Today Christians are more fervent than ever about engaging in short and long-term missions. Some are motivated to share God’s faith with others. Others are attracted to mission because of their passion to change the world. Mission becomes faith sharing when we see it as a journey of spiritual awakening where the missioner and the local community experience transformation through their encounter. As people in mission, we often overlook the power of sharing our faith through our presence.
At times we come back from a mission experience feeling like we did not do enough or we did not share our faith with others. Imagine: what if all we did was to spend time with people, sitting down with them to hear how God has been at work among them through good times and the challenging times. One of the acts of Christian ministry that we neglect to light up is the ministry of presence or the incarnational act.
In scripture there are several stories that depict God’s amazing grace at work when people meet. Isaiah with the widow woman and the Samaritan woman with Jesus at the well are just two examples. Mission becomes experience when we shift our focus from projects and completing the task to building long term relationships and being present with God’s people in their joys and challenges.
There is a story that I heard during Seminary at Africa University. One of my professors, a fan of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, reminded us that as humans we have the responsibility to make our world a better place for all of God’s people. In Southern Africa most of us knew about Tutu’s prophetic voice challenging racial injustice in South Africa. But, very little was known about Tutu’s call to priesthood through a ministry of presence. One day as we discussed issues related to church and social change, Rev. Shirley DeWolf brought to light Tutu’s calling to priesthood as it relates to social engagement.
When Tutu was 12 years old, his family moved to Johannesburg. Tutu and his mom had an encounter with an English missionary, Trevor Huddleston. Huddleston was a white missionary among the working black South Africans. Tutu said, “I was standing in the street with my mother when a white man in a priest's clothing walked past. As he passed us he took off his hat to my mother. I couldn't believe my eyes—a white man who greeted a black working class woman!” During the BBC 2003 Series of asking the world’s influential persons about defining moments in their lives, Tutu was asked to name one elemental defining moment in his life; he mentioned this encounter with Trevor.
One has to remember that South African cultures, like many cultures in the majority world have high regard for people who are advanced in age (the wise). So, when you greet wise persons, if you are wearing a hat, you must remove it to show respect. For Tutu this was the first time to witness a young white person showing respect toward a wise black woman. Tutu was disturbed, he wondered what was wrong with this man. His mom assured him that this man is a priest. Tutu decided that if this is how priests act (share God’s love), then he too wanted to become one when he grew up.
Later on Trevor Huddleston and Desmond Tutu became close friends, built a strong partnership to challenge the apartheid regime in South Africa. This partnership between the missioner and the local leaders birthed a movement for change. Trevor may have not realized how he shared his faith by just being present among South Africans.
This brief encounter demonstrates that as we engage in mission we should not overlook the ability to share our faith with others by our presence and standing in solidarity with our neighbors.
What if our mission engagement focused more on understanding the people we are called to serve and allowed room for faith sharing and hearing? What if we let ourselves be transformed by the stories of faith we hear in the mission field? Remember, God has been in the mission field where we are deployed long before we thought about going there. We are called to go serve by sharing how God has been at work in our lives. We are also called to go into the mission field to listen to faith stories of how God has been working with others. Christian mission is at its best when we understand that mission is not just about completing the project, but rather allowing our presence to communicate God’s love by making a kingdom difference as was the case with Desmond Tutu and Trevor Huddleston.