Alumni Posts

Rethinking my Position on Missionaries — Alum Sarah Jones

In 2013, McCormick alum (then student) Sarah Jones traveled to Ethiopia to research the resiliencies and vulnerabilities of orphaned children leaving care.  Along the way she was confronted with her own biases of faith and culture.  

As far as my work goes, there haven’t been many new or exciting developments.  I’m still meeting with great organizations and learning a lot about the transition/reintegration experience, but I’ve yet to start the individual interviews and hear personal stories.  That begins on Friday though, so next week I’ll have a nice long post about it!

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the meaning of Christian mission, especially in an international context.  Full disclosure, I’ve been a “missionary” before, but I very rarely claim that title.  I have a sever aversion to the term because it evokes images of Western imperialism and is closely associated with the colonization of the Two-Thirds World.  My recent involvement with St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, where many members are missionaries through Serving in Mission (SIM), has prompted some serious reevaluation of this view.  SIM-Ethiopia’s vision is to proclaim the Gospel and  foster new church development, focusing especially on outreach to people who have “never heard the Gospel.” They do this through providing services such as prenatal care, HIV treatment, a house shelter for street children, and community support, all the while being very vocal in their core beliefs.

Having lived most of my life in a country in which religious freedom and choice is a right, and therefore taken for granted, I have developed a dislike for organizations that go out into the world to convert others to Christianity.  This kind of Gospel proclamation is often closely tied with conversion to Western-style individualism and materialism, which I believe is antithetical to Jesus’ radical message of love, justice, and the coming Kin-dom.  My previous experience in Kerala did not require me to reflect on these views.  Kerala is something of an anomaly in India, a place where Christians, Muslims, and Hindus respect each other and live together peaceably.  And while religious leaders often hold political power in the community, the Church and State remain fairly separate.  I did meet some missionaries, but they were Indian citizens and were more interested in converting Syrian Christians and Catholics to the newer Pentecostal and Full-Gospel churches.

How does our notion of evangelism change when we leave the West?

Here in Ethiopia, things are very different.  The two largest religions are Islam and Christianity, which are recognized by the ruling government.  Most Christians here belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, but there are a few “Protestant” churches that are more Evangelical/Pentecostal.  Unlike Kerala, there are palpable tensions between religious groups.  Muslims and Orthodox Christians may work in the same offices and companies, but they don’t mix much socially.  There is a lot of friction between the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the indigenous Protestant churches; if someone converts to Protestantism they are often disowned by their family.  Here, to choose your religion is a radical act.

The separation of Church and State in Ethiopia is the theory, but not the practice.  The government is directly involved in the selection of Church and Mosque leadership.  If one wants to pursue the priesthood, they have to apply to the Ministry of Education to study theology, just like those who want to study engineering, psychology, business, etc.  The government decides who pursues theological education and has a hand in who rises in clergy leadership, in both the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and in Muslim congregations.  There is some unrest in the Muslim community about this, but the Orthodox Church doesn’t seem to be putting up much resistance.  Again, to choose to convert to another religion—one that isn’t bound to the government’s whims—is a radical act.  To align yourself with a religious community that reflects your theology and your politics is a choice that everyone should have the right to make.

So what does it mean to go out and make disciples of all nations, especially in this Ethiopian context?  That is our call; we cannot escape it.  If I value choice in faith, the ability of someone to freely think theologically and worship God as best fits them, then I have to not only accept but promote exposure to a variety of religious traditions—including Evangelical Christianity.  SIM brings needed services to vulnerable populations, and through their work do proclaim the loving message of Jesus.  I don’t theologically agree with some of SIM’s core beliefs, but in many ways they are better, more intentional, disciples than I am.  I didn’t expect to wrestle with these ideas this summer, but I guess I should put some of this theological education into practice.

Sarah Jones is a McCormick alum (MDiv ’15) who also holds a Masters of Social Service Administration.  She currently works for both McCormick Theological Seminary as social media manager and for the startup nonprofit Recipe for Change as Program Coordinator.  This post was originally published on Sarah’s blog in the summer of 2013.