I am a missionary. Through the years, many people have asked me—what exactly does a missionary do? Some ask for information purposes others are curious and still others, well let’s just say they can be somewhat less friendly. With the book Boxes and Saints in mind, here is my response.
At the core of my calling is the desire to help people. I may express that desire in several ways. One is the desire to share the Good News with others. Evangelism expresses itself in the starting, sustaining, and revitalization of communities of faith where people can grow in faith and practice living on this earth as a part of the greater family or community of Jesus Christ.
Another way that I express my call and my desire to help people is by dedicating my life to serving people and communities who, often by no choice of their own, find themselves living on the margins of society. Paul Hiebert is quoted as saying, “The world takes care of the wealthy…the church is entrusted with the care of others, on the margins of society.” In this way, I feel not only the need to share the truth of the Gospel but serve and help to meet the needs of suffering people. In both cases, there is a compassion component. There is compassion for the spiritually lost and compassion for those who are physically in need and hurting. I admit, in both of these, we—as a missionary community—have not always gotten it right.
That being said, there are generally two opinions of missionaries. One is that missionaries enter a culture and destroy it by deculturalizing it. This is the Boxer opinion. Note: At one time it was said that missionaries westernize or even Europeanize. However, that’s no longer the case as there are more and more missionaries from the global south carrying a contextualized gospel with them around the world.
Another opinion is that missionaries enter a culture to help people who need help spiritually and socially and have a positive impact on people within the many cultures in which they serve. This is the Saints opinion.
Both of my definitions are very simplistic, but they do give a general view of the two opinions expressed in Boxers and Saints.
Boxers shares the story of Boa and the Boxer movement in the late 1800’s China. In general, the movement was made up of Chinese nationals who wanted to maintain their Chinese culture and felt that western missionaries, who had come to China, were destroying the culture and the Chinese people. It is a story of a strong nationalism and the fight against influence from outsiders. In this book, it is the missionaries, with their pale faces, big noses and hairy hands that are the outsiders; and it is the missionaries who force their monotheistic religion on a culture of many gods. The cruelty of these missionaries to the Chinese people depicted by Yang is painful for me to read and see.
On the other side, Saints, also set in the time of the Boxer rebellion, tells the story of Four-Girl. Four-Girl is the fourth daughter, born into a world where girls are not welcome, and the number four is an unlucky number. Four-Girl follows the teaching of the missionaries and seems to find her place among the movement of the Chinese Christians who, even in their difference to the historical Chinese culture, welcome her as one of their own.
Though this story is focused on Little Boa and Four-Girl, it is a story of the broader cultural changes that have taken place in China and the influences of those from within and from outside of the culture. Without question, missionaries have had an impact on China as they have on other parts of the world. As a missionary and a part of the larger missionary community, I must face that fact that some of the impact was not positive and some even destructive. It is a lesson still not thoroughly learned of what can happen when we mix politics with faith, the power of God with the power of government or the heart of God with the desire for power and control. It is a result of our failure to walk humbly, love mercy and do justly in that order.
On the other hand, the missionary impact in China and around the world has many positive results. Including their concern for the spiritual state of people. Missionaries have built schools and hospitals, homes and churches. They have and continue to feed, cloths and educate people. They have selflessly cared for people who are otherwise forgotten by their own people and governments. They continue to build contextualized communities of faith that are changing peoples lives, not by the power of man, but by the grace, forgiveness and, love of God. I see this continuing and that both humbles me and encourages me. I am proud to be a part of the missionary community. My name is Jim, and I am proud to be a missionary.
With this our final post, I wanted to say thank you to Dr. Jason Clark and all my cohort colleagues. We’re read and haven’t read a lot of books. We’ve written a bazillion words. We worked to develop our analytical skills and critical thinking skills. I have been all around the world, but the greatest adventure of all was this journey with each of you. To you my friends, my dear colleagues, and my brothers, and sisters in Christ…we made it! See you in Hong Kong!
Luen Yang, Gene. Boxers and Saints. New York: First Second, 2013.