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The Missionary as Change Agent

Richard Poethig as a fraternal worker in the 1950s in the Philippines

Richard Poethig as a fraternal worker in the 1950s in the Philippines

by Richard Poethig

A recent Wall Street Journal item caught my attention.

The title “Christian Missionaries Against Colonialism” set my mind in motion. Part of my life had been dedicated to work overseas within the context of what had been called Christian mission. The WSJ article writer David A. Hollinger was making the case that the old image of missionary as a carrier of colonial imperialism had taken a sharp turn in the 20th century.

His recent book “Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America” tells the story of the changes in the mission experience which brought a new brand of missionary into being.

I respond to Hollinger’s thesis from within our family’s overseas experience. We served in the church overseas in the mid-20th century when the post-World War II period was bringing dramatic global changes. The global conflict was a challenge to the colonialism which had dominated the history of the previous four centuries. Our family spent fifteen years in the Philippines, a nation which had been within the Spanish orbit since 1517. The United States began its own colonial experience in its victory over Spain in 1898 and its colonial administration of the Philippines in the 20th century.

The change in mission thinking came with the political and social upheaval at the end of the war in the Asian arena. The global conflict, especially in Asia, challenged the Western presence in former colonial nations. Mission churches had become national churches. Nationals had become leaders in the churches and in the schools, hospitals and other structures begun during the missionary presence. National leadership within the churches in Asia was called to deal with the post-war rebuilding in their nations.

The churches in Asia renewed their relationship with the counterpart Western church bodies. The leadership in the Asian church bodies chose the fields in which they needed special help. The leadership in the Presbyterian Church, USA was especially aware of the new day in its overseas mission. Charles Leber, the leader in the Board of Foreign Missions, was the initiator for change in the 1950s.

In twenty three years from 1936 to 1959, Charles Leber visited 58 churches in fifty-eight countries. Dr. Andrew Thakur Das memoralized the work of Leber in changing church thinking: “Of these 18 journies, perhaps the eleventh in 1953, was the most significant. On this trip he visited Switzerland, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, Malaya, Indonesia, Philippines and Germany. Somewhere on his way to Bangkok, he wrote to his colleagues at “156.”

“Let us change the name of the Board; let us eliminate the term ‘home base’; let us change the name ‘missionary’ into ‘fraternal worker’; let us invite fraternal workers from other lands into the United States of America.”

Thus began the reality of the new day which had come to mission. Action was taken by the PCUSA for a name change from “foreign missions” to The Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations, A person in overseas work was no longer a missionary but a fraternal worker. A person was no longer sent, but was called by the overseas church to a special work which that church saw as their need. The fraternal worker was linked with a national who was the primary partner and the supervisor.

As a case in point, my work to which I was called by the United Church of Christ in the Philippines was in the field of industrial evangelism. Across Asia and in other “so called” developing countries, the emphasis was upon the growth in urban centers and in the industrialization process. The term ultimately developed for the field of work was urban-industrial mission. Our minds were on the social changes taking place in the developing world. The emphasis was on justice ministries.

Cross cultural friendships developed out of this cooperative work. This brought changes in the way the work was carried out and the way this change was communicated to the those in the congregations in the United States. It is here that Hollinger’s thesis carries weight. The message and the engagement in the overseas work changed the thinking on mission within the U.S. churches. It dramatically changed the “colonial” view which had been part of the mission message in previous generations.

These changes in the Western churches overseas mission took on a global meaning with the creation of the World Council of Churches in 1948. The representation of the churches in one global organization opened the door for the leadership of the former overseas mission churches on the world scene.

Within the Asian region the ecumenical process had been underway with the creation of the East Asia Conference of Churches in 1956, later renamed the Christian Council of Asia. The organization of regional council of churches had a direct impact on how work among the regional churches was to be organized and supported. One case in point was the immediate recognition within the churches in the region of the growth of urban centers and the force of industrial development upon the people and culture of their nations.

The changes in urban and industrial development hastened the cooperation of the churches globally in the field of urban-industrial mission. The regional councils in Asia, Africa and Latin America each had their counterparts in this area of social change. At the global level a desk was created at the World Council of Churches in the 1960s in Geneva, Switzerland which gathered the stories, the work and the issues of urban-industrial in these global regions. Those who worked in these regions became change agents both in the work of urban industrial mission and in the consciousness of the countries in which they were citizens. In his writing Hollinger touches upon the ecumenical churches reconsideration of the meaning of mission in this current age and how it strengthened the sense of globalization within the congregations in the United States.

Hollinger makes the case that in the 20th century the attitudes of the missionary community, by their commitment to the people and the work in overseas communities, had opened a cross-cultural understanding. The acceptance of the traditions and the history of the nations in which they lived and worked provided a new framework for their own lives. It was this view which they brought back to their own country. The missionary and especially their children became among the strongest opponents of racism and the colonialism formerly associated with Christian mission.