February 5, 2006


The Call (DANIEL BERGNER, 1/29/06, NY Times Magazine)

A sense of humanity's dire need - need that is spiritual, need that is earthly - impels a legion of American Christian missionaries out into the world. Around 120,000 are currently stationed abroad, according to Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. The legion includes members of mainline and evangelical Protestant denominations; it includes Catholics and Mormons and members of the nondenominational megachurches flourishing throughout the United States. One-fourth, Johnson estimates, are spread over Africa, with another quarter in Latin America, a quarter in Europe, one-sixth in Asia and the rest cast over the islands of Oceania. The 120,000 accounts for only those committed to their distant posts for at least two years; short-term missionaries are harder to track. But, tallying only Protestants, the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College puts the number who served for between two weeks and a year in 2001 (the most recent figure available) at 346,000. Some Christian emissaries are driven solely to proselytize. Others limit themselves to good deeds, to embodying Christ's message without speaking it aloud. For some, Johnson told me, "if you don't mention Jesus in every other sentence, there's something wrong." For others, "just handing out a cup of water is enough." For most, the work involves both word and water.

In Africa, the continent of greatest earthly need, I had come to know the work of missionaries fairly well before my trip to Kurungu. In Sierra Leone, I spent time with a missionary couple from Grand Rapids, Mich., who had raised their three children in a jungle village. Their work ranged from baptizing converts in a stream to building a gravity-fed system of pipes that would bring safe water to villagers ravaged by disease. In southern Sudan, a land where perhaps two million people were killed by almost a half-century of civil war even before the terrors of Darfur began, I watched a missionary from Vienna, Va., try to create peace between embattled southern clans as a first step toward ending the overarching war between north and south. He oversaw the construction of a huge white tent in the middle of an empty plain. Bargaining with freelance bush pilots, he arranged to fly clan commanders to his meeting ground, to assemble them under his tent. Several hundred ragged militiamen and child soldiers arrived on foot, running across the desolate landscape toward the white canvas. Then the missionary convened his peace conference. He preached gently from the Gospels, and the commanders spoke of the suffering of their people and pledged to quit their fratricidal attacks. If such gatherings could help bring unity and strength across the Christian and traditionalist south, and if his work could, in this way, compel the Muslim north into an accord, the spread of peace would be, the missionary told me, "the most powerful statement of the efficacy of the Christian message."

He wasn't at all alone in the scale of his missionary ambition in Africa. Last year, Rick Warren, the California pastor whose books, "The Purpose Driven Life" and "The Purpose Driven Church," have sold well over 20 million copies and whose Saddleback Valley Community Church has a weekly attendance of 23,000, declared Rwanda the world's "first purpose-driven nation." The country would be a test target for his global plan to eradicate spiritual deprivation along with physical poverty and disease and illiteracy. "God gets the most glory when you tackle the biggest giants," he told Christianity Today magazine. Last summer he sent an advance team of about 50 American evangelicals to meet with Rwandan leaders, and soon, he envisions, hundreds of short-term Saddleback missionaries will fan out across the nation, armed with kits of instruction and resources called "church in a box" and "school in a box" and "clinic in a box" that will help them to rescue the country.

Missionary dreams in Africa have long been outsize. David Livingstone, the Scottish Protestant who first sailed to southern Africa in 1841, yearned both to Christianize vast regions of the continent and to eliminate the Arab slave trade. His explorations of the African interior may have been journeys of white arrogance and may have cleared a route for white imperialism, yet his best-selling travelogues stirred outrage at what he described: "The many skeletons we have seen. . .must be attributed, directly or indirectly, to this trade of hell." Livingstone's expeditions helped to spark missionary interest in sub-Saharan Africa, and by the late 19th century, the Western missionary presence, which began with European naval explorations in the 15th century and which had been confined mostly to the coastlands, spread to the interior. Also during the 19th century, the Protestant missionary force increased until it more or less matched the Catholic deployment. Today, among American missionaries, Protestants far outnumber Catholics, Johnson says, and evangelicals have, since the 1960's, become the dominant strain.

