Posted by: Titus Presler | November 15, 2009

Episcopal Life carries good article on Young Adult Service Corps

Episcopal Life Monthly, the Episcopal Church’s newspaper, highlights the church’s Young Adult Service Corps (YASC) in an extensive and well-framed front-page story, “A Taste of the Missionary Life,” by Lynette Wilson in the November issue.  The article includes insights from a number of YASC missionaries from diverse parts of the church and serving in diverse parts of the world, all illustrated generously with photographs.  Check out the November paper issue, or see the story online.

The article covers eight returned YASC missionaries who recently gathered for a re-entry retreat at the Episcopal Church Center in new York.  Assignments included agricultural work through the Asia Rural Institute in Japan, computer support at Msalato Theological College in Tanzania, children’s ministry in Colombia, AIDS orphans work through Carpenter’s Kids in Tanzania, chaplaincy at Our Little Roses girls’ school in Honduras, and literacy and children’s ministry through the Mariya uMama weThemba Monastery of the Order of the Holy Cross in South Africa.  These settings, most of them Anglican, are well known and reliable placements that have the benefit of the mentoring that has been built into YASC since it was established.

The missionaries’ reported comments echo the by now familiar and important contemporary themes of listening, illuminating interchanges with mission companions, and personal vocational exploration.  At the same time, it is clear that these missioners were involved in important work, so there has been a good balance between personal growth and service to others.

In an indication of YASC catalyzing continuing mission commitment, the one ordained person among the eight, the Rev. Valerie Miller, 30, of Southeast Florida, said she hopes to return to Honduras when the political situation of the country stabilizes. In an ordination journey a number of YASC missionaries have made before her, Courtney Dale, 24, is in the ordination discernment process as she currently does campus ministry at Kansas State University.  Dale has interesting comments about how she found spiritual expression easier and more acceptable in South Africa than in the USA’s Bible Belt, with comparably greater ease in having conversation among people of different faiths.

The Young Adult Service Corps was authorized by the 2000 General Convention as a kind of church version of the Peace Corps: an opportunity to serve abroad at a formative time of life, but through the church in a way that would form Christian character and vocation, with good local mentoring.  In the early years, when Canon Jane Butterfield was Mission Personnel Officer, the annual intake was higher, and that has subsided somewhat with the church’s overall financial difficulties.  Originally the program was intended for people of age 18-30, but there might have been only one or two at the lower end of that range, and now the program is appropriately open to ages 21-30.  I was involved in the outgoing formation until 2006, and it was very exciting and encouraging to see the vision, passion and insight of YASC missionaries both as they went out and when they returned.

The Episcopal Church website currently lists 9 YASC volunteers in the field (though most of that group are the returnees cited in the article) and 62 returned, so the program has fielded 71 in the nine years since 2000, for an average of about 9 a year.  Our sister church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with about twice our membership has four times as many Young Adult Program volunteers in the field at any one time, 37 currently in 2009.  This gives a sense of how much more active and well funded the ELCA’s international mission is.

One discordant note

The only discordant note in the Episcopal Life article is a continuing inaccurate understanding of missionaries who served in the past.  Says Mike Young, 24, of his time in Japan: “It wasn’t, ‘I’m going to share the gospel with these people.’  It’s more about sharing your life.  I don’t think it was a matter of individual effort.  I think . . . just being present and available to talk was much more important than if I had gone to preach to them every night or read the Bible at them. . . . [We] would just sit and talk and discuss stuff, and they would bring up questions.”  Journalist Lynette Wilson plays into the stereotype by introducing this quote with the comment, “. . . but they weren’t missionaries in the traditional sense.”

It would be hard to find missionaries resembling Young’s stereotype in Episcopal Church missionary history, still less those who would “preach to them every night or read the Bible at them.”  One wonders where such absurd images come from!  The history of Episcopal mission work was formed by the paradigm of education, social service and church extension, the latter carried out through evangelization, yes, sensitively planned and implemented mostly through indigenous Christians.  The same could be said of most other mainline Protestant missionaries.  That is the “traditional sense” of the missionary that outgoing Episcopal missionaries should be familiar with.  Why empty our own tradition, which has much to offer, in favor of caricatures drawn from the worst of fundamentalism’s lore and dignify those as “the traditional missionary”?  For instance, the main New Tribes Mission worker in Peter Matthiessen’s excellent novel, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, is indeed a travesty of true mission, but that is not the “traditional missionary” – and certainly not in any intelligibly Anglican sense.

There are lots of easily accessible resources that would provide outgoing missioners with an accurate sense of the complex strengths and weaknesses of previous generations of missionaries.  One that should be familar by now is Kenneth Cracknell’s 1995 comprehensive study of missionaries of many churches throughout the world who responded to the questionnaire about their relation to other religions for the 1910 World Missionary Conference, demonstrating that  even in the late 19th century missionaries developed strikingly appreciative views of other religions.  As for Young’s “just being present,” Max Warren in the mid-20th century nurtured generations of CMS missionaries in a well-developed ethos of Christian presence that has become a major missiological paradigm.  Many other resources from the real “tradition” could be cited.

Of greater consequence than historical ignorance and stereotyping, however, is the personal and pastoral attitude toward the past that we in the church need to nurture in people in their professional life – whether they are teachers, company presidents, administrative assistants, parish clergy, or missionaries.  When we imagine that our predecessors were benighted and that a new day has dawned with the arrival of ourselves, we’re likely to adopt precisely the high-handed methods that we’ve decried in those we’ve followed.  When we imagine that those who labored before us were uniformly arrogant, we’ve almost certainly become, well, arrogant.

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