Lessons From A Catholic Missionary

Vincent Donovan was a Catholic missionary in Africa in the mid 1900s.  In his mission work he struggled with his missionary calling and through these struggles he discovered that if there was going to be any discipleship among the indigenous people of Africa new ideas of church and mission were going to have to be imagined. 


During the 1950s and 60s the Catholic priests serving in Masai, Africa built and equipped four schools and a hospital, purchased and upgraded a car to run community errands, attended kraals and drank milk and honey beer (sounds good) – and all this was going on for years.  But now read the letter that Donovan wrote in May 1966 to his bishop:

But never, or almost never, is religion mentioned on any of these visits.  The best way to describe realistically the state of this Christian mission is the number zero.  As of this month, in the seventh year of this mission’s existence, there are no adult Masai practicing Christians from Loliondo mission.  The only practicing Christians are the catechist and the hospital medical dresser, who have come here from other sections of Masailand.


That zero is a real number, because up until this date no Catholic child, on leaving school, has continued to practice his religion, and there is no indication that any of the present students will do so.


Later on in the letter Donovan would continue, “I suddenly feel the urgent need to cast aside all theories and discussions, all efforts at strategy – and simply go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa.”[1]


What fascinates me about what Donovan is saying is that he needs to abandon all theories and discussions.  In his context this means abandoning the idea of building schools, hospitals and attending the social events.  Lamin Sanneh, who writes about this event says that Donovan is even going to have transgress hallowed boundaries, including ideas of church.


As I look at what Churches of Christ are doing in Ontario it seems that Donovan’s words can set us free.  We need to be free from the theories and discussions of how to do and be church for these theories and discussions are only hindering and hampering us.  These theories and discussions are not creating disciples in fact an alarming number of young people are leaving our heritage.  Our theories and discussions are not allowing us to discover the neighborhoods around the churches nor are they equipping us to serve the indigenous people.  In fact what the theories and discussions are forcing us to be and do is to remain a Southern US Church of Christ from the 1950s and 60s.  We need to quit discussing amongst ourselves how our current structures can remain in tact and do as Donovan says, “Simply go to these people and do the work for which [we are called].”

[1] Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations (Oxford, 2008), 236.

Published in: on May 8, 2008 at 10:15 pm  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. i think you are right on i wish roman catholics in the developed world could learn the lesson from Donovan that you have picked up the work of hte gospel today requires a great freedom from the structures that once sustained the faith but now seem to keep it in a box and hidden away

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