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Jim Moos' address to ¡Missionworks! October 3, 2008
What would you do for a stranger? If one stopped you on the street and asked you for directions, would you provide them? Sure. Most of us would do that much to help out a stranger in a pinch.
What would you do for an acquaintance? Probably more than you'd do for stranger. You'd give directions to a stranger, but you might offer an acquaintance a ride across town if they needed one. Most of us would do that for an acquaintance.
But what would you do for a friend? What would you do for someone with whom you share a special relationship of trust and affection? You'd give them your car if you could. And then you'd ask if there was anything else you could do.
Aristotle said friendship is the most important and enduring of all human relationships—friends are essential to a good life. Whatever our age or situation we all want, and need, to have good friends.
I believe that friendship is an appropriate metaphor for doing mission. Often mission bodies and churches speak of having overseas "partners." In many ways the partner image has served us well. I won't suggest we abandon it. But we need to understand its limitations, and draw from other images.
I think the language of friendship is a faithful guide for building the kinds of relationships God desires for the universal body of Christ. I want to suggest that friendship is how individuals and churches can reach across the globe and establish ties that strengthen the entire body of Christ. In spelling this out, I will draw upon my own experience of working in East Timor.
I first went to East Timor in 2002 as a volunteer for Global Ministries. Along with clothes and books, I took along the baggage of church partnership. I was going to work with our partner church—the Protestant Church in East Timor.
The word "partner" derives its primary meaning from the world of commerce. It traces back to Old French in which partners were part-holders or co-owners a business. I'm not sure that the business world is the best source of metaphors for understanding how the church should function.
Business partners link up for the purpose of economically productive and profitable enterprise. As in a law partnership. The partners may enjoy enriching personal relationships. Or they may not. The quality of relationship is secondary in a partnership; the business is primary. Getting the job done trumps all else. Not so in mission. A little background.
East Timor is a small island country northwest of Australia. It's the poorest country in Asia, and one of the poorest on earth. It was colonized by Portugal early in the 16th century. Then in 1975 East Timor was invaded by Indonesia. And over the next 24 years, the Indonesian military conducted a genocidal campaign in which a third of East Timor's population lost their lives. Then in the fall of 1999, the United Nations sponsored a referendum on independence. After 5 centuries of foreign domination, the East Timorese would at last have a voice in their own future. They voted overwhelmingly for independence.
In response to the vote, Indonesian militia unites went on a destructive rampage that can only be described as apocalyptic. An estimated 80% of the buildings and infrastructure in the country were destroyed. Untold numbers were killed, and masses of refugees were created.
After the situation stabilized, I was asked by Global Ministries to go to East Timor. I wanted to make a difference. I felt confident that I possessed skills that our Timorese church partners would find highly useful. Instead, I felt like the Maytag repairman in a land without washing machines.
People couldn't have been better to me. My host family had of a dorm-sized refrigerator that held all the perishables for a household of 10 people. But a bottle of water was kept in it just for me, so I could have a cold drink. And there were a mere 4 chairs in the house for the 10 people. You do the math. As a guest, I always had a chair. They gave the best of everything. Except they did not give me a job.
The East Timorese have vast experience with foreign do-gooders. People who parachute in, assume that they know what's best, make promises, accomplish a few tasks, feel good about themselves and then leave—never to be heard from again. If that's what I'd come to do, then it was thanks, but no thanks.
While partners work on projects. Friends build relationships. The East Timorese would not allow me to treat them like a project. There would be no projects at all apart from a solid relationship. A personal friendship between them and me. And relationship of trust and commitment between our churches. Friends first. Work second.
After a few months, a reasonable level of trust developed between us. We were becoming friends. That opened up other possibilities. My wife Sharon and I were invited to go the remote village of Lisadila one Sunday morning for worship. After church we met with community leaders who asked if we could help start a school. They explained that there were several primary schools in the area at which their kids could acquire a basic literacy. But the nearest secondary school was an hour away and they had no transportation. We said we thought we could help, but it would take time.
We went back home and our local congregation got excited about the possibilities. They wanted to be part of this relationship too. Together, we established a non-profit corporation—the East Timor Education Foundation. We raised funds, and I made another trip to East Timor to start the planning process.
In the business world, there are senior partners and there are junior partners. Senior partners are the ones with the money. They get to call the shots. But friendships are established on an entirely different basis.
Leaders of the East Timorese church and I met with the villagers and asked them what kind of a school they wanted for their children. They said they wanted them to learn standard academic subjects so they got a broader view of the world. But they all knew stories about kids who had got high-flung educations. Some even graduated for High School. They received education for jobs that simply don't exist. In the capital city of Dili, unemployment is well over 50%.
The villagers wanted their kids to learn skills to improve life right there in the village. Teach them agriculture and animal husbandry, nutrition and carpentry. And they wanted the school to deepen their children's knowledge of faith.
We met with East Timor's Minister of Education and he enthusiastically signed off on the project, even though the government has no money to invest in it. The Lisadila Vocational Junior High School was to be the first of its kind school. Government officials expressed hope that it would be a model school for village education. Keep in mind that it isn't the result of a Global Ministries proposal. It wasn't a Jim Moos' idea or one put forward by my church council. The school idea emerged from a conversation between friends.
