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    Vulnerable Mission in Action

    Learning indigenous languages and prioritizing local funding, these missionaries follow a humble path of service, and help others do the same.

    By Jim Harries

    July 8, 2021

    Available languages: français

    • Maurice Billingsley

      It should be stated emphatically that Anglican and Catholic missionaries from the 1870s onward were working in local languages in East Africa, translating Scripture and catechisms, setting oral languages into writing, compiling dictionaries and grammars; work that could only be done in partnership with native speakers of these languages. Mr Harries owes them an incalculable debt. From the first local people have been missionaries as catechists, teachers, carers, and before long as priests and sisters. Funds from overseas, wisely used, advance Justice and Peace. A woman should not suffer miscarriage because she is poor and lives many miles from a midwife or gynaecologist, in the name of vulnerable purity.

    • Elizabeth Do

      Amen to this. Living overseas, I understand the impulse of Americans to group and avoid both the discomfort and difficulty of language immersion. It is a deeply humbling and frustrating journey for anyone without a background in language acquisition. Yet the expat bubble is so antithetical to the biblical notion of church as the local body in its diversity. I am always encouraged to hear of others who consider that submitting to the rigor of language study is the key to humbly understanding others and a prerequisite to embodying the gospel to them.

    I went to Zambia in 1988 in response to a call from God to serve people in the majority world. I was amazed at the level of misunderstanding I found between Western people living and working in Zambia and Indigenous African people there. All too often, confusion and error arose as a result of the enormous financial disparities between the two sides, which aggravated communication issues, even when all parties spoke English. In order to help resolve such issues, in 2007 I co-founded the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission, which advocates relating to people using their own languages and resources. I work closely with many Indigenous churches, teaching the Bible using the Luo and Swahili languages. I also look after orphaned children in my home in Kenya, where I have lived since 1993. I have chaired numerous conferences in the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States, encouraging others to relate to African people in a vulnerable way, on their own territory.

    Attendees take a break between sessions at a church ­conference in Kenya.

    Attendees take a break between sessions at a church ­conference in Kenya. Photograph courtesy of Jim Harries

    The Alliance for Vulnerable Mission promotes mission outreach by those who are vulnerable, to people who are vulnerable. It believes that missionaries to the majority world should live and work vulnerably, humbly, from a ­position where they can listen. Listening and understanding requires use of the local language and dialects, as locals use them. It also means not contributing outside finances, which puts others in the position of having to talk for money. Instead, vulnerable missionaries work with local resources arising from family investment and home businesses, to contribute to the flourishing of locally rooted communities.

    It is surprisingly difficult for Western missionaries to be vulnerable in Africa today. Supporters often press for ­quantifiable results: “How many people have you baptized?” or “How many wells have you dug?” Quantifiable results are much easier to achieve if you use
    outside money.

    The use of an Indigenous language can make Bible interpretation complicated: Perhaps the word for God in one language means “source of prosperity,” thus implying what the West thinks of as the “prosperity gospel.” Perhaps the word for healing literally means “cooling,” based on an understanding of disease as heat arising from tension in relationships or from witchcraft. The word for doctor might imply manipulation of mystical powers.

    Missionaries have often tried to avoid such issues by using only English. They have used donations to cancel opposition. These actions have made majority-world people dependent on unfamiliar, outside ways of bringing both “prosperity” and “cooling.” Vulnerable missionaries seek to walk the Jesus way, to go where they can share the gospel from within the complexities of Indigenous ways of life. If local means seem slow or weak by comparison with foreign money and resources, we say with a wise missionary of long ago, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

    Contributed By

    Dr. Jim Harries is the chairman and co-founder of the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission. He has lived in East Africa since 1988, teaching the Bible in Indigenous languages, caring for orphans, and working in hospital chaplaincy.

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