Sunday, August 29, 2010
Proclaiming Christ's message in daring and disputed ways
In Zaïre, Lester Green, 45, a Protestant missionary, climbs out of his Land Rover near the village of Lolwa, deep inside the Ituri rainforest. In fluent Ki-Swahili, he asks where he might find the Walese Pygmy tribes. Soon a guide is hacking his way through the dense undergrowth. Green follows, Bible in hand.
In Botswana, Randy Ewert, 25, and his wife Roxie, 24, American Mennonites, camp under canvas for days at a time while crossing the forbidding Kalahari Desert, bringing modern farming methods to impoverished nomadic Bushmen.
In Nepal, Milwaukee-born Father John Dahlheimer, 57, a Jesuit missionary, counsels refugees fleeing Tibet in search of religious freedom. Though he and the 366 other Christian workers in this officially Hindu land obey the law against proselytizing, their example has inspired more than 3,000 Nepalese to convert since 1954.
In the Philippines, Father Brian Gore of Perth, Australia, has been charged by the Marcos government with inciting rebellion and may be accused of murder as well. His defenders argue that the charges are trumped up: Gore's only crime was organizing community-action groups among the poor. Gore admits, "I cannot help fearing for my life."
In Nicaragua, Sister Rachel Pinal, 48, walks for hours through the precipitous mountains of Nueva Segovia to help the impoverished campesinos. She spends her nights sleeping alongside mangy dogs, chickens and pigs on the hard-packed clay floors of the shacks of peasants who take her in. Despite such hardships, says Sister Rachel, "we get involved in so many wonderful things that sometimes I cry myself to sleep from joy."
In a multitude of ways, these missionaries are all obeying the injunction of Jesus Christ: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). Their numbers include Roman Catholic priests in the Himalayas who wear the maroon robes of Buddhist monks. There are born-again Protestant bush pilots coming in on a wing and a prayer to land on narrow runways in the Amazonian and Indonesian jungles. They are seeking to spread the good news of Christ in a vast variety of situations: amid revolution and civil war in Central America; in parched, famine-haunted lands in Africa; in the forests of Southeast Asia, where the demons worshiped by animistic tribes are almost a palpable presence.
In all, there are an estimated 220,000 Christian missionaries at work in the world today: 138,000 Catholics and 82,000 Protestants, including more than 6,000 Catholics and 32,000 Protestants from the U.S. The new missionary typically works with the downtrodden and despised of societies in the far stretches of Africa or Latin America or in the vast highlands of Southeast Asia.
To commemorate the birth of Jesus, 250 Lisu tribesmen in Thailand's mountainous Chiang Rai province will assemble this week for three days of prayer and movies about Christ. In Sarawak, a Malaysian province on the island of Borneo, Dyak tribesmen one generation removed from head-hunting will gather in longhouses along the turbid Rajang River for caroling. Similar scenes will take place in impoverished villages in Guatemala, Brazil, Botswana and India. In many cases, the celebrations will be organized and guided by Western missionaries. Says Timothy Wyma, a Protestant who supervises nine New Tribes Mission outposts in the jungles of Bolivia: "To me, this is the only job in the world that is big enough. If you are looking for something that needs all you have, this is it."
The 19th century missionaries and their immediate successors have been attacked by historians and many Third World leaders for having served as spiritual agents of the colonizing powers, blithely destroying cultures as they sought to impose Western values as well as Christian doctrines on their converts. In a somewhat more muted form, that criticism is still heard today. Argentine Theologian José Miguez-Bonino, a member of the six-person presidency of the World Council of Churches, says, "The missionary enterprise of the past 150 years is interwoven with the expansion of economic, political and cultural influence of the Anglo-Saxon world, whether Catholic or Protestant. We from the Third World call this neocolonialism or imperialism."
Others wonder how long missionaries from the West will still be needed as thriving local churches in the Third World develop strong leadership. By the year 2000, demographers predict, Asia, Africa and Latin America will have three-fifths of the world's Christians, compared with 47% today. Protestant churches in the Third World now send out 15,000 missionaries of their own, including some to Europe and the U.S.
