Mission from the margins

USPG General Secretary Duncan Dormor reflects on the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism, which took place in Arusha, Tanzania, last month, organised by the World Council of Churches.

“I have agency, I am worthy, I have a voice, and I am free!”

The voice in question is that of Adi Mariana Waqa, a young woman from the Aisokula tribe of the northern island of Taveuni in Fiji – who spoke powerfully last week in Arusha, Tanzania, about God’s mission being at, and critically from the margins.

Arusha was the setting for a truly global gathering of the nations, with over 1,000 delegates from all denominations – Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox. The ethos was deeply shaped by African Christianity – most evident in the joyful worship that even set stiff-limbed northern Europeans in motion; and the tone by the strong representation of women and younger speakers, especially those of young indigenous leaders.

Mission from the margins: Again and again, this theme emerged powerfully in Arusha: that the poor and the marginalised are not mute and invisible; are not simply beneficiaries (and certainly not objects of sympathy, pity or charity), but rather transformative agents of change.

This theme was enscribed early with a keynote speech from Dr Mutale Mulenga-Kaunda, who spoke powerfully out of her own personal story of profound struggle of poverty compounded by the death of her mother from Aids: “I am young, and an African woman, but I am more than that”.

Her personal testimony to resilience and transformative agency found an echo in the voice of the Patriarch of Antioch and of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church, Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, who spoke movingly of a range of relief and development initiatives throughout Syria and Iraq that would primarily benefit the majority Muslim population, alongside some Christians.

Indeed, it is those on the margins, who in articulating stories of hope and transformation in the midst of struggle are often most capable of speaking the language of prophetic discipleship; of bringing the most powerful articulation to the “Nazarene manifesto” (Luke 4 16-20). And indeed, to deny the agency of such discipleship through continued, unreflective paternalism is to perpetuate the injurious wounds of those colonial encounters that “wrote off” whole cultures as “savage” or “barbaric”.

The challenge in hearing of a mission from the margins does not lie with the voice, but rather with the hearing. All too often such voices have been talked over. Because that voice can be a challenging one. This is most obvious when we reflect on the environment: Adi again: “as an indigenous person, I cannot help caring in my being and bringing along with me the pain and cry of mother earth which is God’s precious creation”.

As the economic imperative drives people to the ends of the earth and to the bottom of the oceans to “harvest” or squeeze every last drop of sustenance from mother earth, so the awkward voices of those who hold the land and the sea and the air to be sacred hit a discordant note. Yet as wealth continues to be used to capitalise on the vulnerability of people these are exactly the prophetic voices that need to be raised for the benefit of all, if the earth is to remain our common home.

Voices from the margins are also challenging for they so often carry the scars that remind western Christians of the past, and ongoing, patterns of exploitation that followed “discovery” and colonialism: the scars of genocide, of enslavement, of displacement and of the destruction of peoples and cultures.

The ecumenical nature of the Arusha gathering was also a powerful reminder that Anglicans (six per cent of those present) are but a small part of a rich, diverse, global family; of brothers and sisters. In the face of such hospitable and joyful company – with English the dominant language – the only possible response, as a member of the Church of England is humility.

Humility, because it is especially in such company that one fully realises the degree to which British identity and self-worth is still nurtured by nostalgia for a “glorious” past. We remain sharp of hearing when our African sister or Indian brother articulates a partial defence of the British Empire.

Yet, as British Christians, many of us remain deaf to its many destructive legacies and continue, unwittingly, in paternalistic patterns of thinking. Yet the mission of Jesus Christ is from the margins. For, we will only begin the journey of being set free and start the process of transformation, if and when we sit down, break bread, and listen to the voices of others.

  • Click here to read the Arusha Call to Discipleship – the agreed statement of the Conference.
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