Mutuality In Mission

Birth, Death, and Solidarity in the YAV Program

Author Thomas John with wife Betty and former YAV John Russell Stanger
Author Thomas John with wife Betty and former YAV John Russell Stanger

Our Church’s approach to mission work has changed dramatically in recent decades – and continues to change! In the traditional understanding of mission, the missionary operates from a mission compound, from a position of power and control, and relates with a condescending gesture of benevolence towards the natives. He (gendered pronoun intentional!) carries insignias of wealth and power. He comes with a specific agenda of transforming the natives and not to be transformed, though transformation occurs without design; he comes with an attitude of cultural superiority. This description is intended in no way to belittle the authenticity and sacrifices of missionary the missionaries that have gone before us, but rather to describe a historical reality to which the Global South has been subjected.

The Young Adult Volunteer Program of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) reverses this way of doing mission and posits a new understanding. The young adults descend without very clear job descriptions, native language facilities, or understandings of culture – and with a very light purse. They live with host families or native communities, eating the same food and sharing the same living arrangements. They must rely on their hosts to guide them and direct them every step of the way. They have to learn to eat with their fingers and manage many aspects of their life without the gadgets that had made their lives in America comfortable. It is almost as if they are beginning their lives from a ‘clean slate’; the cultural immersion and dependence on native wisdom is total. They bring to their respective areas of voluntary work a ‘ministry of presence’ – a presence that transforms both the partners beyond what they ever could have imagined.

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The YAV program is a mission of solidarity, a mission that makes YAVs remain close to the sufferings of the most deprived in their respective host communities. They also embody an alternative to the dominant way in which the US is present in the world today.
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This seems to me to be the same model that Jesus exhorted the apostles to follow: “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.” (Mt 10:9-10) The apostles were asked to travel lightly – with total dependence on God and the hospitality of the people around them.

stock-footage-alleppey-kerala-india-march-everyday-scene-in-kerala-backwaters-with-people-transportingThe YAV program is a mission of solidarity, a mission that makes YAVs remain close to the sufferings of the most deprived in their respective host communities. The volunteers themselves may not have the power to change things, but even in their vulnerability, they remain in solidarity with the poor and the downtrodden; that, in and of itself, poses a challenge to the establishment and brings hope and consolation to the suffering. Even without strong denouncement or active resistance, they, by their solidarity end up challenging the indigenous church, the dominant establishment, and the ruling elite. They also embody an alternative to the dominant way in which the US is present in the world today.

The volunteers become at the same time healers and the healed. This aspect of the volunteers’ ministry reminds me of the story of the slave girl and Naaman in II Kings 5. Common to both the slave girl and the YAVs is that their status as foreigners who have little power to influence what happens in the foreign country. Although the young girl was brought to Aram as slave and totally powerless, she is still able to point to the source of healing: she says, “If only my Lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of leprosy.” She, powerless and insignificant as she may be, becomes a source of healing for Naaman. This is the story of many YAVs.

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The vision and hope of the Kingdom calls for this type of engagement that transcends narrow boundaries of nationality, race, and religion in favor of the Gospel solidarity that brings radical transformation.
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The volunteers can also be seen in the role of Naaman, who was powerful and mighty and yet suffered from a dreaded skin disease and required healing. Just like Naaman, the YAVs are forced to shed their sense of power and control and go through a cultural immersion in the ‘waters of Jordan,’ of dipping ‘seven times in Jordan,’ an action that appeared totally nonsensical from the dominant view of reality. However, when Naaman finally listened to his servants and went through the immersion experience, he and was healed. YAVs in their respective countries of service are not tourists, but pilgrims, who seek for healing and wholeness.

Thomas and Betty John with a group of YAVs
Thomas and Betty John with a group of YAVs

Thus, I believe the YAV program is the most effective way of embodying this concept of mutuality in mission, a notion of mission that discounts the “sending and receiving” model and instead promotes a model of mutual transformation and healing. The total cost of sustaining a volunteer through this program is much less than what the church would spend to sustain a missionary in the traditional model. And yet it achieves what one could not achieve through the investment of money.

My wife Betty and I had the privilege of serving as site coordinators for the YAV program in India from 1998 to 2011. Our home served as a second home to our YAVs. The first seven days of their stay with us, we sought to provide them with the essentials of living in Kerala, India. Betty, with utmost care, desensitized them to spices by gently increasing the dose of spices in the foods that she prepares for them. Almost like a miracle, we stood back and watched them relish the hot fish curry on the seventh day of their stay in our country, the acid test of their mettle to survive in Kerala, and thanked God for this transformation. It was a sign of the yet-to-be-realized transformation in their life. My task was to train them in all aspects of life – from toilet training to eating with their hands to the more sophisticated cultural nuances of living with a totally different people. Then they were weaned to plunge into the more ‘dirty waters’ of their respective sites of service until we met again at the end of every month and on special occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas.

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I believe the YAV program is the most effective way of embodying this concept of mutuality in mission, a notion of mission that discounts the “sending and receiving” model and instead promotes a model of mutual transformation and healing.
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The volunteers, in return, filled our ‘empty nest.’ They kept us on our toes, but they also kept us active, physically fit, mentally agile, and spiritually humble and thankful. The three-day monthly retreats wereheld most often in specific locations that expose the YAVs to the stark realities of poverty, discrimination, and marginalization – to groups such as poor women, Dalit, Tribal, and Fish Workers. Each day commenced with a Biblical reflection, and it was my privilege to lead them through it. YAVs not only loved those Bible studies, but also responded to them with wonder and excitement that brought out the best in all of us. Contrary to some popular misconceptions about young adults, most of the volunteers who came to India were seeking “new sight.’ When they received it, they respond with sincere commitment to follow Jesus – either as pastors in churches or as non-profit workers in the US.

276916155tgFICj_fsThis is not to say that everything went perfectly, but the group supported and strengthened each other in order to face the challenges of living in an entirely different culture. As we held hands and each shared a word of prayer lifting up our deepest concerns, we were given a foretaste of the very Kingdom of God – and of what is required of all of us to usher in that Kingdom. As the years go by, we continue to cherish those experiences. What more one can ask for?!

The vision and hope of the Kingdom calls for this type of engagement that transcends narrow boundaries of nationality, race, and religion in favor of the Gospel solidarity that brings radical transformation. As T.S. Elliot highlights in his poem, “The Journey of the Magi,” journeys like the ones YAVs take end in “birth and death”. As the ending of the poem goes:

“…this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”

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AUTHOR BIO: Thomas John is an educator and pastor in the Church of South India. From 1998 to 2011, he served the PC(USA) as coordinator of its Young Adult Volunteer Program in South India. At present, he serves the Presbyterian Hunger Program as the Companionship Facilitator for its Joining hands initiative in S. India, Chethana. 

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