Posted by: Titus Presler | December 15, 2011

“No man is an island” – The missional vision of Nan and Gerry Hardison

Receiving this week the last “Kenya Communiqué” from Nan and Gerry Hardison as they retire from their mission work at Maseno in western Kenya puts me in mind of the first time I met them.  At the ecumenical Mission Personnel Orientation in Santa Fe in January 2002, where I had been asked to assist, two of the 20 outgoing Episcopal missionaries were Nan and Gerry from San Diego.

They were in their 70s, having retired from successful educational and medical careers in the USA.  They could have stayed in San Diego to enjoy retirement close to their grandchildren.  But no, they heard God calling them into mission.  Nan is a theological educator, and Gerry is a physician.  By the time of the orientation, they’d already been working for several months in Diocese of Maseno North.

I asked the missionaries to introduce themselves and share their understanding of Christian mission around the circle.  When Gerry’s turn came he launched into an extended and animated description of the problems in Maseno: how the church hospital had declined to a skeleton operation through mismanagement and lack of personnel, how everything they tried to do was afflicted by corruption in the church and in local government, how discouraged but persevering the staff was, how every step forward was followed by two steps backward – the list of obstacles was evidently endless.

Finally, I broke in and asked: “Well, Gerry, in all of this, what does mission mean to you?”  He paused, then after a long reflective moment, he said, “I guess it’s John Donne’s meditation: ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.  And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’”  And he left it at that.

In this perspective, Donne’s meditation can be seen as a call to compassion, a call to empathy, a call to solidarity.  Gerry and Nancy had seen the catastrophe of the world.  They had heard the call.  They were embracing the mission.

In May of that year, Jane Butterfield, at that time Mission Personnel Officer for the Episcopal Church, and I visited the Hardisons in Maseno, which is located on the equator near Kenya’s border with Uganda.  They were living in very basic accommodations, with no running water.  St. Philip’s Theological College, of which Nan was the principal, had just one student because the others had been sent home to collect fees from their dioceses.  The staff at Maseno Hospital had not been paid for six months.  But Nan and Gerry were full of joy and vision.

Nan showed us around the seminary with the one student still on campus.  We browsed in the library, which had been built up from donations from around the world, and I happened on Lift Every Voice and Sing II, the African American hymnal.  As the setting sun shed oblique rays through dusty windows onto the library tables, we sang together the great hymn, “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way . . . It is well, it is well with my soul.”

It has continued to be well with the souls of Nan and Gerry, and the fruit of their life with God and with one another has richly blessed both St. Philip’s and Maseno Hospital, two church institutions vital to God’s mission in that part of Kenya.  The way has not been easy, but both the seminary and the hospital are ever so much more healthy and self-sustaining than when they arrrived.

The Hardisons have sent home many reports over the years.  Here’s an excerpt from an early one:

It is now one year since we arrived in Maseno, and began to work as Volunteers For Mission.  The year has been both challenging and fulfilling.  We have grown and changed.  Our “rules” for what we would and would not do have gone out the window.  As we have become more involved in the lives of the people we work with and live among, our own lives became both richer and more complicated.

What is different here because we are here? 

At St. Philip’s, a new Certificate Program in Theology, short and hopefully affordable, is in place.  A computer course proposal is being circulated for funding.  A farm is beginning to take shape with crops growing as food for the dining hall, with the surplus sold for cash.  30+ broken window panes have been replaced.  Six buildings have been renovated with roof repairs, some new ceilings, repair of faulty wiring and replacement of broken fixtures, and paint inside and out.

Economic development work with self-help groups in the diocese has begun.  Nancy is meeting with those groups.  She has helped the Mothers’ Union workers develop a proposal for funding orphan care.

At Maseno Hospital, the x-ray machine donated three years ago is now working.  The technician needs training in operating the machine, and then it will be fully functional.  An “amenities” ward has new paint and curtains.  Endoscopy and EEGs are now possible, and will be advertised to the community.  The laboratory has some equipment and reagents. Work has begun on restoring the water system so that there will be running water on the wards.

People at St. Philip’s and at the hospital say that our being here gives them hope.  That humbles us.

Equally important, the Hardisons then asked “How have we changed?”, and here is their response:

We are ever more aware of our overwhelming wealth, and ever more thankful for health and each other and the opportunity to be here.  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.  We no longer flinch at 4-6-hour church services.  We are budgeting carefully for the first time in years, since the needs are outrunning the resources.

In the intervening years we’ve been with the Hardisons from time to time.  They spoke at General Seminary, stayed with us in White Plains.  They’ve hosted a number of seminarians from General, Harvard (the college is their own alma mater), Southwest, Berkeley, Episcopal Divinity School and others, and the time spent with the Hardisons has been formative for those theologues, most of whom are now clergy.

Tomorrow: Some missiological reflections on the Hardisons’ perspective on their work.

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