'Everyone, Everywhere' mission conference opens with call to conversion

Participants worship, share experiences, learn effective ways to build relationships
June 6, 2008

Participants in the Everyone, Everywhere World Mission Conference heard calls to conversion and global transformation during the meeting's opening sessions.

The conference, which runs June 5-8, is being held at the Conference Center at the Maritime Institute near Baltimore, Maryland. It is also a joint meeting of the Global Episcopal Mission Network (GEM) and the Episcopal Partnership for Global Mission (EPGM).

Some 300 people from more than 60 dioceses of the Episcopal Church and six provinces of the Anglican Communion are gathered to worship together, tell their mission stories, learn effective ways to build relationships throughout the world, and share mission interests and experiences.

"Mission is why the church exists," Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said in a videotaped greeting. In an echo the words of Swiss theologian Emil Brunner, she said "The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning."

Calls to conversion
Both of the conference's first two speakers called participants to the on-going conversion of themselves and the world.

Preaching at the conference's opening Eucharist June 5, the Rev. Mike Kinman, executive director of Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation, suggested that he didn't have to tell stories about missionaries who have gone out to heal and transform others and later realized "that it was you who were healed and transformed in greater measure."

"Your stories are probably even better than mine," he said.

Instead, Kinman called the congregation to a "conversion about liberation … from what holds us most tightly in its grasp."

Kinman said that Jesus' command to the 70 missionaries in the day's Gospel (Luke 10:1-9) to take nothing with them is a "call to vulnerability" -- a call that requires two responses. First, people need to learn how to "receive the vulnerable stranger and treat them with God's extravagant love," he said.

The second response calls for the hearer to become vulnerable as well. This call is especially hard for Americans to hear, he said, because of their belief in the "gospel of security," adding that "we have this almost pathological fear of it all being taken away."

Asking people to take a bill out of their wallets, Kinman noted that all U.S. currency bears the motto "In God We Trust." In truth, he said, most Americans trust in the making and keeping of money. That false god has infiltrated the church, Kinman said.

When the expense side of a mission budget is bigger than the income side, the budget gets cut, he said. The church has adopted secular business models and calls it stewardship, Kinman suggested.

"We've convinced ourselves that this is the faithful thing to do," Kinman said, adding that Christ sends people out "not as smart business people, but as sheep among wolves."

He suggested taking the stance that most of the world must take: living that part of the Lord's Prayer that assumes a dependence upon God to "give us this day our daily bread."

Professor Steve de Gruchy, director of theology and development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and the conference's first plenary speaker, said that people involved in mission must not be as concerned about making connections with others as transforming the connections that already exist.

"We are connected in this world, whether we like it or not," de Gruchy said. That, he added, is a statement of fact, faith and function.

The deeper questions surround the end results of those connections and how people of faith are called to transform or convert the connections to change the results, he said.

The facts of connection include information technologies that allow instant communications and easy travel around the world, global events from the Olympics to natural and human-caused crises that make people feel connected to each other, and a global economic system that makes the global village anything but benign.

"There are winners and there are losers" in the global village; there are people at the center who get rich and there are beggars and lepers, de Gruchy said, adding that the system of connections is working exactly how it was set up to work.

"Everyone, everywhere doesn't benefit equally from the connection," he said, saying that he stated these facts of connection "not to preach guilt and not to demand remorse" but because those facts are "not the way of the gospel."

Acknowledging the connectedness of the world as a statement of faith, de Gruchy said, rests in what he called four key theological resources. They include membership in the church, which shows a rootedness in God that cannot exclude anyone; the Trinity, which shows that God is connected in the heart of God; the incarnation of God in Christ, which shows God reaching out to include the created world in the embrace of the Trinity; and the mission of the church, which should flow out of the Trinity and the incarnation.

De Gruchy said that in reality much of the past mission work of the church instead flowed out of the desire of Western Christian nations to expand their empire and control the world's commerce. Yet, he noted, even St. Paul wasn't so much a missionary who connected people as a missionary who tried to convert the dominant Hellenistic culture of privilege and power to the way of the gospel. He used the connections made possible by the infrastructure of the Roman Empire to work that transformation in the people he met.

Transforming the connectedness of today's world requires that people who come from places of privilege and relative wealth such as the U.S. must be mindful of the imbalances in the connections and be willing to listen to the stories of what it's like to be on the other side, de Gruchy said. It also requires respect of the particularities of each context, remembering the great missionary translators who knew that "the Bible in Zulu is no less than the Bible in Hebrew."

