What is a missionary?
This is a question I have wrestled with for over a year. It is just one of those things I can’t wrap my head around or let go of.
Because living, learning, and serving in another country as a missionary was something I always wanted to do as a child. Weird - I know. But this past year, at the age of twenty-three, I had the opportunity to fulfill that desire and serve as an ELCA missionary through the Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) program in South Africa.
Before I left for my YAGM year I was excited and eager to tell people I was fulfilling my dream of serving as a missionary, but this created conflict as to what the term missionary means. I encountered a woman who said “Good, go get those souls” when I told her and to this day, that interaction still doesn’t sit right with me. My lifelong definition of a missionary seemed to be drastically different from the “getting souls” assumption people generally had.
A year later, I am now home from South Africa and I find I’m still wrestling with the same question. When people ask what I’m doing with my life I tell them I am just back from being a missionary in South Africa; but I promptly feel the need to explain that “No I wasn’t there to convert people, but rather I was there to learn and live alongside the people.”
What people don’t understand, is the ELCA mission program focuses on this idea of Accompaniment. If you asked me a year ago what this meant, I couldn’t tell you - but it is now something I embody in everything I do. Accompaniment is the idea that we are here to walk alongside each other, to live, to learn, and to be in community at all times.
In other words, we are not here to “do” - we are here to “be.”
This was a really hard concept to grasp before living in South Africa, but it is something we should all be thinking about. The reality is, we cannot just fix things for people – we don’t know what they need, we don’t know the challenges facing these struggles, and ultimately, we really don’t know anything because we are not them; we only think we know. Arguably, this was the mentality of missionaries in the early days: they were going into places and telling people what they needed and why.
You can see how that worked out in history...
But, that’s not the kind of missionary I want to be. It’s not the kind of missionary this world needs us to be.
We are all missionaries, and we don’t need to go far away to another country to do it. We can be a missionary right here, where we are right now.
Being a missionary is about embodying this idea of accompaniment, of sitting with people, listening to their stories, and learning from what they have to say. As Christians we are called to serve one another in whatever capacity we are able. The easiest way to do this is to sit and listen. Your presence can mean more to someone than anything you say or do. Be it a conversation with someone in your congregation, a stranger on the street, or with a new friend – it is only by listening and learning from each other that we can truly make an impact and create change in this world.
Walking in accompaniment together is what needs to be done to bring the old idea of a missionary into the twenty-first century church. To me, this is the most important thing we can do as a church. This is what we as Christians are called to do. These small steps will make an impact in someone’s life and will slowly make a difference in this world.
We are all missionaries.
We can all create change.
We just need to be, to listen, to grow, and to learn from one another.
This is what a missionary should be.