Along with the old disputes about spiritual imperialism or the propriety of seeking converts from other faiths, there is a continuing sharp debate over whether missionaries should be mainly savers of souls or workers trying to improve the daily lives of people. Among Protestants, there has been a shift toward greater involvement with the basic economic and social problems of the people the missionaries are trying to reach. The change is exemplified by the efforts of the Rev. Dan Schellenberg, who is trying to improve the farming techniques of the same Kenya tribes that his father evangelized. Schellenberg, who is with the biggest U.S. mission agency, the Southern Baptist Convention, says, "My father wouldn't approve of what I'm doing," and calls his father's methods of seeking converts "buttonholing for Jesus." Yet the younger Schellenberg remains an evangelist. When a hot day's work is done, he chats with farmer friends about the threat of evil spirits and the opportunity of gaining freedom through Jesus Christ.
The longstanding arguments about social action are now hitting Catholics full force, especially in Latin America. The new Catholic emphasis on service to the poor has its roots in the Second Vatican Council. The Rev. Simon Smith, head of the Jesuit missions sent from the U.S., argues that the sharing of Christian beliefs "has taken second place to being of service to human beings."
For an increasing number of Catholic missionaries, identification with the cause of the poor means advocacy of radical changes in political and economic systems—even if those changes are being spearheaded by Marxist revolutionary movements. Advocates of this so-called liberation theology are most visible in Nicaragua, where five priests, contrary to the Pope's directive against the clergy holding political office, are members of the Marxist-led Sandinista government.
The belief that missionaries should care as much about helping people improve their lives as about converting them to Christianity originated with the "mainline" Protestant denominations that constitute the National Council of Churches (N.C.C.). But this liberal Protestant view is a waning influence around the world. Reason: mainline churches believe that indigenous workers should be doing most of the spiritual tasks once performed by missionaries. Thus churches that belong to the N.C.C. now support only 2,813 career missionaries abroad, compared with 9,844 in 1953.
By contrast, Fundamentalists and Evangelicals—many of whom do belong to mainline churches—are supporting a missionary movement that since 1953 has tripled its number of workers abroad to more than 30,000. The Christian and Missionary Alliance, an evangelical denomination with 200,000 members, supports 40% more workers than does the United Methodist Church, which has 9.5 million adherents. The overseas staffs of conservative churches care as deeply as others about improving the lives of the people they work among, but their primary goal is to turn them into born-again Christians. The most important change in Protestant missionary strategy in the past ten years has been to identify and seek to contact some 16,000 tribes and social groups around the world that have been beyond the reach of Christianity.
Alan Foster, 35, and his wife Vickie, 29, live with their three children in Campamento Chimora, a frontier settlement hacked out of Bolivia's hellish rain forest. Foster, whose father was an evangelist, was sent by the New Tribes Mission to work with the Yuqui Indians. He is about to join a "contact team" that hopes to find three elusive Yuqui groups deep in the jungle. Such teams are often attacked by the tribesmen they are trying to reach. But for all the dangers of their task, the Fosters have developed a close rapport with Indians at the station. Says Vickie Foster: "They get so close to us, they become like family."
The burgeoning evangelical groups often post missionaries to foreign countries without waiting to be invited, while N.C.C. missionary boards stress close collaboration with Third World churches. Nonetheless, the conservatives are becoming far more sophisticated in anthropology and far more respectful of the peoples and cultures of other nations than they used to be. In Bolivia, evangelical missionaries even steeled themselves not to object to the custom of the Ayoré tribesmen of killing their firstborn and burying old people alive.
All missionaries, liberal or conservative, Catholic or Protestant, agree that one key goal is to develop self-sufficient indigenous churches, if only because they never know when political conditions will force foreign-born clerics to leave forever. Says the Rev. Joseph Kelly, an American missionary with the Holy Ghost Fathers who has worked in Tanzania and Kenya for 31 years: "Unlike people in the business world, who want to make themselves indispensable, the task of the missionary is to make himself unnecessary."
In contrast to their predecessors, the new missionaries agree that as much as possible, the preaching of the Gospel should be shorn of Western cultural trappings and adapted to the civilization of the people to whom it is offered. Instead of Christianizing Africa, so the policy runs, missionaries should help to Africanize Christianity.
