Thursday, February 6, 2014

Dana L. Robert on Grace Upon Grace: Mission: Global

Today's post is the latest in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today.  This piece is written by Dr. Dana L. Robert, the Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Missions and Director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at the Boston University School of Theology.  Dr. Robert is commenting on the fifth section of the document, "Mission: Global."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

For United Methodists who might be reading Grace Upon Grace for the first time, the topics addressed by paragraphs 24-28 contain the popular understanding of John Wesley’s statement “The world is my parish.” When we United Methodists think about mission, we often think “global.” Our classic understanding of mission for the past 200 years has included the sending of missionaries around the world. Methodists go into all the world as “bearers of grace” (par 26). Our Christian hope leads us to see the world as God sees it--not merely as a set of challenging and dangerous human divisions, but as a community. Global mission reminds us that despite our own sins and limitations, we seek to live in the world as one “Body of Christ” (par 26).

One important theme to unpack in these paragraphs is our history of interracial and male-female partnership in the launching of “foreign” missions. Aside from Canada and the Caribbean, the first major overseas mission field for U.S. Methodists was Liberia.  As African-American Methodists migrated across the U.S., served as sailors aboard ships, and emigrated to Liberia and the Caribbean, they took their faith with them. The man whose work inspired the founding of the Methodist Missionary Society in 1819 was African-American John Stewart, pioneer missionary to the Wyandott Indians of Ohio (par 24). Methodists in New York, both black and white, raised money to support his work.

Of mixed African and European descent, John Stewart (1786-1823) was born a free man and Baptist in Virginia.[1]  Robbed on his way to Ohio, he attempted to drink himself to death.  He joined a Methodist camp meeting near Marietta and obtained spiritual relief from his agony of soul.  Stewart became ill from resisting a call to preach and only recovered after agreeing to obey God.  He heard God’s voice telling him to preach to the Indians. When he reached the Wyandotts in 1816, Stewart began singing and preaching to them, warning them to “flee the wrath to come.”  His ministry resulted in the conversion of chiefs, leading women, and others.  As was often the case on the frontier, rival missionaries quickly appeared on the scene to steal Stewart’s converts. They accused him of having no credentials from any organized group of Christians.  Stung by the accusation but supported by his native converts, Stewart approached the Ohio Annual Conference and requested ordination.

Today John Stewart would probably not meet the educational standards required for ordination . But in 1819, the Ohio Conference recognized his call from God as part of the divine plan for the expansion of Methodism, and it immediately licensed him.  The conference collected money for his work and appointed a regular missionary to follow with a circuit.  Back in New York City,  Methodists heard of Stewart’s success and promptly organized the Methodist Missionary Society to raise money for missions and book publishing.  Of the nine ministers who founded the society, six had been circuit rider/missionaries in Canada.  Methodist women founded the New York Female Missionary Society, which assisted the missionary outreach through fund-raising, an idea that quickly spread to Methodist women in Albany, Boston, and other Methodist centers.   In 1825 the women’s society sent a circulating library to the Wyandott Indians. The women’s society’s greatest success came a few years later as the core support for the new Liberia mission.  These two societies, one general and one female auxiliary, were the first significant voluntary organizations American Methodists founded specifically for the global mission of the church.

The example of John Stewart demonstrates the Methodist pattern during the early nineteenth century--expansion in obedience to the Holy Spirit, backed up by sound organization.  Despite requests in 1824 by African-American settlers for a missionary to organize churches, no experienced pastors would volunteer because of Liberia’s reputation as the “white man’s grave.”  Finally in 1832 the widower Melville Cox of Hallowell, Maine, volunteered and was accepted because he was already dying of tuberculosis anyway.  When told by a heckler at Wesleyan University that he would die in Liberia, Cox replied that his epitaph should read “Let a thousand fall before Africa be given up.” Surviving three months, Cox nevertheless organized the Liberian church according to the Discipline, planned a school, bought a building, and held a camp meeting.  The first reinforcements after his death lived about a month, with only one unmarried woman missionary who remained.

Over the decades, most missionaries to Liberia died or were invalided home.  Despite a permanent haze of malaria and the deaths of nearly all her colleagues, the Liberia missionary who provided continuity for nineteen years (1837-1856) was the teacher Ann Wilkins. Her call to Africa came at a camp meeting, when she put the following note into the offering plate, “A sister who has but little money at command, gives that little cheerfully, and is willing to give her life as a female teacher, if she is wanted.”[2] Wilkins was sustained by her holiness piety and money, prayers, supplies, and correspondence from the New York Female Missionary Society. She founded the first Methodist girls’ school abroad. Her correspondence with her mother also reveals that she was separated or divorced from her husband.

Paragraph 26 reminds us to recall the “cloud of witnesses” who have gone before. What we find in the stories of our “saints” is ordinary people called and equipped by the power of God’s grace to do extraordinary things. An unlicensed visionary, a superannuated tubercular, a lay woman of uncertain marital status--these were the pioneers of what had become by the early twentieth century the largest American foreign mission.  The stories of John Stewart, Melville Cox, and Ann Wilkins remind us that Global Mission is the narrative of grace upon grace. [3]

Recalling the origins of Methodist missions to Africa also reminds us to trust the Holy Spirit as we experience the internationalization of United Methodism today. Paragraph 27 of Grace Upon Grace notes that we must “be prepared for fundamental changes occurring in the world church. Christian population is growing most rapidly in Africa and Asia.” The demographic trends mentioned in par. 27 have grown even more pronounced since the document was written. Latin America is also showing huge numeric growth in the number of Christians. Demographers predict that by 2025, Africa will be home to the largest number of Christians of any continent, and Latin America the second largest. [4] African Christians are crossing cultural and international boundaries to share the gospel. African, Asian, and Latin Americans—as well as Europeans and North Americans-- hold missionary appointments through the General Board of Global Ministries.

Mission to and from all regions reflects the realities of Global Mission in the 21st century. As in the early days of American Methodism, Global Mission remains a multi-cultural, interracial, and inter-gender movement of multiple boundary crossings. As paragraph 27 notes, “We are a part of a new dynamic relationship.” Short-term mission volunteers, fulltime missionaries, conference partners, relief workers, and church-to-church friends together represent the diverse and dynamic nature of United Methodist mission today. Through Global Mission, our cloud of faithful witnesses testifies that despite the obstacles, God desires that the Body of Christ be one.

[1] For more information on John Stewart, including links to the early biographies written about him, see his entry on the History of Missiology website, Accessed January 26, 2014.
[3] These several paragraphs on early American missions are adapted from my talk, the First General Secretary’s Lecture on Mission, delivered to the staff of the General Board of Global Ministries in 1998, and then published as   “’History’s Lessons for Tomorrow’s Mission’: Reflections on American Methodism in Mission,” Focus (Winter/Spring 1999).
[4] Todd Johnson and Peter Crossing, “Christianity 2014: Independent Christianity and Slum Dwellers,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research  38:1 (January 2014): 28-29. Accessed January 26, 2014.

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