Modern missionaries must face the death and dislocations that the world's current connections breed, de Gruchy said, and work to re-vision and recreate the world much as the prophets of the Old Testament did. They must do this work "not as charity but as a concentrated effort to reshape the connections" of the global village, he added.

"We're connected. It's a fact, but it's also part of our faith," de Gruchy concluded. "We need to live it out."

The perils of conversion
The Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler, Episcopal missionary and author and the conference's June 6 plenary speaker, urged participants to work to "bridge this chasm of misunderstanding" between Christianity and Islam, not by seeking to convert Muslims but by working to form interfaith friendships in which both religions can explore all that the two faith have in common.

"Our starting point always has to be to see the redeeming values of the other," he said.

Muslims who are pressured into converting to Christianity suffer in what Chandler called a "total break with society," describing how Christian converts from Islam in Senegal, where he grew up as the son of Christian missionaries, were exiled for the choice they made.

"They ended up getting Jesus, but the rest of their life was hell," he said.

Chandler said he feels called to help find another way of showing Muslims about the way of Christ. Muslims must be able see Christ in the lives of Christians, not simply be told about Christ, he said.

Chandler, who is the rector of the Church of St. John the Baptist in Cairo, suggested that Christians use the Five Pillars of Islam as a way to explore their common religious heritage with Muslims. That commonality is centered in the fact that Jesus was a Middle Eastern man whom Islam reveres, he said.

To the five pillars, Chandler added the concept of jihad, noting that the Qu'ran characterizes jihad as an internal wrestling towards God's intention for one's life. Christians must "actively wage peace on Islam," he said.

Concerning the shahada -- the first pillar, which calls for a profession of faith -- he compared the Muslim proclamation of "There is no god except for God and Muhammad is the messenger of God" to the earliest Christian creed simply professed as "Jesus is Lord."

With the pillar of Salat calling for ritual prayers done in the proper way five times each day, Chandler compared Christianity's emphasis on proper postures for prayers and the east-facing orientation of traditional churches.

Of the practice of Zakat -- charity -- Chandler suggested that Christians need to act charitably toward Muslims, loving what they love in themselves and their culture. When Christians act as the guests of Muslims and not their conquerors, "they know it, they sense it instinctively, even if you speak not a word of Arabic," he said.

Chandler noted the commonality between the pillar of Sawm -- fasting during Ramadan -- and the Lenten fast. He also suggested that Christians and Muslims must "fast" from the implication of both religions' notion that Christianity is a western religion. Christians and Muslims must return Jesus to his incarnated cultural context and remember that the Bible is not a western text received yesterday but a "collection of ancient Middle Eastern texts."

Finally, Chandler pointed out that both Muslims and Christian are called to the Hajj, or pilgrimage. He urged Christians to act more like pilgrims asking for directions and seeking companions on the way, rather than assuming they have already arrived at the truth that they need to proclaim to unquestioning listeners.

He reminded the participants that both Christians and Muslims hold dear Psalm 84, whose fourth verse says: "Happy are the people whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way."

The rest of the conference
The conference continues June 6 with ongoing small-group discussions of the plenary speakers' presentations and a series of workshops. Participants can attend more than 40 different workshops, ranging from regionally specific programs concentrating on the Dominican Republic, Pakistan, Philippines and Sudan (among other areas) to panels, discussion groups, and classes on mission theology, Islam, sustainability, and the nuts and bolts of mission work. The conference also features workshops presented by GEM's Certificate Program, a training ground for diocesan mission agents.

Helen Wangusa, Anglican Observer at the United Nations, will be the keynote speaker on June 7. The conference will conclude on June 8 with Eucharist, during which Dominican Republic Bishop Julio Holguin will preside and the Rev. Dr. Titus Presler of General Theological Seminary will preach.

Conference sponsors include Episcopal Relief and Development, EPGM, Church Pension Fund, Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation, CM Almy, Cross International, GEM, the mission centers of the Episcopal Church, and the dioceses of Milwaukee, North Carolina, Northern California, Vermont and Virginia.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for Episcopal Church governance, structure, and trends, as well as news of the dioceses of Province II. She is based in Neptune, New Jersey, and New York City.