The current buzz word used by Catholics for the process of adapting the Christian message to local traditions is "inculturation." The idea is not new. Four centuries ago, Father Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary in China, tried to incorporate the Confucian reverence for ancestors into Catholic ritual. The Vatican quashed the experiment. Says one Catholic official in Rome who works with missionaries: "Inculturation is a difficult thing and sometimes I would say a dangerous thing. Leaving your own culture and adopting that of the people among whom you work may lead you to go too far, toward animism perhaps." At the moment, the first black archbishop in Zambia, Emmanuel Milingo, is in Rome for a period of "reflection" because he carried on a ministry of exorcism and faith healing, complete with such tribal accoutrements as fly whisks and animal skins.
The new sensitivity toward local cultures has led even conservative Protestants to treat tribal religion with respect. Missionaries try to banish belief in, and fear of, evil spirits; yet they also plumb the animist religions for concepts of eternal life or of a remote "high god" or primordial creator that might be used to inspire belief in the one God of the Bible. After all, the missionaries point out, Christmas was originally a pagan rite that ancient preachers turned to good advantage.
Indeed, there are missionaries who believe that conversion is fundamentally irrelevant to their true task. Says Father Walbert Buhlmann, the Rome-based mission secretary of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin: "In the past, we had the so-called motive of saving souls. We were convinced that if not baptized, people in the masses would go to hell. Now, thanks be to God, we believe that all people and all religions are already living in the grace and love of God and will be saved by God's mercy."
The Christian churches may differ in doctrine and in their basic convictions about what mission work is all about, but one factor tends to unite liberals and conservatives, Protestants and Catholics: they are all reaching out to the poor. By and large, the unevangelized populations of the world are those stricken by poverty and threatened by rapid change in their societies. All these conflicting patterns and tensions converge in Latin America, which has more U.S. missionaries than any other part of the world: some 9,250 Protestants and 2,180 Catholics. With a few notable exceptions, Catholic missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries preached subservience to Spanish and Portuguese rule, while promising the natives a better life in the hereafter. Protestant missionaries, who began arriving in force in the 19th century, condemned the rich Catholic landowners and military elites, and were severely persecuted. As recently as the decade ending in 1958, there were 126 Protestants killed, 279 schools closed and 60 churches destroyed in Colombia alone. After Pope John XXIII took office in 1958, attacks on Latin America's Protestants abated. Today, by contrast, Catholic missionaries have strongly aligned themselves with the poor, encouraging them to fight for social justice. Pope John Paul II has supported his priests in this cause, as long as they do not become directly engaged in politics. Some Protestant missionaries share the radical views of the Catholic activists. But a majority of the evangelical and fundamentalist missionaries either sympathize with rightist regimes or accept the status quo and insist that spiritual conversion, not political action, is the true work of the Lord.
Because they defied the authorities, two French Catholic missionaries languished last week in federal police headquarters in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, while they appealed eight-and ten-year sentences for alleged "incitement to kill." Father Aristides Camio, 41, and Father François Guriou, 40, got into trouble in the jungles of the Amazon basin by advising the impoverished natives that, under the law, they had a claim on land in a rain forest. When the natives hacked out villages, clearing the tangle of trees with machetes, they were attacked by gun squads hired by absentee owners of the forests. According to the priests, 47 people died in the skirmishes.
On Aug. 13, 1981, the squatters, as the government calls them, killed one of the gunmen and wounded four federal agents. Though the two priests were not involved, police burst into their rectory and arrested them on the charge that their sermons the previous Sunday had stirred up the rebellion. The two fathers deny the accusations; their defense lawyers say that police used torture to persuade nine peasants to testify against the two men. The priests are warmly remembered back in the jungle. Says Josias de Silva, 37, the head of one of 36 families guarding their makeshift village in the rain forest: "Father Aristides showed us the church is on the side of the poor."
