II. Adapting to a New Culture — The Three Stages in a Missionary’s Life — Different Types of Missionaries
Adapting to a New Culture
FR. LUKE: Different people have different ideas of what mission is about. Some think that it is a romantic adventure, and it’s true that there is excitement and adventure to mission, especially in the initial stages. Once one enters the mission field and begins to live the daily life, trying to proclaim the gospel among people who aren’t always open or interested, the romanticism quickly disappears. This is a stage of frustration that many missionaries experience. The missionary has to work through this, but once he does, he is ready to begin serious missionary work. He understands that an authentic mission requires a commitment that is greater than any frustration or obstacle, a commitment that demands time, effort, and sacrifice. In Love, For Love, By Love
A Commitment that Demands Time, Effort, and Sacrifice
During our first years in Albania, the Church faced a major crisis. The government was trying to kick the archbishop out of the country and we were afraid that the foundation he had built for the Church’s work might be destroyed. When I voiced my worries, the archbishop said, “Fr. Luke, you have to remember something. Albania, under the worst form of communism and as the only totally atheistic state in the world, was a stronghold of Satan for almost fifty years. Now that democracy has come, don’t think that Satan is simply going to lie down and let the gospel be proclaimed. We are not fighting against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers of darkness, and this means that it’s going to be hard, that there is going to be suffering, that there are going to be casualties. We have to be ready for this.” If you want to follow the Christian life, it’s the same thing. Missionary life is a life of the Cross, a life of sacrifice, of humble service, and of not always being appreciated. The archbishop told me that the missionary must be ready to be crucified by the very people he is trying to help. We can’t be devastated when this happens.
Missionary life is a life of the Cross, a life of sacrifice, of humble service, and of not always being appreciated
The missionary must be ready to be crucified by the very people he is trying to help
RTE: I imagine that the initial period of missionary enthusiasm is very similar to what new Christians go through. I remember once wishing aloud that a warmly enthusiastic new convert would come down to earth, but a Russian friend said, “Oh no. This is his spiritual childhood. Don’t deprive him of it. He will never be so innocently happy in his Christian life again. He will discover the difficulties and troubles of our earthly Church soon enough, but for now God has given him this heavenly joy. It will come to a natural end at the right time, and then he will struggle.” I think she was right. But once the struggle begins, how do you help new missionaries adapt?
The Three Stages in a Missionary’s Life
The Initial Excitement of Entering a New Culture
FR. LUKE: There is a typical pattern that missionaries go through. As I said, in the initial excitement of entering a new culture, seeing new people and new ways of doing things, there is warm enthusiasm, “Ah, these people are wonderful….” For example, on my own first short-term trip to Africa, I lived in a village for a month. I saw Kenyans walking an hour to church, and then sitting in church for four hours with no desire to leave quickly. To an outsider they seem so joyful and faithful that you generalize and say, “These people are just wonderful.” After you’ve been in the culture a little longer, however, you start to see the other side: “OK, some of these people are faithful, pious Christians … but there are also people hanging around to get something material from the church, who aren’t so honest or sincere.”
The Disillusionment by the Fifth or Sixth Month in the Mission
Usually by the fifth or sixth month in the mission field the pendulum starts to swing back and the missionary begins to see things with a negative eye. This is the most dangerous time. I’ve seen missionaries so disillusioned that they leave the mission field – or perhaps they don’t leave, but they allow their disillusionment to darken their entire experience. They view everything and everyone from a negative perspective. If this happens, it’s a tragedy, and it’s better for the missionary to leave than to offer such a distorted view of the gospel.
The Third Stage in which the Missionary Sees Both Good and Bad Within the ‘New’ Culture
It is important to prepare missionaries for these two stages, and there is still another phase which any good missionary will eventually reach. In this third stage, the missionary sees both good and bad within the culture. In any culture, including our own, we realize that there are faithful, pious people, as well as con-artists and those who are insincere. There are also good people who are weak, and who may fall into temptation. This is the reality.
RTE: Of life on earth.
When You Become a Missionary You Become a Person Without a Home
FR. LUKE: Exactly, of everywhere. We can’t go on mission expecting to find people open and ready to embrace the gospel. It is important to challenge the cross-cultural worker to adapt as soon as possible, but not to go native, not to give up his old culture in trying to blindly embrace the new. This is dangerous. When you become a missionary you become a person without a home. Although you have left your own culture, you will never fully adapt to the new. The indigenous people will never truly see you as one of themselves, no matter how hard you try. You become a third culture person.
You Become a Third Culture Person
Another common mistake in the history of western Christians has been for the missionary to create a western compound, a small western society in the midst of a new culture. When you leave that compound in the morning you enter the local culture, but when you come back at night, everything is like it is at home. This should not be the goal. We must strive to live among the people, close to the people.
Pulling Indigenous People Out of Their Cultural Setting or Leaving Neophyte Christians in Their Villages?
RTE: St. Macarius of Altai found that if he left the new Altai Christians in their villages, they would inevitably be drawn back into unchristian practices. The pull of society was just too great. So he created new Christian villages within the society, and asked the Christians he baptized to live there. The Spanish missionaries in California did the same thing. What do you think of this?
FR. LUKE: There are pros and cons to these different methods. There is validity to pulling people out of their culture and trying to create a village of new believers, and something positive in trying to avoid temptations which may be too strong for a neophyte Christian. A danger in pulling indigenous people out of their cultural setting is that they may also lose their connection with the people they left behind.
RTE: Also, I imagine that they would become dependent on the missionary who is the inspiration for the village.
FR. LUKE: Yes, and to some degree they may be tempted to adopt the missionary’s cultural baggage, whether western or whatever, and then it is hard for them to be salt for their own society. Along the same line of thought, another danger that missionary agencies have realized for centuries is that if you take the indigenous Christian out of his home setting and send him to the missionary country for training or for seminary, after he has lived in another culture for four or five years, he adapts to that culture and can’t really fit into his own again. His own people will see him as a foreigner if he goes back – and many don’t return at all.
Different Types of Missionaries: the Outreaching, the Itinerary and the Silent Witness
RTE: We are speaking of missionaries going into a new culture, but there are other types of missionaries as well – like the Greek St. Cosmas of Aitolia, who didn’t settle in any one place but traveled throughout Greece and modern-day Albania, preaching to both Christians and Moslems.
Another is St. Symeon the Stylite, who didn’t go anywhere. People came to him on his pillar from as far south as the Arabian peninsula – not only for spiritual help but for prayers for failed crops, for drastic weather. Arab tribes came to have him adjudicate their differences, and westerners came also, from Paris, Rome, and Britain.
In our Orthodox tradition we have the outward-reaching evangelical missionary efforts of St. Paul, Sts. Cyril and Methodius, and St. Innocent of Alaska, but then we also have the example of monastics who settled in an area to cultivate their spiritual life, reached a high level of sanctity, and eventually shone forth and attracted people with a centrifugal force.
RTE: Like the candle in front of the icon – so bright that everyone came to see what it was.
LUKE: Yes. And both are necessary. One of the great dangers in our Church is that I sometimes hear people say, “This ideal of a holy man settling in an area and attracting people to himself – this is true Orthodoxy. This is our only form of mission.” This is totally inaccurate. Yes, one can certainly see the silent witnesses through the centuries, but simultaneously, we had missionaries consciously reaching out, crossing cultures, going to other places. From the fourth century on, we have numerous examples of monks not only going into the desert to retreat from society, but also settling close to pagan villages and purposefully joining other monastics in organized bands to proclaim the gospel.
Go here for Part I
To Be Continued …