There are few activities in which the church engages, which cause as much suspicion today as supporting "missionaries." The word itself is a problem - in that it conjours up all manner of unhelpful anachronisms, ranging from jungle-scything pith-helmet wearing adventurers; to the power-hungry Imperialist, riding the wave of empire to first commit, and then impose inappropriate cultural faux pas on unsuspecting peoples. Indeed some of the first wave of the missionary movement, alongside some outlandish acts of self-sacrifice, did sometimes appear to want to make the world rather more, er.. English. This is rather an odd thing to want to do in the name of the Jewish messiah, whose own mission was not one which involved demolition of his culture, but his spectacular complete incarnation within it. However......
This lesson of incarnation is one which western mission societies grasped long ago, and no mission today speaks in the arrogant terms of yesteryear, when every discussion progressed on the assumed superiority of the westerner. For a generation now, the missionary movement has continued to send westerners to serve in the church in various parts of the developing word - with a stated desire to be the servants of those they meet, not the masters. The stereotypical 'missionary' has long since faded into the archives.
Last night however, we were reminded that this 'second phase' (the post-Christendom western missionary) is now being eclipsed. While the popular image of a Christian is a white, old, rich, rural-dwelling English person - the truth of the matter is that the church today is massively and overwhelmingly poor, non-white, young, urban and in the developing world. So too, mission has changed in the light of these new realities.
Thoma and Sybil from the Velemegna Society Hospital in Bidar, South India, spoke at church last night. They are Indians, whose mission is to India, who live and work in the hospital that their father founded, which has won awards and accolades for its amazing work in eye surgery and in caring for families affected by Leprosy. They didn't come on a tour from a western mission agency with a big office in Milton Keynes, they came as friends, as a trustee and surgeon of the hospital, to share their prayer requests and practical needs with us. The hospital is a model of the kind of mission work which is both practical and spiritual. In India the Christian community is a minority (in some places a beleaguered minority), and this hospital is absolutely up-front about the Christian motivation for their work. In fact they speak openly to the patients and families about the love of Christ which motivates them to suffer abuse for medically treating Dalits and Lepers, who are not deemed worthy of medical care - according to some local customs. They are completely non-discriminatory in both their spiritual and practical care; they offer both the love of Christ and medical help to all without any discrimination, for race, background, caste or gender. They do so as locals, freed from any connotations of Imperialism, but as servants whose love and concern for their people is palpable, and the costs they have paid for their service to them in Christs name, considerable. They asked for our help and our prayer. It's a privilege to be able to do so.
One thing Thoma pointed out to me was that in the UK we have a unique advantage in being able to help at the moment. The UK Pound has been outrageously strong for a long time, especially in comparison with the Rupee. "You have no idea of the purchasing power of your loose-change, your copper-coins, when converted to the Rupee" Thoma told me. He added - that I also had no idea of the enormous good that they could accomplish with it either. They are now refurbishing homes for the families of Leprosy sufferers, who though they treat, are still ousted from their communities and have nowhere else to live - a project in conjunction with the Leprosy Mission. They are also purchasing equipment for eye-operations in conjunction with the Christian Blind Mission. They have pastors who care for the spiritual needs of the patients and their families. They have countless stories to tell us, of people and projects to pray for. All of these are ways in which they invite us to join them in their mission to their people!
Of course, the next wave of the missionary movement will be that countries in the two-thirds world, who were once the recipients of missionaries, will increasingly be sending them to us! Already, many denominations have pastors from the developing world in churches here in the west, and as the church here continues to limp along rather er ....limply, and the church in places like India can teach us so much about love, self-sacrifice, commitment, servanthood, faith, vision, prayer, passion and Christlikeness - then perhaps this is exactly what we need!
In the meantime I was inspired by the example of the eye surgeon Dr. Sybil Meshramker, who at huge personal cost is the hospital's eye-specialist. She performs as many eye-operations a year as Ninewells hospital in Dundee (2000!!), often working inhuman hours in order to manage the overwhelming demand for procedures such as cataract removal and insertion of artificial replacement lenses. Apparently she takes her holidays on board the Mercy Ships... so she can do more operating! In addition to this she is the hospital's director, a job she finds hugely draining as her authority to manage is constantly questioned because of the patriarchal assumptions of her society. However, she - along with others, presides over the legacy of spiritual and practical service of her people in Christ's name which her parents passed on to her.