In Guatemala, the Catholic hierarchy remains staunchly conservative. Mario Cardinal Casariego, the Archbishop of Guatemala City, says he knows of no murdered clergy in his country (there have been at least ten, according to most accounts). Says the Cardinal: "If you mix in politics, you get what you deserve." Although Guatemala is desperately short of priests, Casariego wants troublesome missionaries to leave. The Cardinal is equally perturbed by the growth of Protestant churches, which now claim 21% of the population, including the head of the government, General Efraín Ríos Montt. The general, whose brother is a Catholic bishop, is a born-again Christian who found his new faith in 1978 at a tent church run by Pentecostals from California. Some of the evangelists were converts from the drug culture.
When Ray Elliott, 50, and his wife Helen, 56, came to Guatemala in 1953, Protestants were a scorned and despised minority. After arriving in the remote village of Nebaj, nestled in a steep valley 165 miles northwest of Guatemala City, the Elliotts learned that a priest was warning the people that Protestants were devils and kidnapers who should be refused all goods and supplies. To this day, Helen Elliott has trouble acknowledging Catholics as fellow Christians.
The young couple, who had been high-school sweethearts in Independence, Kans., settled with their three children into a two-room dirt-floor sharecropper's cabin. The Elliotts had been sent to Guatemala by the Wycliffe Bible Translators of Huntington Beach, Calif., who dispatch teams around the world to create the first written form of languages or dialects that exist only in a spoken form. Experts then translate the New Testament into the language—in the Elliotts' case, a difficult Indian tongue called Ixil.
The Elliotts faced stony opposition for two years. Then, one day, there was an explosion in a storehouse for firecrackers, which the Ixil tribesmen used to get the attention of gods to whom they offered sacrifices. Two boys were horribly burned. By the time Helen arrived on the scene, neighbors had already plastered the burns with a mixture of lime, wood ash and motor oil.
Helen, who had had no medical training, gave the boys morphine and antibiotic injections, picked off the goo and seared flesh, wrapped the victims in sheets sterilized in a pressure cooker, and forced them to drink eggnog through straws (all the water was contaminated). When Helen returned after putting her own children to bed, she discovered that a witch doctor had ripped off the bandages and was rubbing hot pepper on the wounds, invoking Christian saints and Mayan deities, all the while drinking rum. In a scene reminiscent of Elijah confronting the prophets of Baal, Helen told the parents that they must choose between her treatment and the witch doctor's.
The parents chose Helen. As the boys hovered near death, she prayed as never before. "This was a chance for people to experience the living Gospel," she recalls. But, she adds, "my family's lives were at stake." The boys survived and Helen was so besieged by the sick that she soon became the village's practical nurse, delivering hundreds of babies, suturing hundreds of wounds. The Ixils began to accept the Elliotts as prophets of a loving god.
The crisis also produced a breakthrough in Ray's torturous translation struggle. An Indian woman, marveling at Helen's treatment of the boys, used a word they had never heard: shum, which means giving without receiving anything in return. This was the word Ray needed to translate "love" into Ixil.
The Elliotts suffered through typhoid fever, malaria and amoebic dysentery. But their most wrenching experience was the loss last year of their home. Left-wing guerrilla activity around Nebaj got so heavy, says Ray, that "our presence was endangering our friends." Along with all Catholic missionaries, they had to pull out of the war zone.
Operating from a house trailer in Guatemala City, the Elliotts now work to get shipments of roofing, food, blankets, clean water and medical supplies for their village. Every few days the Elliotts board a cargo flight to Nebaj, where 10,000 refugees, many burned out of their homes, huddle in camps. The planes land, amid bursts of guerrilla fire, and are immediately surrounded by the Elliotts' Ixil friends. Helen's eyes mist over. "Nebaj is the home of our children," she says. "Now most of the people understand the word of God because of Ray's work." Latin America has been nominally Catholic for centuries, and most of its nations won their independence in the 19th century. Both Christianity and statehood, however, are relatively new to black Africa.
Protestant and Catholic mission schools were responsible for training many leaders of the 38 new nations on the continent that have gained their independence since 1956. For missionaries in what is now Zimbabwe, the civil war that ended in 1979 brought death and harassment from both sides.
