Musings on Missions… sparked by our trip to Robertsport in March…
While in Robertsport, the county seat of Grand Cape Mount County, about a 2 and ½ hour drive from here, we walked around some of the streets just sightseeing. Robertsport is an old town… settled in the early 1800s by some of the freed slaves ("AmericoLiberians") who came from the US in the 1820s and '30s. We walked by the Mount Zion Baptist Church, which was founded in 1837.
This was a mission church—founded with the support and help of Christians back in the U.S., who wanted to help evangelize Liberia and also to bring civilization and education to Africa. The kids climbed in through an open window and scoped out the place—it is an active church, with decent pews and a big pulpit Bible open on the lectern. Out back, there is a church bell that fascinated me.
It had a bold imprint on it stating that the bell was made by the Meneely Company in West Troy, New York in 1886.
I keep thinking about that bell… wondering how it got here to West Africa from its foundry in upstate New York. Two of my brothers attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, so I have pretty clear images of Troy—large mill buildings, old industry. Who arranged for the purchase of the bell, and how did they go about it? I know they didn't get online and order it with their credit card! Someone probably from that area was coming to Liberia to work with the church, rode to West Troy with their horse and carriage and purchased that bell to load on a ship along with their other belongings, possibly never to see home again. In those days the risks of becoming involved in missions to tropical areas were tremendous. Malaria, dysentery, and parasites claimed a majority of lives within a short time.
This bell is not a "typical" bell—I have often seen cast iron bells which might have been used on a farm or a small school. Such a bell would have rusted away in that seaside location long ago. This is a bronze bell, amazingly well preserved and still with a clear beautiful tone! (I told them not to ring it, but Jared just couldn't resist!).
[I googled "Meneely & Co" and actually there's quite a bit of info online about them… there are Meneely bells in churches and carillons all around the world, many listed and catalogued online… but I didn't see any of their African bells catalogued…]
As I continued to think about the Mount Zion Baptist Church, I thought about the motivations of those who planted it, those who constructed the building, those who purchased and brought the bell. They felt that they were bringing God's kingdom, and with it, civilization, education, and progress to Africa. They did not have the sense that some of what they met in Africa was good and should be preserved… that perhaps an African church should look like an African home or have an African style. They didn't feel that church music in Africa should sound African with drums and African harmonies. Their thoughts were simple—we are bringing church and God's word with us to Africa and we will bring it just as we had it in our home country.
Many of these thoughts have changed over the years, but in many ways here in Liberia the whole culture of church and of what it means to be a Christian was shaped so strongly by the approach of these early missionaries that you cannot return, you can't start over and try to do it differently here. At least some things have changed—we now have Africans singing beautiful songs they have written in their own local languages, and accompanied by traditional instruments. Back in the 1800s many missionaries would have said that, since these drums and instruments are used in traditional ceremonies involving idol worship, that we cannot use them in church. But gradually as native Liberians themselves have taken ownership of how their churches will be, those ideas have changed.
But I do find myself wondering… while we have accepted some of the outward ways of local people in our missions work, adopting the dress and music of Liberians as we work with them in missions, are we losing our appreciation for local ways of thinking, values of hospitality, visiting, etc.? These issues still confront every missionary who comes to a place like Liberia. Are we willing to dig deep enough into the culture, values, and issues of our Liberian friends to let their culture come out, to let it touch us? How about our culture? Are we willing to let our habits and values be changed as the Lord may reveal things to us? Or are we coming to Liberia with what we already know, pre-cast and ready to be shown and taught to people without allowing interaction and creativity to touch us and our work?
I sometimes meet foreign visitors who are coming to do Biblical teaching here. One day I asked one about their approach to witchcraft and other traditional beliefs. He told me "Oh, those issues are not a problem for our pastors—they have cast away all such superstitions." I'm sure this pastor was sincere, but he just had not dug deep enough to discover the true concerns of Liberians. Having lived here and met many sick, suffering people, I have learned that concerns and fears about witchcraft and other traditional beliefs are paramount in peoples' minds. These aspects of culture need to be addressed Biblically in depth, so that pastors and leaders we work with are ready to deeply counsel those they are discipling.
As my thoughts return to the beautiful bronze bell, crafted so well and so durably in upstate New York, 123 years ago, I have mixed feelings. Some things about our gospel must be like the bell—unchanging, ringing clearly over the centuries "God is love;" "Seek first His kingdom;" and "Jesus is Lord!" However, other things must be reconsidered and changed for every situation we find ourselves in, making sure to allow people to meet God and express their love for him in ways that are natural, heartfelt, and culturally relevant for them. We must be willing to address those unique cultural issues that people face openly and honestly in the light of God's word, which never changes and yet always illuminates every new circumstance.