My Justice Journey: a 'Thank you' plaque
Andy Dye, Programme Team Leader with Global Relationships
Missionaries and Justice
The object is one of my own, a plaque, a thank you from the school where I worked as a Methodist mission partner. It is a school that is marginalised in its setting, in a Caribbean country that has a wonderful heritage but also history that includes European violence, slavery, colonialism, Marxism, American imperialism and even today Chinese economic power.
The heritage of that place and my connection with it as a white British mission partner was something very apparent to me. I grew in my understanding of history and the missionary movement whilst living in the Caribbean, and continue to learn from writers such as Anthony Reddie, Chinua Achibe, Barbara Kingsolver, Hilary Beckles and many more.
Missionary history has many strands but it is linked to European violent expansionist Christendom, the horror of the dislocation and slavery of African peoples and the interweaving of missionary and colonial enterprise. There are many questions and issues that I and we as a historical missionary sending church must face. Missionaries have and some still do collude with injustice just as all of the structures of the church have done.
Yet missionaries have and still do challenge injustice. In many cases, missionaries were responsible for recording language and culture. Missionaries were ministers, teachers, doctors, nurses seeking to share God’s love.
Henry Wharton was a missionary. He was born in Grenada in the 1820s. Henry heard about the high number of deaths among European missionaries in West Africa and so wrote to the Wesleyan Missionary Society in London, 'Here am I, send me.' He spent 28 years serving in Ghana as a teacher and minister. There is an active Methodist society in Ghana today named after him.
It was a family of boundary breakers and his son Arthur became the world’s first black professional footballer in Britain (read more on Arthur here Arthur Wharton, the World's First Black Professional Footballer (arthurwhartonfoundation.org)).
In Britain we might hear very different views about missionaries from partner churches around the world. Views that might surprise us and challenge our own perceptions, both positive and negative. Missionaries perpetrated injustices; missionaries also seeded the gospel alongside the mass European migrations.
Today Christianity is a truly global faith in terms of its spread in every continent. Will we listen today to those global voices? The growth, leadership and direction of the church is in the global south, primarily Africa, a return to the home of Augustine. There is much research in this area but more for us to do, specifically a British church to really process and decolonise what we do. How do we learn from the past? How do we actively listen to the global church of today?
We remember that missionaries are simply a part of the church. To separate them is to make the same historic mistake of mission being ‘over there’. A separation that was probably never in the mind of John Wesley and probably why the Methodist mission societies came quite late compared to other missionary societies of the 18th and 19th Centuries. It simply is not a very Methodist way of seeing mission.
As we raise all these questions and more we can reflect on global mission today, the work of sending people in mission from everywhere to everywhere, yet the power dynamics of movement from global north to south are quite different from south to north. An example being the difference the ease of visa applications.
Short-term mission trips from the global north too easily move into a consumption of Christian experience with minimal agency from or benefit to those who are visited. How might we reframe in the model of mutual encounter and learning, whilst naming the numerous power dynamics including money, gender, sexuality, disability, skin colour, ecological impact and language?
We must also question how we do aid, development, grants and charity work. All seen by many as successors to the missionary enterprise and bearing the same responsibilities yet often with poor attention to the need to decentralise and decolonise power so that decisions affecting the lives of individuals in the global south are not decided in the offices and boardrooms of the global north.
You can read more about these questions in Paul Nzacahayo’s blog Walking with Micah along the road of institutional injustices! on Theology Everywhere
My lovely plaque reminds me that my personal history is intertwined with an island and friends in the Caribbean. It reminds me that all of us own a history and present, which is interconnected with others around the world. Seeking justice for the past, present and future raises so many questions yet the journey is essential.