Alisha and Joshua Garber, with their son, Asher, have served for the past three years in Barcelona, Catalonia (a region where allegiance to Spain vies with voices calling for independence). Before that time, they served for four years in Lithuania. During their service, they've spent much time dispelling myths about their mission work in Europe.
In Europe, mission work doesn't look like what many people typically envision – projects that address important physical needs such as building wells or constructing church buildings. The mission work that the Garbers feel called to help address is spiritual poverty. They recognize a void in the hearts of people in Barcelona that is yearning to be filled by the love of Jesus Christ.
There is a colonial mindset that prevents some from seeing the whole of the world — including the Western world — as a mission field. While common, this is a flawed understanding. Here is what Jesus said on the subject, from Matthew 28:19.
"As you go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit."
All places. All around the world, there are people that yearn for the good news of Christ. But despite this teaching, North Americans rarely consider places like Europe to be on their missional radar because of a deeply ingrained colonial mindset that has permeated mission work for centuries.
When thinking about mission work, many envision countries that have low income and GDP (gross domestic product). This mindset of "from the west to the rest" stems from centuries of colonialist ideals that have encompassed mission work since Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull Inter Caetera in 1493. Spain and Portugal (and later, other countries) used this devastating decree to justify the colonization, conversion, and enslavement of people in Africa and the Americas. This is known as the Doctrine of Discovery.
When addressing spiritual poverty anywhere in the world, it cannot be with a mentality of we who "have" and others who "have not." Joe Sawatzky, Church Relations representative for Mennonite Mission Network and former mission worker in South Africa, said, "Our missiology is to recognize the signs of God's prevenient grace in every culture … This is not to deny that 'spiritual poverty' exists in any culture — it exists in every culture — but to see the testimonies to God's grace leading toward Christ in every culture." It is because of this that Mission Network actively strives to follow Jesus' teachings and avoid approaches to mission that rely on colonial systems. Mission Network personnel respond to invitations from, and partner with, organizations to work alongside them in service.
Interpretations of the above verse from Matthew 28 make it easy for North American Christians to ignore the European mission field. Some groups see this passage as a trigger for the endgame of the kingdom of heaven. If they can just reach all of the "unreached peoples" of the world, the second coming will happen and the whole world will benefit.
"'Unreached people group' tends to be a term synonymous with 'third-world countries,'" Joshua Garber said in a blog post1 from 2016. "It's as if [people believe] wealth and prosperity on any level better connect us with being 'godly.'" He continued, emphasizing that there is a growing trend of churches in less-wealthy countries sending missionaries to countries considered wealthier.
Mission Network and the Garbers serve others because it is what Christ repeatedly calls us to do, in Matthew 28 and many other places in the Gospels.
Recently, the Garbers have started a youth ministry in partnership with the Mennonite community in Barcelona. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has put a hold on the cherished in-person meetings of old, the youth participating in the ministry have shown excitement and are ready to delve deeply into exciting topics like creation care and stewardship.2
"We are called to share the vision of Christ to all those who will hear, through our own lives — actions and words," Joshua Garber said in the blog from 2016. "So, when people hear our call to serve in Spain and ask, 'Why?', our response is 'Why not?'"
Alisha Garber leads worship during a virtual church service in May. Photo by Josh Garber.
Josh Garber leads an online gathering as a way to reach out to the youth in their church during COVID-19. Photo by Alisha Garber.