In the summer of 2003 I participated in three weeks of orientation to prepare for international service with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) Global Mission. At that point I had never left the shores of North America. Among other things, those in attendance learned about cultural sensitivity and personal security, and we also discussed a wide variety of topics surrounding discernment, faith, globalization, and racial privilege. In reflection upon those important weeks in Chicago, I realize that no amount of orientation could have prepared me for the wonders and complexities of international service, yet I continue to recognize the value in such training, and I remain thankful for the countless insights I received from the ELCA.
In the nine years since those initial orientation sessions, I have traveled thousands of miles, visited an assortment of countries, experienced various cultures, met a multitude of amazing people, and experienced the love of God through sights and sounds that I never imagined possible while growing up in central Wisconsin. As an ordained minister of the ELCA, I have participated alongside global companions in hundreds of worship services and ceremonies, walked countless rural paths and urban streets, visited numerous homes, listened to people of diverse faith and cultural perspectives, and at each step I have tried to learn with humility, speak and act with boldness, follow the way of Jesus, and hear God’s voice in the midst of uncertainty and struggle. Altogether, my views on faith and responsibility have grown, my assumptions have been challenged, my articulation of the Good News has widened and deepened, and with each passing day I find new ways to participate in God’s mission alongside people who often think, act, believe, and look differently than myself. All in all, I have changed a great deal since 2003, and as I transition into new ministry roles in North America I fully trust that my global information and global transformation will be viewed as a gift.
While it is impossible to summarize all that I have learned (as well as re-learned and un-learned!) since 2003, I believe it is useful to share a few thoughts about my global transformation and ongoing missionary service within North America.
Diversity: Different Does Not Equal Wrong
Wade Davis, a Canadian anthropologist, once remarked: “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit”. With these thoughts from Davis in mind, I have recognized over the past years that there are countless “models of reality”, thus there are numerous “unique manifestations of the human spirit”. In other words, God is creative! And so I recognize that my experiences as a white, North American, male, Lutheran-Christian from central Wisconsin are only one model of reality, thus when encountering another culture and/or religious tradition, although an initial impulse may be discomfort, it is most often because of difference and not because of wrongness. And so, to make a long story far too short, as a result of global transformation I have learned to resist judgment, understand the many stories beneath and around “the story”, and as a result move past tolerance and instead practice acceptance, wonder, and hospitality.
Connectedness: I am Because We Are
One of the intellectual foundations of Western thought is “Cogito ergo sum”, or “I think therefore I am”. This statement from René Descartes has influenced a wide swath of North American life, and while a full articulation is not intended here, what is worthy of attention is the focus it places upon the individual. In wonderful contrast to “I think therefore I am”, the African philosophy of ubuntu states, “I am because we are”. Among other things, ubuntu recognizes that individual autonomy is impossible, for a person is only a person through being in relationship with other persons. In other words, all people are products of their environment, and thus all people have to rely upon others each and every day. While ubuntu recognizes personal initiative, drive, and the ability to shape our surroundings, it also acknowledges that relationships form existence, and thus connectedness is essential to a full understanding of life. In sum, my global transformation has revealed independence as a myth, for while personal responsibility and freedom is indeed important, we are all intimately and intimately interconnected with all people in all places throughout the world.
Solidarity: Walking Together
With the above thoughts in mind, I have come to recognize that the global community is extremely diverse, yet it is also intimately connected, thus we are called by God to walk together in a solidarity that seeks interdependence and mutuality. While I am indeed extremely different from the South African and Guyanese people who I served alongside, we are also incredibly similar and deeply connected as people created in the image and likeness of God. As a result of this common thread of mutual humanity we have a profound responsibility to walk in solidarity with one another in the journey of life. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
In a real sense all life is inter-related. All persons are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.
With King’s thoughts in mind, and with ubuntu in my heart, within this “inter-related structure of reality” I am not merely a citizen of the United States and an ordained pastor of the ELCA, but I am something much larger – “I am” a person of faith who believes in the value, sacredness, and dignity of all life because “we are” members of a common humanity that is deeply loved by a gracious God. As a result, I believe that following Jesus in daily life means to recognize that injustice anywhere has an impact everywhere, and we possess a personal responsibility to look beyond the borders of race, gender, culture, religion, and sexuality, to ensure fairness and opportunity for all that God has brought to life. I thank God for the global church companions that have taught me these lessons, and I pray for the integrity to keep such global transformation deep in my heart and mind for the rest of my life.
Missionary Service in the USA
Over the past weeks numerous people have spoken of my departure from South Africa as the “conclusion” of my missionary service, or in other words, a “return” from the “mission field”. I totally disagree with these assertions, for in many ways my missionary service is only beginning. I believe wholeheartedly that God’s global mission through Jesus is about reconciliation, transformation, and empowerment, thus a global Christian missionary is one who seeks to reconcile, transform, and empower by the grace of God and for the sake of the world. I cannot see myself stopping such activity at any point, as everywhere is the “mission field”, each day constitutes numerous “mission trips”, and every local action has a global reaction. In a world that possesses division and violence, I believe God is on a global mission of reconciliation and I plan to participate fully within in. In a world were billions of people scrape through life in spirit-destroying poverty, I believe God is on a global mission of transformation and I plan to participate fully within it. In the midst of a world that is thirsty for compassionate servant-leaders, I believe God is on a global mission of empowerment and I plan to participate fully within it. And so, as I continue to transition into my new call as Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church in Madison, Wisconsin, I firmly believe that my global missionary service has not concluded but has turned a new page, and by God’s grace I look forward to this new, exciting, and challenging chapter.
And so once again I will participate in a global mission orientation, but unlike the sessions that took place in Chicago nearly nine years ago, the upcoming orientation period will never conclude. As the cycle of orientation and disorientation is in many ways a life-long process, I will always seek ways and means to learn about the joys and struggles of the people whom I am called to accompany. In addition I will always discern who God is and what it means to be globally transformed in the midst of my local context, and I will always consider how I may contribute to what God is doing to and through an ever-changing and increasingly complex world. I will remain mindful of the lessons I learned in Guyana, South Africa, and beyond. I will hold tight to the wonderful friendships formed, and I will continue to be shaped in the years ahead alongside whatever local and global community I am placed. I thank God for the opportunity to serve in places that I never imagined possible, and as I begin this new chapter in global missionary service, I look forward to all that God will do “to us all” and “through us all” in the years ahead.
Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), serves as Co-Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, WI), and is a PhD candidate in Theology & Development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa).