One year of mission work does not make me any kind of expert. However, I think it’s safe to say that I know a lot more about what mission looks like, what works and what doesn’t, than when I started. I also acknowledge that there is a lot more that I don’t know than I do.
One year of mission is neither short term nor long. It’s not short term because you don’t breeze in and out of the country in a few weeks, taking what is really just a holiday with the added bonus of making yourself feel good and “helping” the locals. One year is not long term because there is an end date constantly looming and you have limited time in which you are working.
In a year however, you do start to feel like a local, adopt some of their customs, develop strong relationships and begin to “figure the place out.” All before realising that you will never really figure the place out and have more questions than when you started. Here’s what I learnt:
1. Mission is messy.
Often the get in and get your hands dirty kinda messy. But mostly the, it’s not clear what on earth I am doing kind of messy but I will just keep going and hope that by the grace of God something good will happen and he will reedem this, kind of messy.
The “project” won’t happen in the way you expect, the program will get delayed or changed, people will fail to live up to their promises (both you and others), setbacks will occur but…. God is still working. When starting the journey towards mission it’s best to humbly acknowledge that often you’ll feel out of your depth.
The work that my husband was doing in Tonga comes to mind.
He was put in a fairly difficult position and perhaps one that was not completely appropriate for his age (working with Senior Ministers and officials at the FWCT when you are a 20 -something, is going to be very challenging in an organisation that respects age and position). There were days that he would question why he was in Tonga and what it was that he was supposed to be doing. However it was not the work with the FWCT that ended up being his focus – rather he lead the English speaking church and bible study, baby sat children, taught with YWAM, witnessed on the touch footy field and kicked butt with his studies.
His “project” ended up almost getting pushed to the side but God used this time to really teach him about church community, to grow his character and to focus on relationships with others.
2. Mission might not look like “mission.”
Mission is not just about evangelism. Mission is not just about social justice. For us, mission is about evangelism, often through social justice but mostly through relationships.
This is particularly relevant in a country like Tonga, which considers itself to be intensely Christian and thus does not need to be “saved” by missionaries. It is true that over 90% of Tongans identify themselves as church going Christian. However, this includes a large population of Mormons (not Christian due to significant discrepancies in doctrine) and a large population of cultural Christians, because to be Christian is the “Tongan way.”
So church going Tongans still need to hear the gospel. They need to be taught that our salvation is faith based and not works based. That to swim on Sunday and hang out your washing does not mean that God will punish you for breaking the Sabbath. To learn that God wants us to have a personal relationship with him.
Hopefully, we shared a bit of this message. We did it through chats at the wharf, sharing coffee, waiting for the printer to work, hanging out in town, talking to women about domestic violence, advocating for a more compassionate response to suicide.
Mostly, I did this through the workshops I ran with my co-workers. Working for a faith based NGO meant that they responded well to social work concepts combined with biblical teaching. And at lunchtime, over some root vegetables, I could hear about their beliefs and share my own.
“My brothers and sisters, if people say they have faith, but do nothing, their faith is worth nothing. Can faith like that save them? A brother or sister in Christ might need clothes or food. If you say to that person, “God be with you! I hope you stay warm and get plenty to eat,” but you do not give what that person needs, your words are worth nothing. In the same way, faith by itself—that does nothing—is dead. Someone might say, “You have faith, but I have deeds.” Show me your faith without doing anything, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” James 2: 14-18
Adopting local dress may seem small but goes a long way to show respect to your “new” culture.
3. Small steps are best.
It can be so tempting to get carried away with excitement and the tendency to “help,” thus jumping headfirst into making suggestions, changes, creating events or evaluating existing systems. Not only is this patronising and paternalistic but also is the best thing you can do to undermine any chance at strong relationships with your new friends and co-workers.
I found that stepping back, asking questions, watching and being open to learning were the most helpful things in creating trust with my co-workers. Start small, share a little, listen more.
Remember, it’s often not the fancy projects or big programs that will have greatest effect on a person’s life. While completing big projects makes us feel useful (and is often what we need to show to donors or those that have given financial support that we are worth their money), the small ordinary aspect of just “being” with another can be of huge significance.
