Whenever I hear that White missionaries have gone to Africa, I suspect less than healthy motives. Therefore, I was initially skeptical of the relationship between Mennonite Mission Network and the African Independent Churches (AICs) in western and southern Africa.
We cannot separate AICs from their colonial and Indigenous contexts. The AIC movement was birthed in the early 20th century, during the waning decades of the direct colonial rule over African peoples by European powers. Their rise represents a reclamation of sorts and a proclamation that Africans could determine what their spirituality and churches could look like. As independence movements swept across much of the African continent in the mid-20th century, AICs began to grow. Today, they represent more than 110 million Christians across the continent.
My initial skepticism shifted once I listened to the conversation between James Krabill, Jonathan Larson and Thomas Oduro, who edited the book Unless a Grain of Wheat. My perspective shifted. The earnest appreciation for this respect-based relationship was palpable.
For Western Christians, the work of Mission Network personnel offers a critique to the inherent colonial methods of mission work. The agency's approach is to build relationships, rather than evangelizing African peoples to transpose Western norms and practices.
Because of this way of relating mutually, AIC leaders experienced genuine care and relationship with Mennonite workers that ran counter to the norm. Oduro shared the narrative of Mennonite workers who joyfully gave their time and resources to help lay the foundation for Good News Seminary. Seeing their genuine delight in helping this building project created trust. It also gave Oduro a different view of what was possible from Western Christianity.
Stories like these fill the book Unless a Grain of Wheat, which is a collection of insights and personal narratives that are rooted in the relationship between Mennonite Mission workers and AICs across western and southern Africa. As you read, you'll encounter stories of transformation from both AIC members and Western workers that highlight the mutuality of these relationships.
What intrigues me most are the lessons that we might transpose onto contexts in the United States. AIC members, Mennonite workers and Africans have built and maintained relationships with one another for more than 60 years, despite political transformation, epidemics, wars and natural disasters. So how does this model empower more healthy relationships between predominantly White congregations and congregations made up predominantly of people of color in the United States?
As Jonathan Larson reflected on what Mennonites have learned from their relationship with AICs, he noted, "The encounter with AICs reflected to us that we have become impoverished in our spirituality because of our culture."
I agree with him, and I would add that this impoverishment can be tied to the tolerance and embrace of White supremacy. Mennonites aren't endorsing the Proud Boys or the Ku Klux Klan, but there are subtle ways that we tolerate the normalization of White culture and participate in the systemic forces that continue to reshape our society in ways that harm communities of color.
I wonder: What could change if we adopted a posture of relationship-building and mutual learning with Black congregations that are fighting police brutality and mass incarceration?
What could we learn from Latino congregations that are combatting food deserts and unjust immigration policies?
How might we be challenged by African congregations on this side of the Atlantic Ocean that are concerned with slumlord apartment complexes and a lack of affordable housing?
Unless A Grain of Wheat highlights the best of what is possible when White, Western Christians learn from past wrongs and step forward with intentionality and humility to imagine a new way of being in relationship. These lessons don't have to only pertain to work with AICs, and I'd love to see these lessons reimagined and applied to our local contexts.
If you want to read these stories for yourself and be inspired by what's possible, you can find Unless A Grain of Wheat: A Story of Friendship Between African Independent Churches and North American Mennonites online at Langham Publishing, Christian Books, as well as from other online retailers.