although missionaries often are represented as ‘mono-cultural,’ interested only in getting others to adopt their own opinions, I encountered numerous cases of missionaries pushing their fellow Americans to renounce the provinciality of their own society.” The book shares how mainline Protestant missionaries shaped American foreign policy in their work as diplomats, writers, social activists and church leaders who stood against racism and imperialism.

While not forgetting the other true story, which isn’t pretty, neither should we forget the story of missionaries as agents of justice nor try to fit all aspects of global mission or mission workers into a box of colonialism and cultural superiority, because many just won’t fit into that box! In addition to stories of colonialism, mission history also includes stories of standing against slavery and standing with liberation movements. In the African context, the PC(USA) has mission co-workers who were on the cutting edge of the anti-apartheid movement, and who are deeply involved in peace and reconciliation work. Others are engaged in raising awareness of conflict minerals and gender justice and are involved in community organization training and encouraging mutual mission in which the American church is on the receiving end: learning from and being ministered to.  

Africa is complex — a single story does not describe her, nor does it describe the work of cross-cultural mission. Let’s continue to share the many stories of God’s mission in Africa and learn from them.

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