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Recovering mission history -- through Third World eyes


Pop quiz for church history buffs: Which among the following monarchs ruled over a powerful 16th-century Christian kingdom?

A. Francis I of France
B. Charles V of Germany and Spain
C. Mbembamzinga of Congo
D. All of the above

Readers who hesitated to mark “D” because they’d never heard of “C” can perhaps appreciate why a Sept. 30-Oct. 6 summit of archivists and scholars of mission studies, held on the campus of Rome’s Urbaniana University, launched a campaign to “Rescue the Memories of Our Peoples.” The idea was to galvanize Christian organizations -- missionary orders, dioceses, schools, hospitals and universities -- to build archives in order to recover and preserve Christian history in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

One way of achieving the project’s aim is to tell the story of Christianity, and especially its missions, from the point of the view of the evangelized as well as the evangelizer.

The Rome summit brought together some 50 experts from more than a dozen countries and all five continents, including members of Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant churches.

For too long, these 50-some archivist-activists argued, the writing of Christian history has treated European monarchs, prelates and missionaries as the main actors. That leaves out figures such as Mbembamzinga (whose baptismal name was “Alfonso”), who in the 16th century constructed a uniquely lay African form of Christianity based on a network of fraternities, working through traditional tribal structures.

The problem is not merely that Westerners don’t know Mbembamzinga’s story. Many Africans don’t know it either, because local historical resources are too often scattered, poorly organized, and inaccessible, where they haven’t been lost altogether. Preserving these memories is, according to the experts, something of a race against the clock, as globalization threatens to wipe out indigenous languages and cultures, and war and poverty put historical documents in the Third World at continual risk.

Once gathered in Rome, the archivists quickly got down to the nitty-gritty challenges of their work. There was talk about the comparative merits of CD-ROMs for data storage, of the perils of silverfish, of the right way to fumigate storage areas. But the broader vision of archives as a mission of social justice never slipped from view.

That note was struck in an opening message from Fr. Paulo Suess, a German Catholic missionary and scholar who has spent some 30 years in Brazil, and who serves as the president of the International Association for Mission Studies, one of the sponsors of the meeting.

“You came to Rome from afar to discover the trees of wisdom implanted by our peoples, to recover books written by the destitute in the silence of the night,” Suess wrote. “The world of writing, of computing and of archives meet together, in this encounter, with the world of the spoken word and local wisdom.”

Recovery of memory formed the meeting’s leitmotif.

The Mbembamzinga example was offered by Andrew Walls, a Scottish Methodist who is among the world’s leading authorities on Christianity in the Third World. Walls set out the summit’s context in a keynote address.

“At the beginning of the 20th century, 80 percent of Christians lived in the West,” Walls told the group. “At the beginning of the 21st century, between 50 and 60 percent live in Africa, Asia and Latin America.”

“We start the century with a post-Christian West, and a post-Western Christianity,” Walls said.

This implies, Walls argued, that if Christianity does not develop thriving centers of theological work in the South, “there won’t be theological studies anywhere much worth caring about.”

Putting it that way, however, can make it sound like the recovery of memory is largely something Westerners do for the Christian South. The true challenge, several participants said, is not to create archives about the poor. Archives must be created by and for them.

Herbert Swanson of the Church of Christ in Thailand told the conference that his denomination recently established a state-of-the-art archive in the city of Payap, several hours north of Bangkok. Its staff then began to produce historical materials they thought would be useful for the locals.

To the staff’s dismay, the locals were unimpressed. In a few cases, they actually became angry, rejecting findings of the researchers as biased or racist. One congregation threatened to sue.

As Swanson tells the story, the archive retooled, deciding to train young members of the local Karen tribe to record oral history interviews with elders. This approach seems to have worked, and now expanding numbers of young Karen are signing up for the program, producing a burgeoning local historical literature.

There were also more practical considerations behind the push for better archives. Emma Wildwood, an Anglican who recently returned to Cambridge after heading up a project in Congo, told NCR that in many parts of Africa, social institutions such as schools, hospitals, and orphanages have long been operated almost exclusively by churches. Hence if governments, nongovernmental organizations or U.N. agencies want to understand education or public health in a given area, church archives are the best, and in some cases the only, resource.

Wildwood added that for many Africans, tradition is a key to social prestige, so the development of local church histories allows them to be more confident in interactions with ecclesiastical peers in the First World. This, she said, is about creating a level playing field.

In the end, however, the overriding concern at the summit seemed to be telling the Christian story -- all of it. Walls provided another example.

Two of his graduate students, he said, recently completed doctoral dissertations. Both dealt with Christian missions in southern Ethiopia, but one drew primarily on missionary archives now held in Canada, while another utilized oral history interviews with the region’s Gala peoples.

“Reading the works, you could be forgiven,” Walls said, “for thinking these were two different places.”

Christian missionaries arrived in this part of Ethiopia in the early 1930s, and were expelled shortly thereafter when Italy invaded. They returned after World War II expecting to start over. Yet they found a thriving church structure that seemed to have sprouted overnight.

Letters home from the missionaries explained it in terms of a miracle, which surely it seemed to the startled Westerners. But Walls’ second student, drawing on local oral tradition, learned that an indigenous Gala prophet in the 1930s had attacked the village-based tribal cults before the missionaries arrived, urging the people to pray instead to a universal god. Hence when the Christians came, the seed they planted fell on fertile soil, far more than they realized since they were ignorant of local religious history.

While Walls said “it’s an act of faith” whether dusting off this slice of the past will actually change anything, he and his fellow archivists are convinced that building archives is a service to Christian memory, with memory in turn being essential to justice.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

Related Web site

International Association for Mission Studies

National Catholic Reporter, October 18, 2002