Father Mark Hackett, 46, a Catholic priest from Britain, recalls that black guerrillas opposed the missions as relics of the colonial past. On the other hand, government troops threatened to kill Hackett for harboring rebels. The suspicions were correct. Black guerrillas appeared almost nightly at Hackett's mission hospital in Makumbi, and, he says, "we never turned anyone away who needed help." One guerrilla was saved when hospital workers disguised him as a pregnant woman. Unlike many of their Latin American colleagues, foreign missionaries in Africa today generally steer clear of politics. The reason: even vague criticism of sensitive black regimes can result in deportation within 24 hours.
Most missionaries are also Most missionaries are also careful to avoid offending the sensibilities of the increasingly successful black churches that are independent of Western denominations and missions. The largest of these is the Kimbanguist church in Zaïre, which has 3.5 million members. There are more than 6,700 independent denominations in Africa with a total membership of 30 million. Some are highly orthodox in doctrine, while others incorporate tribal rites in their services and even accept polygamists in church offices. These growing black churches are sending out missionaries of their own. Among them is Ken Okeke, a Nigerian Anglican who works with his countrymen studying in England. Okeke is dismayed by what he finds in the nation that first evangelized his homeland: "This country has become more and more apostate."
For all the vigor of the black churches, there is still a role in Africa for traditional missionaries with skills and tact. One is Alfred Merriweather, 63, a physician sent in 1944 by the United Free Church of Scotland to run the Livingstone Mission at Molepolole, Botswana; the center is named for David Livingstone, the famed 19th century Scottish missionary and explorer. Merriweather has seen massive changes over four decades. "On reflection, we made many mistakes. When I joined the mission service, my immediate senior banned traditional tribal dancing as being heathen. Today no one would dream of denying the local people their traditions. We do, however, have to battle even now, as in the past, against witch doctors and so-called healers who kill as often as they cure."
At the lonely bush hospital, Merriweather had to contend with ailments brought from the outside world, such as tuberculosis and syphilis, as well as malnutrition, leprosy, maulings by lions or a scalp fungus caused by a lack of washing. In the cruel Kalahari Desert, explains the doctor, "water, if you find it, is for drinking, not washing." As an ordained clergyman, Merriweather also performed funeral services for patients who died.
The Molepolole hospital is now operated by the Botswana government, and Merriweather has become the senior medical officer at Princess Marina Hospital in the country's capital, Gaborone. He was crippled in a 1971 auto crash that killed his first wife and almost ended his medical career. Walking with a limp and in some pain, he still makes his hospital rounds. A Commander of the British Empire, the unassuming doctor was elected the first speaker of the National Assembly when Botswana won its independence in 1966, a rare honor for a white.
In addition to his demanding hospital schedule, Merriweather continues to conduct weekly services in the hinterlands. His second wife Mary does the packing and often drives their Land Rover. One recent Sunday in the village of Kumkwane, members of the Bakwena tribe proudly presented 15 babies to be baptized by their esteemed guest. After the goats were cleared from the church, Merriweather preached, in impeccable Setswana, of God's love and read Scriptures translated into the local dialect by Robert Moffat, Livingstone's father-in-law. Meanwhile, Merriweather's wife taught Sunday school to the children.
The Merriweathers have a three-year-old adopted daughter named Mpho, which means "gift." Her mother came to the hospital desperately ill and about to deliver a baby. Merriweather saved both. Then, he explains, "the grateful mother could think of no better gift for us than the baby. It may seem unconventional in Western terms, but believe me, this is a long way from the West. So we accepted Mpho as a gift from God, and that is what she has been to us ever since.
"I came to Botswana to heal and to teach and to give," says Merriweather, who has no plans to retire. "I find that I also learn and receive. I learn patience and I see how to endure and receive affection and trust. In those needy eyes of the Bakwena, I see the eyes of Christ, and I know that as I serve them I serve him who said, 'Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.' "
In contrast to black Africa, where Christianity may well become the majority religion by the year 2000, post-colonial Asia is an area where Christians constitute a mere 4.4% of the population. Although most Muslim and Communist lands forbid proselytizing, missionaries have been able to seize surprising opportunities in Asia, particularly among remote adherents of tribal religions. Consider the extraordinary odyssey of one Oklahoma family: J. Russell Morse, his sons Eugene and Robert, and the eight of their twelve children who are now third-generation missionaries.