In 1900, around 10 percent of sub-Saharan Africans were Christian. Today the figure is about 70 percent, according to Johnson, with Christians defined as those who profess the faith, though their practice may involve a belief in traditional spirits. This tremendous conversion occurred not only because the missionaries moved inland but also because, more and more during the 20th century, they trained and entrusted African pastors to do the proselytizing. Gradually, African church leadership was encouraged - or became inevitable. Meanwhile, the Scriptures were translated into tribal languages, and increasingly in the later part of the century, missionaries embraced a movement of "contextualization": adapting Christianity to local traditions so that, say, a ritual dance telling a story of victory in battle might be altered and included in Christian worship as a celebration of Christ's victory over death - or so that, in the Mapleses' case, a church building might be replaced by the trees. These days, American missionaries tend to be keenly aware that, as Jonathan Bonk, executive director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center, told me, "God doesn't speak one language" and that Christian worship must take indigenous forms. Rick, who often carries a walking stick of blond wood as the Samburu do, is a kind of pioneer, not only because he has settled his family in a place so far afield but also because he would like to leave aspects of Western worship far behind.

Even beyond conversion, and even beyond abolition, the impact of Western missionaries in Africa has often been immense. When peace was finally brokered between north and south in Sudan in January 2005, much of the credit went to evangelicals like Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son, who runs the mission organization Samaritan's Purse. He and his staff were well acquainted with the country's devastation, and one of his hospitals had been bombed repeatedly in the south. He put pressure on President Bush to make ending Sudan's conflagration a diplomatic priority.

And when, in his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush called on Congress to devote $15 billion to battle H.I.V./AIDS, it was, in strong part, "a consequence of evangelical concern for Africa," Timothy Shah, a political scientist and senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, told me. Shah explained that this concern was generated by missions. "No evangelical church is too small that it doesn't have a significant portion of its budget and identity committed to missions," he said. From their outposts, missionaries send open "prayer letters" - long updates about their lives and requests for prayer that will bless their work - to the congregations that support them. At services and denominational conferences, returning missionaries deliver speeches about all they've seen. "There's this organic process that keeps people informed that's rare in American life," Shah said.

With a president who is acutely attentive to the agendas of evangelical Christians, he added, and with evangelicals making up a majority of the Americans who venture out on missions, this process of education, of information that runs from mission post to stateside congregation, has gained particular importance. "The evangelicals' increasing influence on foreign policy is the elephant in the room," he told me. "It means more focus on a continent that otherwise gets forgotten. You have a politically significant constituency behind humanitarian concerns in Africa in a way that hasn't been the case in many, many years." Shah spoke, too, about the influence of individual mission leaders like Graham and Warren, who recently addressed the Council on Foreign Relations, and like Andrew Natsios, a former vice president of the huge Christian outreach organization World Vision U.S., who served, from the first months of the Bush presidency until a few weeks ago, as the head of the Agency for International Development, the government's division for foreign aid.

None of this means that most missionaries, or even most evangelical missionaries, see themselves as policy advocates. The Mapleses certainly don't. In Kurungu, they rarely talk of world affairs. Their devotion - to meeting the "unbelievable need" of the people - is personal, local, solitary. Yet it is also one tiny part of a powerful religiously driven interaction between America and Africa. And if the Mapleses have their way, their work will transfigure the lives of the Samburu. In a prayer letter last July, e-mailed to the States by satellite phone, Rick and Carrie wrote about the circumcision of Samburu girls: "Everything is cut away that would give them sexual pleasure, all without the aid of anesthetic during the procedure or painkillers afterward. As terrible as it is, it is so ingrained in the culture that all the girls welcome it. Without circumcision, they would never be married."

"Oh," the letter ended, in agony for the tribe, "how desperately they need Jesus."

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 5, 2006 11:29 PM

This is how we win.

All the weapons, the PGM's, the nukes, the airborne lasers and all the rest are only to establish the peace. The missionaries will do the rest.

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 7, 2006 5:09 PM