Thursday, November 03, 2005

Insights from Anthony Gittins

This particular post grew out of a paper I submitted for a seminary class. I'm posting excerpts from it because I've been looking for a new, creative way to talk about the Christian responsibility not just to offer, but also to accept hospitality in the way of Jesus. For what it's worth, here it is:

Over the course of his book, Ministry at the Margins, Anthony J. Gittins deals with a series of significant issues for cross-cultural Christian mission. Over the first four chapters, Gittins discusses a series of issues for Christian mission that deal with the powerful forces surrounding and contained in language and culture. Over the course of the second half of his book, Gittins deals with particular issues involved in mission: making the Gospel meaningful in the language and culture of particular people; the problems Western missionaries might encounter by failing to understand gift-exchange, and how to learn to live in indebted ways to be part of a group; and learning how to be understanding and hospitable to strangers, as well as the virtue in learning how to be a “missionary as stranger.” I believe this final insight is key – to be a Christian in mission we need to learn how to be good strangers and guests.

Gittins inspired me to think of mission, both abroad and at home, in new and different ways. I found in his descriptions of gift giving, gift-exchange, hospitality and strangers a world I know, but I am not sure if I know it well enough. I grew up in a Western, middle class world, defined by its values and goals. While my parents tried to instill in us a sense of “Christian differentness,” and our responsibility to serve others in the name of Christ, the world around us reinforced its values whenever it could: Call before you arrive on someone’s doorstep, pray quietly and inwardly – most people do not want to see your religious life, make sure you are dressed right, and always think about the risks of accepting any kind of “charity” from others!

For me, Gittins emphasis on accepting hospitality helped give words to thoughts that have been growing within me over the last year. Gittins suggests that part of the missionary life requires learning to be a stranger and a guest: “If we are to be as Jesus was, we cannot be content to help strangers: we must become strangers ourselves (145).” Only by becoming strangers who can let others fulfill our needs can we truly learn to be like Jesus. Accepting gifts of eggs, tomatoes, honey, zucchini and other produce from members of a rural church is fairly easy (and vital for building good-will), for any pastor. These may be simple gifts, but accepting them allows a relationship to begin. Rejecting them, for anything but a clearly defined, mutually understood reason, could jeopardize the relationship between that person and the pastor, and in some cases, the whole church or community and the pastor. My wife currently serves a small, rural church – the eggs, honey and vegetables members of her congregation have offered us have enriched our table, but accepting them has enriched her ministry and made our offers of hospitality more appealing to members of her community – they know the relationship is not merely one-way.

More difficult for me, however, has been finding ways to commute to seminary the last three semesters. When my wife was appointed a significant distance from school, and I had to give up my job to make the move possible, and we knew we could not afford for me to pay for housing while attending classes. The long days of classes, the need to do work in the libraries, and the price of gasoline, parking, and public transportation, made daily commuting impractical. I stayed with a long-time family friend for awhile, as well as with my wife during the time she kept her job as a hotel desk-clerk, but most often, I stayed with one of my wife’s friends from seminary and her husband. I had met
Adrienne and Peter, but I didn’t know them. Their hospitality, and my financially-mandated humility that compelled me to accept it, has allowed us to develop friendships. Without learning to be a stranger/guest accepting hospitality, these relationships would never have developed.

If we are not willing to become strangers and guests, I am convinced we will never be effective hosts or communicators of the Gospel. Marginal ministry requires us to cross boundaries into new and exciting worlds, and while we can offer the Good News of Jesus Christ to others, if we are to be taken seriously, we first need to learn to walk as Jesus walked, which means not only feeding the poor, oppressed, and sinners, but eating and living with them in their worlds, their homes, and their circumstances – that is where Jesus built relationships that became transformational, and that is where we will too.

1 comment:

Stephen said...

Thank you for this introduction to Gittens, I am on my way over to the library to grab this book for a final paper I am doing in one of my last Seminary Courses at Perkins: Theology, Culture, and Religion. I am writing on Liturgy, Worship, and the Sub-Altern so I apprieciate this resource.