They are sponsored by the Christian Churches, a loose confederation of conservative Protestant congregations. The Morses are among the leading missionaries in Asia. Because of their efforts, 120,000 Asian adults are Christians.
J. Russell Morse went to Tibet in 1921. He was nearly killed by feuding warlords, and moved into a mountainous area of China near the Burmese border. Ordered by the U.S. consul to leave the region during an outbreak of civil war in 1927, the family made a 70-day trek through snowcapped mountains and malarial forests into Burma. The Morses eventually returned to work again in Yunnan, a remote region of China where cannibals roamed, Tibetan bandits burned villages, and the chief trade with the outside world was carried on by opium dealers. The nearest hospital was four weeks away by foot.
Between 1927 and 1937, Morse established some 30 churches and baptized 2,000 converts. Evacuated to Burma again during World War II, Morse advised the Allies to use a different and safer air route to fly the "Hump" over the Himalayas to Kunming. Meanwhile, young Robert organized tribes to assist airmen who crashed. The family returned to China for a third postwar tour; Eugene was imprisoned briefly in 1949, after the Communists seized power, and his father was held in solitary confinement and tortured for more than 15 months. The family remained undaunted. Says Robert: "A missionary with a martyr complex is useless."
Starting over in the Kachin village of Muladi in northern Burma, the Morses and several thousand converts who followed them out of China gradually created one of Burma's most prosperous areas and one that became 90% Christian. "We wanted to show what Christians working together could achieve," says Eugene Morse. In a valley where there had only been jungle, 35,000 members of the nomadic Lisu and Rawang tribes created 30 villages. Malaria was virtually wiped out.
The Morses were uprooted yet again in December 1965, this time by soldiers of Socialist Dictator Ne Win. The night the order came, 600 Lisu packed the thatch-roofed church to hear the family patriarch, then 67, read from Matthew 10: 23: "When they persecute you in one town, flee for the next; for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the son of man comes."
After leaving their homes, the Morses and thousands of Kachin refugees created yet another Christian Utopia in an uninhabited valley near Burma's border with India. In 1972, the missionaries were ordered out of Burma for good. They settled in the city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand for the eighth phase of the family's career. Robert, 59, is a teacher and linguist, and Eugene, 61, organizes evangelists to reach the 13,000 of the brightly costumed Lisu people within Thailand. Eight of the brothers' twelve children are missionaries in Thailand; the other four are studying in the U.S. Next month, J. Russell Morse plans to leave Oklahoma and come back to help the clan. He is 84.
Leon Dillinger has had similar success in another obscure corner of Asia: the interior of Irian Jaya (formerly Dutch New Guinea and now part of Indonesia). Dillinger, 51, and wife Lorraine, 48, work among Dani tribesmen cut off from the outside world by crocodile-infested, malarial lowlands and mountain ranges that soar to 13,000 ft. It is against Indonesian law to convert any person who already has a religion, and 88% of the country is Muslim. But the government does allow Christian missionary work, Minister for Religious Affairs Haji Alamajah Ratuprawiranegara acknowledged to TIME, "as long as it is only aimed at the animists." When Dillinger arrived 24 years ago, he remembers, "every aspect of the Dani world had spirits: the mountains, the gardens, the trees. The people lived in constant fear and dread." The oppressive atmosphere also bred wars between tribes. "That was the hardest part for me," says Lorraine, "watching them kill each other before we could teach them the Gospel."
Then the Dillingers went to work to convert tribesmen who relied on charms and fetishes to fight the evil spirits. Lorraine, a nurse, used penicillin to cure yaws and iodine to treat goiters. The medical treatment and the Dillingers' radio seemed miracles to members of the Stone Age tribe: they thought the disembodied voices belonged to their ancestors.
