Posted by: Titus Presler | May 1, 2011

Mission journeys 1: Muslim setting & Christian setting

As I have come to Peshawar in Pakistan to offer a ministry in Edwardes College, I naturally reflect on how this mission engagement compares with the ministry that Jane Butterfield and I embarked on in Zimbabwe in the mid-1980s.  There are many points of comparison and contrast, and here I focus on those clustered around the contrast between a predominantly Christian setting in Africa and a predominantly Muslim setting in Asia.

Zimbabwe shares with much of sub-Saharan Africa a history of rapid Christian conversion, most of it relatively recent – since the mid-19th century, even later in the case of Zimbabwe, ­ and much of it since the end of colonial rule in the 1960s.  The Bonda to which we went as Episcopal missionaries in the 80s was a Christian setting.  The vast majority of local people professed Christian faith, often in especially vital and enthusiastic forms, and this was true also of the students enrolled from around the country at St. David’s Girls High School.  The Anglican Diocese of Manicaland, like other dioceses in Zimbabwe and many others in Africa, was short of clergy, so I was offering pastoral ministry to several thousand Christians in what became an even larger and more flourishing church district.

Pakistan is a setting that could not be more different, for it is not only a majority-Muslim environment, but the nation is an Islamic republic.  What it means to be an Islamic republic relative to the founding principles of Pakistan and the directions sought by various parties in Pakistan today is a matter of vigorous discussion in civil society and in the Pakistani press.  Those details aside, the population is about 97% Muslim, and the ethos of the country is indelibly Muslim.  I hear with great regularity the call to prayer from the many mosques in the vicinity of the college.  Although Christians are the largest religious minority, they are a small minority and one that experiences discrimination and persecution, as widely reported both within Pakistan and in the international press.

The faculty at Edwardes College is 95% Muslim, and the student body is 90% Muslim, so the community with whom I work is mostly Muslim.  This is typical of church institutions in Pakistan, where the church has for over 150 years served the Muslim majority in educational and medical ministries.  Significantly, church institutions have not been Christian enclaves within the wider society, either in their staffing or in the communities served.  Instead, they have been engaged deeply with the majority community.  Correlatively, my identity as a missional person is constantly on the interface between Muslim identity and Christian identity.

I expect life and ministry on that interface to be a pivotal learning experience for me, and I look forward to it.  Spending the first 18 years of my life in India, where Christians were and are a small minority, prepared me well for this setting, as did exposure to the indefatigable research of my parents into popular religion in India, with my father focusing on Hinduism and my mother on Islam.  Yet there are contrasts with that experience as well.  Leonard Theological College, the seminary where they taught, is a Christian setting where all faculty and students were and are Christian.  At that time, many of the students came from Christian enclaves, so the exposure they received to other religions through my parents was important for their future ministries.  Yet, while we went “out” to encounter “the other” a great deal, it was still “out” from the seminary that we went for that encounter.  Not so here at Edwardes.  Another obvious contrast is that India is majority-Hindu, and it was with Hindus that I had most of my inter-religious encounters.

A similarity between our ventures in Zimbabwe and Pakistan is that in each case we have been part of an important agenda for the western churches, though the agenda was different in each case.  In going to Zimbabwe we wished to experience the vitality of African Christianity, which was beginning to rise on the horizon of European and American Christianity.  We sensed that African Christians were discovering new things about the gospel of Jesus Christ and had new forms of Christian community to share.  That turned out to be the case, and it has been a joy over the years to share those developments in personal witness and published word.

In coming to Peshawar I have felt the missional imperative of being part of a fruitful encounter between Christianity and the world of Islam.  Mission demographers have noted how the bulk of the missional outreach of mainline denominations in the west is with fellow Christians in other parts of the world – whether Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, Reformed or Lutheran.  The democratization of that initiative to the grassroots of the churches has been a crucial development of the last several decades, for it has helped ordinary Christians in the west get closer to seeing fellow Christians in other parts of the world as peers with as much to give as to receive in a global Christian community.

Meanwhile inter-religious encounter in mission has languished – hard to say how much, but to some significant degree.  This has been true even as relations between Christians and Muslims in many parts of the world have deteriorated markedly in the last decade, especially since 9/11, whether in Nigeria or the UK, Indonesia or the USA, Pakistan or Sudan.  Indeed, it is safe to say that Muslim-Christians relations have emerged as central for the 21st century, not only on the agenda of religious communities but on the agenda of nation-states, that is to say, on the agenda of the world.  In that light, ministry at Edwardes seems a providential opportunity.  It is a genuinely inter-religious setting in higher education that can be formational for young Pakistanis preparing for the professions at a very sensitive time in the life of their country.

I am eager for the unfolding.

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Responses

  1. […] and Power: In the first reflection I highlighted the contrast between ministry in the primarily Christian setting of Zimbabwe and the […]

  2. Dear Titus and Jane,
    Congratulations and Blessings on your new ministry. It sounds exciting and challenging, to say the least. I admire your courage and faithfulness to God’s call. Edwardes is fortunate to have you on board.

    I have been engaged, for several years now, in interfaith work here in Santa Fe. I’m past president of our Interfaith Leadership Alliance. We have a remarkable program of working closely with Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith communities. This has also extended into working with a local Council of International Relations chapter. which is a State Dept.-connected program with visiting political, educational and religious leaders. We sometimes engage in dialogue with the visitors from the Middle East on our interfaith relations.

    I’m looking forward to your blogs. May Christ fill you both with and abundance of blessings, hope and vibrancy for your work.

    In Peace, Dick


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