Posted by: Titus Presler | December 17, 2011

The Hardisons’ work in Kenya: Missiological reflections

The last Kenya Communiqué from Gerry and Nan Hardison as they retire from ten years of seminary and hospital ministry in Masena in western Kenya exemplifies fine reflection by missionaries as they leave their work, reflection that is instructive for all of us.

To review, the Hardisons, already retired from long and successful careers in education and medicine, went in 2001 to Maseno, where Nan guided St. Philip’s Theological College and Gerry guided Maseno Hospital.  In blog posts over the last couple of days I’ve reproduced their last communiqué and shared my own acquaintance with them.

Here are some missiological reflections:

Realism, not Romanticism:

We have met lots of people, some good and some bad; a few happy, but more sad,” they write, continuing: “We’ve seen life and death and too much of the latter. We have seen high spirits in the face of poverty and adversity but despair and hopelessness as well.”  It’s not that all Kenyans are wonderful people – or more wonderful than people in the West – or that all those who suffer are amazingly hopeful despite their suffering – characterizations too common among returned missioners, especially those who have gone for short visits.

No, the Hardisons are clear that they’ve met some “bad” people, and that despair has overcome some of those with whom they’ve worked.  Working with the real, not the imagined or the wished-for, is important in mission.  When we allow our characterizations to focus only on the fine, the uplifting and the hopeful it’s likely that we will begin believing our own rhetoric.  When our rhetoric doesn’t square with the reality, then on the ground we’re likely to start unconsciously screening out the realities that don’t fit our rhetoric.  Both ineffectiveness and hurt are the likely results.

The motives for mission romanticism are diverse.  One motive may be the desire to garner support from people who need grounds for optimism before they will contribute to the work.  Beside the obvious problem of integrity in this approach, good supporters want to have as much of the full picture as they can for longterm commitment, and there’s usually plenty enough of both good and bad to go around for an honest presentation.

A more complex motive on the part of Westerners is a desire, usually guilt-ridden, to strike a blow for post-colonial consciousness in supposed contrast to an erroneous stereotype of earlier missionaries as having uniformly viewed people in the Two-Thirds World as primitive, ignorant, unaware of God and generally in need of the “uplift” missionaries could provide.  So Westerners today often wish to portray people in Africa, Asia and Latin America as “better” than themselves in simplicity, community, authentic awareness of God, and so on.  Further supporting this impulse is the good and important missional perspective of being a learner as well as a teacher, a receiver as well as a giver in mission.

Sure enough, this kind of perspective says more about the speaker than the situation, which gives us a clue to understanding mission romanticism.  We can define it as characterizations of people, work and situations in mission in a uniformly positive light that is not warranted by the facts and that meets primarily the emotional needs of the missioner.

Not so the Hardisons!

Troubled Worldview:

Our 10 years in Kenya have planted lots of troubles that bother our minds, troubles which will continue to bother our minds until our dying day,” write the Hardisons.  I like the phrase, “planted lots of troubles that bother our minds.”  Yes, the Hardisons have made major contributions in Maseno, but here they testify to how their understanding has been enlarged to wrestle with difficult dynamics of today’s world, dynamics that shape the issues they’ve been addressing in seminary and hospital work in Maseno but are also much larger than that setting.

They’ve done their best, and they’ve made a difference, but here they’re saying that as a result of what they’ve experienced they go away with a permanent unease about how the world works.  By implication, they didn’t have quite that unease before going, though doubtless they were aware of problems.  So the enlarged worldview that mission brings may not be sweetness and light, or at least not only that, but an awareness of how intractable the structures of injustice in the world are, how little we can do to change them, and even how little we understand about them.

I’m reminded of the returnees’ comment in T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”: “We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.”

Obviously, this relates to the issue of realism rather than romanticism.  Going home troubled – that’s not everyone’s idea of the blessing of mission service, but it’s an authentic fruit of authentic ministry.

Personal Transformation:

“We are changed persons,” the Hardisons declare.  This is crucial.  The Hardisons don’t develop in this letter how they’ve changed, but they did so in previous communiqués, and here’s one bit: “Fixed ideas and categories are changing.  Individuals are becoming increasingly interesting and beautiful, and several are becoming very dear to us.  We are less sure of ourselves and seek advice from our Kenyan colleagues more often.”

Not only acknowledging but rejoicing in how mission has changed the missioner is a mark of the mutuality that must be at the heart of mission.  And I’m glad to say that it’s prominent in the testimony of almost every missionary I’ve been in touch with over the last decades.  Given the differences and the pressures and the gifts of the situations where missionaries serve, how can we not be changed?  Conversely, if a missionary is not changed we wonder if they are at all supple to the Spirit of God, and whether they may be doing more harm than good.  Today, fortunately, cause for such wondering arises relatively rarely.

