Mission & Friendship

DR. GINA A. ZURLO

CO-DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF GLOBAL CHRISTIANITY


Many years ago, I used to hang out at the Turkish Cultural Center in Boston. It’s a nonprofit that helps serve the Turkish-American population, promoting cross-cultural awareness, mutual respect, and understanding in the city. I attended lectures on aspects of Turkish history and culture, shared iftar meals during Ramadan, and participated in Muslim-Christian dialogues for women. I met wonderful people, learned a lot about another culture, and had amazing food (oh gosh, the food). It was great fun!

But at one point, a Christian friend asked me: “Are you doing this to convert them to Christianity?” I was bothered by the question. Are people of other religions mere targets of Christian witness? How is it love when we are “loving” our neighbor only with an ulterior motive? While I understand where the question was coming from, we see historically that Christians and Muslims engaged in all kinds of positive interactions where conversion wasn’t the center of the narrative (like in Egypt, Spain, and Iraq). Ironically, irenic Christian witness was present in the lives, actions, and words of Christians in these interactions. What then, is missing from our interreligious context?

Enter mission and friendship.

In the early 20th century, “world friendship” became one of the new ways American women conceptualized mission. Unlike previous missiological thought, world friendship assumed that the West did not have a cultural monopoly over the rest of the world. It was a shift away from 19th-century mindset that American women needed to “raise up” women elsewhere in the world to spread American civilization alongside Christianity. This new generation of missions-minded women saw the importance of helping women and children around the world not only through the church, but through civic organizations, legislation, and ecumenical activities. One example of this shift was the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), which changed the name of its missionary department to the “World Fellowship Department” in 1925.

While some contemporary readers might look at this history and identify it as part of the slippery slope toward universalism and theological liberalism, another perspective is that these women wisely interpreted the signs of the times. After all, World War I (1914–1918) had devastated Europe and revealed the limits of “Christian civilization”. Indigenous Christian initiatives to contextualize the faith in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere revealed the theological problems of transplanting European and American Christianity into other cultures and contexts. The 20th century clearly illustrated that Western “solutions” to local problems weren’t always the most effective.

Later this semester in my American Christian history class, I’ll be dedicating a class session to discussing American women in mission. Drawing on the work of Dana Robert (American Woman in Mission), we’ll cover several uniquely female approaches to mission from the late 18th to the 20th centuries: the missionary wife, the missionary teacher, the 19th century Woman’s Work for Woman movement, faith missions, and friendship as mission. Dr. Robert argues that women helped create distinctly American mission theories shaped by their gendered experience in churches—theories that differed from those of men, because of their distinct experiences of both congregational life and society as a whole. Women’s approaches to mission included their motivations, goals, and theological assumptions about mission, as well as their practical engagements in missions overseas. Among their contributions was the concept of world friendship.

Dana Robert’s new book Faithful Friendships: Embracing Diversity in Christian Community, opens this way: “Friendship is both ordinary and revolutionary. Long the subjects of poets and sages, friendship makes us human. It involves giving and receiving, and mutual trust. Friendships form individuals, create neighborhoods and churches, and knit together the fabric of society.” In a season where many Christians are questioning old missiological assumptions, it feels like the right time to revive mission as friendship. As Robert says, “If we cannot imagine other as potential friends, and therefore as equal to ourselves, then we cannot survive on a planet that gets smaller all the time.”