In 1960, when the couple lived in a grass hut in the village of Kelila, the tribal chief surprised them one day by coming to say, "As long as we have our fetishes, we are not ready to hear God." About 5,000 Danis brought charms and spirit paraphernalia to throw onto a bonfire. Recalls Dillinger: "The men shouted for joy, and people ran up and down, so happy were they to be free of those things. It couldn't have been noisier if U.C.L.A. were playing U.S.C." Tribal bloodshed ceased, the fear of spirits abated, and gradually more than 100,000 of the Danis became Christians.
The Dillingers trained local preachers from the first wave of converts, and Leon established the Dani Bible Institute, which now graduates 75 preachers a year. Says he: "Our greatest success is to work our way out of a job. In all developing countries, the goal should be to teach people to be self-reliant and not to rely on the big white Santa Claus."
One day recently the Dillingers stood in a mountain pasture greeting hundreds of nearly naked black Dani tribesmen and women who had gathered for a traditional pig feast. The two missionaries seemed as much at ease as they would be at a church potluck supper in Leon's home town of Souderton, Pa. Leon chatted with the last man in the village to accept Christianity: the son of the sorcerer. Lorraine sampled food that a Dani woman had just pulled from the braising pit hollowed out of the ground for the occasion.
The Dillingers, who represent the Unevangelized Fields Mission, a conservative Protestant agency, have helped the Danis make Christianity their own by blending it with local customs and practices. At worship, Danis use sweet potatoes and raspberry juice instead of bread and wine for Communion, and sing hymns they have written themselves.
The missionaries even allow male converts who have more than one wife to retain their spouses. The Dillingers reason that to banish all but the first wife would disrupt the tribal culture and cause prostitution. Unmarried converts, however, may take only one wife after joining the church.
Each year brings new delights and surprises for the Dillingers. Last December, it was the Christmas pageant in costume, staged by the Danis. As the drama proceeded, it became clear that the tribespeople were portraying not the Nativity in Bethlehem but Christ's Crucifixion, complete with catsup for blood. When it was over, a Dani chief explained, "Why not? Jesus was born to die for us on the Cross, so it's all the same thing." The Dillingers understood. It is difficult not to admire the zeal of the Dillingers and thousands of other missionaries who have dedicated their lives to the selfless yet ultimately self-fulfilling task of spreading Christ's word throughout the world. Nonetheless, despite their awareness of the religious arrogance of older missionaries, and their sensitivity to the customs and rituals of the peoples they serve, questions remain as to whether the spiritual good they do is not balanced, in part, by social and cultural harm. In the Irian Jaya village of Mulia, for example, schools set up by the missionaries threaten a complex family structure that developed over the course of centuries. The children no longer can help their mothers work in the gardens and the rise in monogamy adds to the wives' labor.
As a result, some overburdened women are dying young. The introduction of Western agricultural techniques has also undermined the self-esteem of the Danis: the missionaries can raise superior crops and 300-lb. pigs, five times as large as those the tribes were producing. Says Bob Lehnhart, an official of the Mission Aviation Fellowship, which flies supplies into the Indonesian jungles: "Suddenly the people are feeling that they must throw out everything from the past and learn everything new." In rebuttal, missionaries argue that evolution toward modern ways is inevitable and that they can buffer the struggles more humanely for the tribes than would land and mineral developers.
Try as they might to blend with the local population and to adapt the Christian message to their ways, the visitors inevitably bring Western values with them. For instance, missionaries in Asia expect newly baptized Christians to take personal blame for their actions; that is not an easy lesson for people raised in neo-Confucian societies that emphasize group responsibility. New Christians, whose cultures have taught them to mask emotions or express them indirectly, have difficulty accepting the evangelical emphasis on a public affirmation of faith.
The new ways and the old often mix badly. The faith of some recently established congregations in rural Thailand tends to waver if prayers go unanswered. At the Ban Ti Christian Church north of Lamphun, a large blackboard hangs on the wall behind the pulpit. Prayers for rain, a speedy harvest and painless cures for various maladies are recorded every Sunday, then checked off the following week against the results.
This kind of pragmatic approach to Christianity does not surprise Rubem Alvez, one of Brazil's leading liberal Protestant thinkers. He argues that missionaries from the West, and especially from the U.S., bring with them an implicit promise: "Be converted to Protestantism, and you will become like the affluent nations of the world."