Encore Mission:

“Who would have thought, when Nan and I were young college students, that in our ‘twilight years’ we would forge close bonds of friendship with persons half a globe away?” they ask.  The Hardisons were around 70, plus or minus a few years, when they went to Kenya, and they’ve been there 10 years.

When my wife Jane was directing the Mission Personnel Office of the Episcopal Church, she coined the phrase “finishers” for the Hardisons and others – people who felt called to mission in their later years after other careers.  This is how they want to “finish” in their lives.

Another helpful word is “encore.”  After a successful performance, the musician’s encore is another freely offered musical number, usually shorter than the pieces in the main performance and often an piece that has a particular flourish.  “Encore mission” partakes of all of that.

A few years ago I saw a full-page newspaper ad inviting nominations for something like an “encore award,” that is, nominations of people who in their later years (over 50, or 60 or 65? – can’t remember) had offered particularly outstanding service.  My immediate thought was, “I’ll nominate the Hardisons!” but then I lost the ad and neglected to follow up.  They were ideal candidates!

Encore mission is a good possibility for many to consider.  At that stage of life, people have personal maturity, finely honed skills, wide experience and proven track records.  They have much to offer in God’s wider mission.

Longterm Commitment:

Encore implies a shorter stint, but the 10 years offered by the Hardisons constitutes a relatively long period in the context of today’s trend toward short-term mission.  Ten years is a substantial period in one job in any field today.

Everything about the Hardisons letters – this one certainly, but also its many predecessors – witnesses to the contribution made by longterm missionaries in their settings and in the sending churches.  Knowledge of local culture, experience in social, political and institutional dynamics, engagement with initiatives that will have lasting rather than only temporary value – all this is evident in the Hardisons, and it could only come from a longterm commitment.

The trend away from longterm mission in favor of short-term, sometimes amounting to a prejudice against longterm mission, is one of the most lamentable developments in mainline Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran and Episcopal denominations – and probably most pronounced in the Episcopal Church.  It is the fruit of a shallow missiology that reflects shallow thinking in the culture generally.  I’ve written about it elsewhere and will do so more in the future.

Just two particular observations about the contribution of the Hardisons’ longterm commitment: First, their substantial tenure in Maseno made them excellent anchors for the experience of other short-term visitors: numerous people passing through for exposure to African Christianity, various medical interns, but especially USAmerican seminarians whose approach to ministry was marked indelibly by their experience in Maseno with Nan and Gerry.

Second, their final communiqué makes it clear that the Hardisons will continue to advise and support particular projects integral to the work in Maseno.  “Does it sound like we are really leaving them behind?” they ask, and then answer, “Of course we cannot. I was once told that in certain Asian countries, if you saved a life, you were obliged to support it thereafter. If that is true, then we have quite a burden to shoulder.”

The Hardisons are leaving, but their commitment abides.  That is a mark of faithful mission.

Centrality of People:

“What we remember most are the ‘lots of good people that we left behind,’” the Hardisons write.  After sketching the projects they want to help continue they write, “So, it seems Nan and I cannot really leave Maseno and the people there.”

When Gerry and Nan last visited with us, in the spring of 2009, I interviewed them for a future study of missionary identity and role and asked them about how close they felt to having put the seminary and the hospital on a self-sustaining basis, which was one of their major goals when they went to Maseno in 2001.  They said they felt far short of that, though some progress had been made, as they note in the final letter: “We just wish that we could have boasted more sustainable changes. But, as we implied in our ‘next to last’ communiqué, any batting average more than zero for sustainability is good in this business. I think we have achieved that.”

But, said Nan in 2009, what kept them there and what gave them hope was the people they worked with.   They had become invested in them, committed to them.  More than that, they loved them.

You can see that love for people in the outstanding video of their work in the Windows on Mission series of videos on about a dozen Episcopal missionaries in different parts of the world.  The video closes with the loveliest sequence of Nan stroking the head of an AIDS orphan in Maseno as the voice of Desmond Tutu talks about expressing the love of Jesus.

Ultimately the central fact of all authentic mission or any authentic ministry is commitment to people and love for people.  The goals, the plans, the projects, the progress reports, the organizational structures – all those are important.  Without committed love – love animated by the triune God, love that walks alongside and walks the distance – it is empty.

Nan and Gerry Hardison have loved in mission, so what they have offered is full.   Thanks be to God.


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