While senior partners dictate terms to junior partners, friends relate to each other as equals. On both the personal level and the church level, they listen to each other. They are transparent with each other. They learn about and from each other. And they struggle together. And yes, there has been lots of struggle.
East Timor is the world's newest nation; independence came in May of 2002. It has no experience in self-government, and little sense of national unity. Those things were hard to come by in America too. Consider that four score and seven years after our founding, we were at war with ourselves.
Sadly, in the spring of 2006 violence broke out and East Timor teetered on the brink of Civil War. Somewhere around 150,000 people became refugees. Just as in 1999, masses of people lost everything they had.
Military personnel poured in from Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and Malaysia to put down the uprising. And international "partners" who'd come to do development work, they left the country in droves because of the danger and instability. So guns poured into the country, while those there for peaceful purposes left.
If we had been partners in a business sense, an email wishing the Timorese well would have been sufficient. We might even have promised to keep them in our prayers. But for a true friend, you pull out all the stops.
I spoke with my family and congregation and Global Ministries. We agreed that if it was possible to go to East Timor without putting our friends in danger, then I needed to do so. So I checked with the Timorese, and they said, "please come." I went. Because when friends suffer, you don't wish them well from the safety of the other side of the planet. You go. I was happy to be met there by more friends. By James Vijayakumar, Global Ministries' executive for Southern Asia, and John Campbell-Nelson, Global Ministries' missionary in Indonesia.
We couldn't "fix" East Timor's problems. But we could be in solidarity with them. We weren't equipped to mount a massive relief effort. But we could purchase rice to help those who had fallen through the cracks of the United Nations relief effort. We couldn't advance the school project. But we could provide blankets and soap and soccer balls to orphans whose orphanage had been burned and they were now living in refugee camps. We couldn't stop the gunfire or extinguish the flames of burning houses. But we could share in the fear of our hosts. We couldn't usher in God's realm of peace and justice, but we could proclaim it to those in power. We couldn't promise that everything would be all right. But we could commit ourselves to walking with them into an uncertain future. Friends do whatever they can to help bear the burdens of suffering friends.
The crisis of 2006 set us a year behind in the school. The project was on hold—a disappointment. But I returned in 2007 and we made plans to start class. And we did. Last September, the first 40 students enrolled and we were off and running. This year we've enrolled another class and have a student population of 80. Next year we hope to be up to 120. Numbers would be the whole story if we were simply about business. But we aren't. Partners can be all about business. But friendship calls for a broader agenda. Sometimes, friends need to celebrate.
I returned in July of this year to discover that a school dedication had been planned. People from 3 villages had prepared for a full two months. If the destruction of the past had been apocalyptic, this celebration was eschatological; it was nothing less than a foretaste of God's coming realm.
On the morning of the dedication, a group of friends were taken several hundred yards out of the schoolyard. We were escorted in by horsemen in traditional dress who rode highly decorated mounts. They led us to large bamboo arch where we were met by hundreds of villagers. We were given gifts of cloth woven specially for the occasion. Songs of welcome were sung to us while men standing on top of the bamboo arch showered us with flower pedals. Then children took us by the arm and led us down a pathway that was marked off by wood poles decorated with flowers and palm leaves. Other children danced before us. We were taken to a newly constructed shelter so we wouldn't have to sit in the sun. And that was just prelude. We hadn't even gotten to the dedication. Afterwards, there was a great feast. Never in my life have I been part of such a celebration.
If the relationship that I, and my church, and Global ministries have with the Timorese had been a partnership, I might have questioned the celebration. All of that effort, all of those resources could have been put to other uses. The villagers are so poor. And the money could be better spent on the poor. That was Judas' line, wasn't it?
But like the woman who anointed Jesus with the costly oil, the villagers knew that sometimes in friendship, extravagant grace is not too much. So we celebrated and gave thanks in ways echoed the coming realm of God.
The East Timorese are not a project to be undertaken; they are people who are called and equipped by God. No part of the church in America—not me, not my congregation, not Global Ministries—none of us are senior partners who dictate the terms of the relationship. By the same token, we have not humbled ourselves as junior partners in a condescending effort to give the Timorese greater dignity. As if dignity was ours to dole out. Instead, we come together with the Timorese as friends. As equals. We walk the paths of discipleship together in fellowship.
The language of friendship is deeply embedded in scripture. In his farewell discourse in John's gospel, Jesus told the disciples that he does not call them servants. Servants, employees frequently don't even know what the boss is thinking. But Jesus made known all he had heard from God. "Therefore," he said, "I have called you friends." As a friend, Jesus shares all of our joys and burdens. Surely that's how we should conduct our friendships.
I suggest that we rethink the metaphors we use to do global mission. Certainly the language of partnership was an advance over the colonial mindset of ecclesiastical domination that for so longed informed mission efforts. But partnership finds its primary meaning it the world of business and commerce. On the other hand, friendship is the language of faith. It expresses the mutual love and respect that are so much a part of God's realm.
Partners focus on projects. Friends build relationships. Partners require accountability. Friends establish trust. Partnerships can be dissolved. Friendships endure. Partnerships are expressed in legal documents and spreadsheets. Friendship is expressed in mutual affection and commitment. Partners look for profit. Friends seek the good of the other.
Jesus said, "I have called you friends." What shall we call global members of the body of Christ?