Thursday, August 13, 2009

Evangelism and Colonialism

Like many of you, I subscribe to the Bishops/Deputies listserv. I’ve seen a couple of particularly ugly discussions recently where the “orthodites” are using all possible language to insult LGBTs for our “sinful” or even perverse “choices” that lead some of us to make faithful covenants with one another.

The discussion has now taken a different turn, with a priest from Central Florida charging that we [i.e., the majority of Episcopalians] don’t understand Real Evangelism. He says Mother Teresa's work was “not evangelism.” The kindest words he could muster in his judgment of Mother Teresa was that hers was a sort of “pre-evangelism, while have a dignity and value of its own apart from whether any evangelism occurred.” [sic] [I’m not misquoting; I am quoting directly from his post. His sentence made no grammatical sense, but that’s not my fault.] He continued: “Evangelism is present Jesus to people." [sic] He says we should emulate those in the Acts of the Apostles: "They preached Jesus." Apparently, in his worldview, the only evangelism that counts is the sort that grabs people and “preaches Jesus” first, foremost, and overtly. I wonder if that means we need to grab people by the throat and warn them they must either accept Jesus as their PersonalLordAndSaviour or face eternal hellfire and damnation. [You know how the evangelical Protestants say it breathlessly – as if “PersonalLordAndSaviour” were a single word.] That certainly is how his comments sound to me.

I don’t have posting privileges on the HoBD listserv. If I did, here is the story I would tell.

Many of you know that I am deeply involved in the covenant relationship between the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri (TEC) and the Diocese of Lui (Episcopal Church of Sudan).

The history of Anglicanism among the Moru people in Sudan is well told in The Doctor Comes to Lui. I don’t have the book at hand, for I’ve loaned it out. But here’s the short version.

In the early 20th century, Fraser was a Scotsman who served in the military in World War I for the British Empire in southern Sudan. He was so moved by their situation that – when he ended his military service – he returned to Scotland, went back to school, and earned his M.D. degree, so that he and his wife Eileen could return to Moruland in southern Sudan to serve as a doctor. From all accounts, he was an evangelical Anglican. But he didn’t go to Lui to found a church first. No, first he established a hospital in Lui.

He healed the sick. He healed people who had been mauled by lions. He helped women give birth to healthy babies. He gave vaccinations. And [way before we had “invented” the concept of parish nursing], he trained the Moru people in primary care and established Primary Care Units throughout Moruland. [The photo above is one I took in 2006, of a Primary Care Unit which is now empty and abandoned. There is no primary care now.]

Then he began establishing schools. He taught some people who could become teachers. He established schools, and he sent trained teachers out to teach in the villages. More and more children began to learn to read and write. [The photo at left is from 2006 of the Lunjini School, adjacent to the cathedral, supported by the Diocese of Lui.]

While Dr. Fraser and his wife Eileen were doing all that, they prayed the prayed the daily office, morning and evening, each day. They had a small brick-and-mud home, which was very hot indoors. So they prayed the daily office outdoors, on their verandah. As the local people grew to know and trust the Frasers, more and more Moru people began to join them on the porch and began to inquire about this Jesus who had sent them from the comfort of Scotland into the difficult life of southern Sudan.

Eventually, and because of so many questions and much trust from the people of Lui, Dr. Fraser and his wife began holding Sunday services under a spreading shade tree in the village of Lui.

Where did they hold those services? There is a huge spreading tree in Lui. [I think it's a banyan.] In the days of slavery, Arab slavetraders from northern Susan would round up Africans in southern Sudan and sell them to westerners under this big spreading tree. The tree was named “Laru” or “Loru.” The Frasers decided to hold their first Episcopal services under the spreading arms of that tree. They preached Christ and salvation under that tree that had once been a place of despair and bondage. [The photo at right is at the base of the Laru tree in 2006, with children who now go to school in Lui.]

Because I don’t have the Fraser book in front of me, I don’t remember the chronology. But my recollection is that this move – from arrival as doctor to emergence as preacher and evangelist – took at least 10 years. Fraser knew that trust had to be established first. First, the people of Lui had to see Jesus in the Frasers! The Frasers had the sense that they had to live the Gospel before they dared to preach the Gospel.

Fast-forward from the 1920s to today. There is a strong Christian presence among the Moru people. The area is heavily Christian. When the Moru people built a cathedral, they named it Fraser Cathedral, in honor of the man who brought healthcare, education, and Christianity to the area. [The entrance to the Lui Cathedral compound bears a sign including the name of the Fraser Cathedral (seen in the background).]

The Moru people in Lui don’t seem to perceive Christianity as something that was forced upon them. They remember Dr. Fraser as a man who served, was sensitive to their culture, and did more listening than talking.

My experience in Lui is that they welcome ideas and support from Episcopalians/Anglicans. I believe that’s because Dr. Fraser came to Lui in humility. He did not come in first preaching Christ and threatening them with hellfire and damnation. From all I have read, he came with Christian passion and in Christian humility. I think he did what Jesus did. First, he took care of their physical/medical needs. Then he addressed their educational needs, and finally he began explicitly to preach the Christian Gospel and worked to make disciples. As I read the Gospels, that sounds pretty much like what Jesus did.

So I wonder about people like the priest from Central Florida, who seems to think Mother Teresa – and, by extension, Dr. Fraser – are merely “second-class evangelists.”

The best thing I learned from Dr. Fraser’s story is that he was a quiet, slow evangelist but not at all a colonialist. He lived among the people and lived as they lived. He survived the same deprivations they endured. He listened deeply before he began to speak. Like Jesus, he addressed their physical needs before he began to address spiritual issues. I would like to see our whole church follow that model. That would protect us from the terrible mistakes of colonialism.

And I utterly reject the approach by the Deputy from Central Florida, who seems to think we need to slam people's heads with the Gospel. I believe he is wrong, wrong, wrong! Profoundly wrong. I believe his ChezusChristMyPersonalLordAndSavior is the colonialist problem – not the solution! I believe he is wrong in Africa, and I believe he is wrong about how evangelism can work in the U.S.


Blogger Caminante said...

Preach it, sister!

That approach to evangelism IMNSHO does more damage than good.

8/14/2009 12:41 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Preach it indeed!


8/14/2009 8:53 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Glad you enjoyed this. I am forever inspired about how Dr. Fraser and his wife established themselves in Lui and finally became a part of that Sudanese community.

8/14/2009 9:48 PM  
Blogger Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Amen, dear Lisa!

8/17/2009 2:41 PM  
Blogger Göran Koch-Swahne said...

And thank you for this beautiful story!

8/17/2009 2:41 PM  
Blogger Grandmère Mimi said...

That's my kind of preaching.

8/19/2009 10:16 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thank you, Mimi, and amen!

8/20/2009 12:15 AM  

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