Mission is different for every person. That’s what I am learning working in the Mabatini parish in Mwanza, Tanzania, during my overseas training program this year. The parish is run by two Maryknoll priests and a Maryknoll Brother. Having a community to support me in my service has been invaluable. My ministries include working with altar servers, the homebound, and occasionally with street children.
My years of formation and philosophical and theological training in Maryknoll have helped me develop a stark self-awareness. My status as a white U.S. male born into a middle-class family requires constant awareness of what I take for granted in life. Being white is a place of privilege that has become a forefront of political and social conversation in the United States, but it also has a vital role here in Tanzania.
In many ways, I am a “victim” of reverse racism here. I stand out and I am stared at on a daily basis. Some curious children want to touch my hair; some run away scared. My difference is noticed and felt, but not in a negative way. I am treated as separate, above reproach, as if I am a king or a rock star. The best chairs are offered to me. The best food available is served to me. Is this what mission is about?
The local people have other assumptions about me. They see my skin color as a symbol of wealth. I am an American, so I must be rich. People ask me on a daily basis for money for food, school and medicine. Sometimes I give; sometimes I do not. By American standards, I am poor. By Tanzanian standards, I am wealthy beyond their imagination. They see me as a resource. Is this what mission is about?
The world and mission have changed in the last 100 years. There are plenty of priests, Sisters and seminarians in the Archdiocese of Mwanza who are capable of running their own churches and schools. But we are running the Mabatini parish.
Are we taking a job away from a local priest because of our need to be in mission? If so, is this not self-centered? What can we really offer that the local church is unable to offer? Where are we most needed? Are there more needy places than where I am now?
Questions like these have filled my head this year. Sometimes the questions can be overwhelming, but then, I come back to my small work with the altar servers and how they respond to my presence. They want to go with me to visit the sick each day. They love to sit and play cards or help me pick up trash on the church grounds. I have worked to create a place that is safe and fun for them, but also one where they find themselves responsible for the well-being of the community. We have incorporated learning sessions about the Mass and added some time for service to the larger community outside of Mass. I love spending time with them every day. Is this what mission is about?
I visit the homebound every week, people who live alone and cannot get up and walk, people who feel abandoned. I sit with them, talk with them, laugh with them and share the community meal with them. I also help to make sure their needs are met as best as I can. Sometimes that means medicine from our health office or a little money for food. Sometimes that just means making sure I come back the following week to see them again. Is this what mission is about?
I am realizing that what people need is a ministry of presence in their lives. My Swahili is not perfect, but my presence is. My ability to help people is not perfect, but my willingness to put forth the work and effort to find solutions with them is. Mission for me is not about being the white savior of the world, but about bringing the ministry of the Savior to those who might be unsure of the love of God in their lives that day.
That is what my mission is about.
Featured Image: With Tanzanian youth by his side, Jonathan Hill learns what mission is all about. (J. Hill/Tanzania)