It’s the conversation that happens in the office, over cake or while you’re waiting for your ride to turn up. It’s the trust that develops when you genuinely thank some one for their work. It’s the pride that your counterpart shows when you affirm her.
One of the most significant moments of the last 12 months for me came out of my accidental counselling workshops.
One of my participants told me that he was returning to his university studies in the US soon and now felt like he had a focus for his work. He shared that he was not going back to his business degree, chosen because he thought this might open doors for work. He was going to change to social work, so that he could help his people in Tonga.
4. You need a heck of a lot of patience.
I take that back, you will need truckloads of patience. You will wait. For phone calls to be returned. For funding to come, or not come. For people to turn up to events. For the internet to work. For the neighbours to stop playing that song on repeat at 1am. You will wait some more.
And then one day, it won’t really bother you anymore. Those church bells at 5am that wake you up and invade your sleep? You won’t even hear them. God has taught you one of the fruits of the Spirit.
“Therefore I urge you who have been chosen by God to live up to the life to which God called you. Always be humble, gentle, and patient, accepting each other in love. You are joined together with peace through the Spirit, so make every effort to continue together in this way.” Ephesians 4: 1-3
A very multicultural Christmas featuring Australian, Tongan, New Zealand, American and Japanese friends.
5. Hospitality is key.
Hospitality and community go hand in hand. Hospitality – the act of opening your home, sharing with others, enjoying meals together, being generous with material blessings – is a way to deepen and strengthen relationships. I think we tend to overlook the necessity and importance of hospitality in Westernised societies, we neither strive to bless others or allow others to bless us. Perhaps because we feel that we can provide for ourselves. Perhaps in allowing ourselves to rely on others, this is somehow viewed as a failure on our part. Yet hospitality reveals that we cannot exist without community, that we are tied to each other.
In Tonga, hospitality is as simple as the countless potluck dinners I’ve shared. The lending of spices and flour. The offering of a bite of your lunch. The inviting of friends over after church. One of my favourite Tongan words sums it up nicely – “Fetokoni’aki” – literally meaning mutual reciprocity, or to help one another out. You look after me one week, and I’ll take my turn the next.
“They spent their time learning the apostles’ teaching, sharing, breaking bread and praying together. The apostles were doing many miracles and signs, and everyone felt great respect for God. All the believers were together and shared everything. They would sell their land and the things they owned and then divide the money and give it to anyone who needed it. The believers met together in the Temple every day. They ate together in their homes, happy to share their food with joyful hearts. They praised God and were liked by all the people. Every day the Lord added those who were being saved to the group of believers.” Acts 2: 42- 47
6. You might re-think what you thought about church.
Church committees, parish council, wardens reports, worship bands, rosters, appointed welcomers, fancy lighting, sound desks… just some of the few things that our church in Tonga makes do without. A small, un-pastored church, meeting in a building lent to us, has been running in Tonga for over 100 years. So something must be working.
Maybe it is because we have a common goal – we are mostly “second culture people,” either missionaries or expats or Tongans who have grown up overseas and find comfort in sharing our struggles together. Maybe it is because differences in opinions and worship styles are welcomed and shared. One week a more charismatic style service. The next we use an Anglican prayer book.
Personally, I think it is because our church is simple. There are no politics. It is nothing more than a group of people opening the bible, trying to learn something together about our God and praying for each other; if there is no one to play the keyboard we sing un-accompanied, if there is no supper we might head out for ice cream.
7. Strive to be Christ like.
Obviously this doesn’t just go for mission, it goes for all aspects of life. But it’s funny how easy it is to get overwhelmed/off track/ego centred/self motivated when you are immersed in daily cross-cultural challenges and living outside of what has been the “norm” for you.
Bringing it back to Christ can help with this.
“Does your life in Christ give you strength? Does his love comfort you? Do we share together in the spirit? Do you have mercy and kindness? If so, make me very happy by having the same thoughts, sharing the same love, and having one mind and purpose. When you do things, do not let selfishness or pride be your guide. Instead, be humble and give more honor to others than to yourselves. Do not be interested only in your own life, but be interested in the lives of others.” Philippians 2: 1-4