Among non-Christians, the most serious criticism of missionaries is that, just as in the past, they are changing religious ways of life for whole societies. Says Saeng Channgarm, a professor at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, a Buddhist and a respected analyst of his society: "Even though we are very much Westernized nowadays, our Buddhist culture keeps us uniquely Thai. When a Thai becomes Christian, the country loses a unit of its spiritual power. If the entire country became Christian, it would no longer be Thailand."
In their defense, conservative Protestants acknowledge they are trying to win converts, but say they are simply offering a choice, and point out that those who change their religions do so freely and happily. The Morses, for example, have never put pressure to convert on students who stay at their hostel in Chiang Mai. "By the time they leave," says young Bob Morse, "they know what the Bible says and can make their own decision."
Sweeping the debate over conversions aside, the Rev. Willie Cilliers, secretary for missions of the black Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, argues that the true role of the missionary is simply to reach out to the poor, in imitation of Jesus. Says he: "We have a message to proclaim: that from a Christian perspective it is the weak in society who have the first priority. That is what the Christian message is about—reaching out to the weak."
It is 4:30 a.m. in Cairo when Sister Emmanuelle, 74, awakens in her hut with its dirt floor and gaping hole in the roof. After washing in a bucket, she sets out on a two-mile walk to attend Mass at the nearest church. She is clad in a white smock and a necklace with a silver cross. Her route takes her through mounds of fetid garbage, rotting produce and broken glass. The tiny figure wards off snarling dogs in the darkness with a dart of light from a battered flashlight.
The Belgian-born nun, whose very name bespeaks Christmas, is the only missionary among the 10,000 garbage pickers of the Egyptian capital. They are untouchables who live in what amounts to perpetual serfdom, bequeathing their trade and squalor to succeeding generations. The garbage pickers stay alive by sorting through the refuse that is hauled out from the city in creaking donkey carts. The ragged men and women save the bottles and tin cans to be sold, and feed the slop to the pigs who live with them. Infant mortality in the community is an appalling 40%.
At 9 o'clock Sister Emmanuelle welcomes 40 youngsters who attend school at her hut. She is distressed that ten students are absent; undoubtedly they are out working with their parents in the garbage heap. She will visit them later that day with lessons. In this environment of waste and disease, where she has worked for ten years, Sister Emmanuelle endlessly preaches the need for cleanliness, and the children at school are neatly dressed.
As the lesson goes on, she speaks to the children in Arabic in a voice that almost sings. Each faltering step toward literacy is rewarded with a smile from the nun and a hearty shout of "Bravo!" or a piece of candy.
Then Sister Emmanuelle turns to Bible stories and prayers with students who are Coptic Christians; the Muslim ones depart. "Today we don't talk about conversion any more," she explains. "We talk about being friends. My job is to prove that God is love, to bring courage to these people."
Waving aside the flies that fill the air in enormous clouds, Sister Emmanuelle spends hours visiting her flock, carrying a ledger in which she has meticulously written down the names and needs of 3,000 families. But her gentleness turns to steel when she browbeats bureaucrats or bankers to help the garbage pickers. She envisions motorized vehicles to replace the dilapidated donkey carts. She wants to replace pickers' filthy garments with clean uniforms and to pen the pigs instead of allowing them to roam in and out of homes. Says she: "It will cost money, but it won't be expensive. I want to prove it's possible to be a clean and dignified garbage collector, and slowly, slowly, we will do it. With God, everything is possible."
In her life and actions among the garbage pickers, the nun epitomizes the best in today's new missionary. "I'm not interested in going to those convents where old nuns spend their last days," she reflects. "I want to remain here doing what I'm doing until the day I die. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else because here I feel I am giving the life of Jesus Christ to the children." The final gift to mankind of Sister Emmanuelle, and thousands of missionaries like her, is themselves.
— By RichardN. Ostling. Reported by Dean Brelis/Middle East and South Asia, Sandra Burton and David DeVoss/Asia, Peter Hawthorne and Alistair Matheson/Africa and James Wilde/Latin America
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