Editor's Postlude: Getting Rid of Mission

September 29, 2022
Word Mission with a red circle and line through it

My grade three teacher had been a missionary in Africa. I vividly remember the day she had us move our chairs into the shape of an airplane and imagine that we were flying to Africa. I don’t remember the stories she told of her mission work. I realize now that I don’t even know in what African country she served. But the word missionary captured me, and I wanted to be one. I soaked up stories told about missionaries at church. I imagined helping people. I imagined learning their culture and language. I imagined sharing stories of Jesus. The adventure of it called to me.

I went through phases of imagining myself as a teaching missionary or a medical missionary. Even after the Spirit hit me with a call to ordained ministry, the idea of missionary held fast. I trained as a teacher and gained a permanent teaching certificate, building my skills for serving overseas.

Next came seminary and internships for ministry. I jumped at the chance for an overseas internship. I was assigned to The United Church of Jamaica and Grand Cayman, and in May 1988, flew to Kingston, Jamaica. Over the course of four months, every romantic notion about being a missionary, held since grade three, was stripped away, and I am forever grateful.

As the internship progressed, I was thrilled to be invited to be part of two summer church camps. I love church camps! I enthusiastically went to the first planning meeting, feeling that finally I had something to offer. A discussion came up about how to involve the children in camp chores. I piped up, “At camps in Canada, we…” and I was abruptly cut off. The director spoke: “Frankly, we don’t care what you do in Canada. We’ve heard enough of what White people do.”

It was hard to hear those words. Yet, I am so glad that the director spoke them to me. From that point on, I learned to listen more than I spoke. I learned to pay attention to what I was seeing and not make assumptions. It is a lesson I continue to integrate into my life.

I came home with a different “mission” now firmly rooted in my spirit. I understood that I had nothing to offer to the church in Jamaica. My mission was to my own people in my own context. The Spirit was sending me home to challenge the assumptions and to broaden the perspectives of the people in churches I would serve in Canada. The challenge has come to The United Church of Canada from Indigenous peoples that we stop using the word mission. Consider how mission was a weapon used in residential schools. It is a word loaded with pain and trauma that grows with every Indigenous child’s grave newly found at residential school sites.

The word mission is woven into the fabric of the United Church. The Mission and Maintenance Fund, which became Mission and Service, is named every Sunday in most United Churches. Mission is from the Latin missio, meaning “to be sent forth.” The great commissioning at the end of the Gospel of Matthew has shaped our church culture. Yet, why would we continue to use the word mission when it is a word so twisted by colonizers that it no longer means sharing “good news” but instead pain, trauma, abuse, death, and the wiping out of culture, language, and traditions?

The challenge to stop using mission is a good one for us. It is so easy to keep using a word because we’ve always used it. Yet, to change our vocabulary, we must stop and consider. What does the word really mean—to settlers, to Indigenous peoples, to immigrants? Why do we want to use it when we are being told of the trauma associated with the word? What words can we use instead that bring clarity to what we want to be about in sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ? In 1 Corinthians 12:26, Paul tells us that “if one member suffers, all suffer together.” The word mission has caused and is causing suffering to others. It is time for us to find other words. 

  Susan Lukey, Editor