On an unusually hot August bank holiday weekend people gathered in the beautiful grounds of Boughton House, Northamptonshire for Greenbelt. The festival is a unique event with a huge variety of talks, debates, music, comedy, poetry, worship and more.
This year USPG hosted a debate which sparked a huge amount of interest. Festival-goers were having conversations about it around their tents on the campsite before the festival had even started. USPG is continuing to wrestle with what David Lammy’s statement ‘‘The world does not need any more white saviours’ means for a 300 year old mission agency. We are literally ‘Rethinking Mission’.
Beginning from the premise that we are all made in the image of God, ‘irrespective of the paintwork’, the Revd Rose Hudson Wilkin, Bishop-elect of Dover, reminded us that we share a common humanity; no-one is any more or less than anyone else. But what experience tells is a different story: we must challenge ourselves to overcome a white saviour syndrome, which is deep in our history or DNA. We must work towards the inclusion of people ‘who look like me’ in all walks of life.
Revd Ijeoma Ajibade, of the Mission to Seafarers, reminded us that the way story is told is as important as the story itself. We need to ask questions about how we tell the story of our Mission Agencies: how we give agency to those whom we serve, how do we share power in our institutions, how are we genuinely in partnership; whose experiences really matter? We need to tell stories of celebration and success, not of pity, in Africa, just as we do here.
Shakeel Nurmahi, Chair of the Church of England Youth Council, reminded us of the reality of spread of empire, of which his own family in India were recipients, and the imposition of white cultures as an act of superiority on others; this can be systematically rooted in our culture, and is deeply devaluing of others. We fail to recognise the deep richness of other cultures, and their contributions in global history, literally ‘whitewashing history’.
Revd Duncan Dormor, General Secretary of USPG, spoke of humility, history and habits. Augustine reminds us that the most important habit is ‘humility’: mission is about deep listening, to people’s stories, recognising their agency and respect. Our history as a nation, and mission agency, includes imperialism, ‘glorious mission’, ‘civilising others’ – we need to wrestle with this and other ways that these stories may be told; and we need to change habits: unthink things, listen to others, who will help us change. The panelists provoked excellent debate and questions from the floor which continued in the USPG stand throughout the weekend at Greenbelt.
A team of dedicated volunteers and staff members were on the the stand all weekend, engaging festival-goers in conversation about the panel discussion, the work of USPG, and the Journey With Us programme.