Don’t be a Jew

Joseph and Mary, and Little Joe and Mary, and Grinker and I, sat around the table where most of the dinner had been laid out. Additional bits and pieces of the dinner would be brought out as needed shortly, but now it was time to pray.

So we held hands and bowed our heads, and Mary led a prayer to Jesus for the bounty we were about to receive and stuff, and we all said Amen and were about to dig in, when Mary interrupted with a tone of voice and a hand signal that made everyone stop with their forks in mid air.

This is a Repost in celebration of Missionary Weekend

“We have a new tradition we’d like you to participate in,” she said. Her husband glanced at her with an obvious lack of understanding. I guessed he had forgotten about the new tradition and was going to keep his mouth shut for the moment.

“We now read a special bible passage at every dinner, to reinforce the children’s learning.” As she said this, she reached behind her and pulled a bible off a side table, and opened it to a previously marked page.

“Rich, I wonder if you would read this aloud for us?”

What can you do? Hey, even to this day, as a practicing atheist with an activist agenda, I’ll read bits and pieces of the bible at whichever Jewish holiday it is that my in laws do that at. Nobody thinks anything of it. Surely, there was a bit of irony here, in that they picked Grinker, who is Jewish, to read from the New Testament, but whatever. What harm could that be, right?

“Oh, OK,” Grinker said after he took the book. “No problem.”

And so Grinker read the text, and a few sentences in it became clear that this was one of those bible passages that had a lot to say about the Jews. The Jews were bad, the Jews could not be trusted, the Jews needed to convert, and so on and so forth. I don’t remember the passage, it was probably from Matthew or maybe one of those especially anti-Semitic bits from John. When it was over, Grinker was, to me, visibly disturbed by having been asked to read this, and possibly even disturbed that such offensive rambling was even part of a ‘religious’ text that he was undoubtedly unfamiliar with. But he kept a smile on his face and this was not brought up again. Joseph himself looked rather embarrassed as well. It was now obvious to us that Mary had created this ruse of a bible reading after saying grace. She lied, and she offended a guest. She was dissing the Jew, or at least, dissing his presumed religion. A victory, I suppose, would have been if Grinker asked to be baptized at the next possible opportunity.

It is true that there was a great deal of variation across the missionaries in their beliefs as well as their practices. Those who were less radical about the religion and more involved in the work they were doing, however, had to keep up the front of being devout. This was, essentially, a cult and they had to maintain a certain level of adherence to doctrine. It is always the case, internationally, that pilots are treated differently. They do not follow the same rules as other people, they are left more on their own, yet when they break certain rules they are punished more severely. For instance, a pilot who is caught bringing any kind of materiel, no matter how innocuous, across a border without proper papers, may lose his licence or at least his job. This was the case with a pilot who would bring VHS tapes of recent movies from town to town in Zaire and back to Belgium, rotating them among a group of people who shared ownership in them. So it was also true with the missionary pilots. They kept more to themselves, and although they would always pray before takeoff (and sometimes during the flight) they were more pragmatic and appeared less religious than the other missionaries.

The Africans who partook in the mission life, living on these compounds, also varied in their level of indoctrination. One man that I ended up working with quite a bit had been a long time resident of one of the mission stations, and had the status of “teacher.” But on the side he was a trader in black market goods, and had served as a mercenary as well as being a soldier in Idi Amin’s army. These were all things that got him in trouble with the mission once they discovered them. He was required to move off station, though his wife and children could remain if they wanted to.

For every white missionary on a mission station, there are probably several dozen Africans, but judging from what I’ve seen in the more remote stations that were not really full communities, or the urban stations that were satellites to the larger extended ‘villages,’ the ratio of African to Foreigner needed to sustain the middle class lifestyle the missionaries enjoyed was perhaps as low as six to one. The duties of the African workers included cooking (though “madam” was the actual cook, there were many cooking related tasks to carry out, including of course cooking for the staff), cleaning, maintaining equipment like the generators, serving as a guard, rebuilding roofs, teaching Madam, Master and the children a local language, and so on.

I do not know many details of the system, but I got the impression that these workers were being observed and to some extent tested on a regular basis, and if as individuals showed themselves to be literate, devout, and well behaved, they would be asked (allowed?) to do “pastoral work.” This meant going among the masses visiting the sick, reading bible passages to people, and so on.

Most important is this: The Africans were taught a version of the religion that was the most strict of all. Different Americans, Brits, Australians and so on would come and go, with different levels of involvement in the religious aspects of the mission. Pilots were pilots who happened to be protestant. Electricians and other technicians were experts on needed services but not necessarily particularly religious. If the missionaries were the Pilgrims, the others were the crew on the Mayflower that made the voyage happen. But the interface between the community of missionaries and the African community was primarily Madam, and to a lesser extent Master (or “Bwana”) and at this interface only the strictest teachings were carried out. As a result, the Africans who carried out the pastoral work were the most conservative of all members of the communities, and when these individuals rose to prominence now and then, their conservatism had an influence.

About 15 years ago, the English Anglican church, which has missionized in this manner since the days of Livingstone, held the first international meeting in many years, and at that meeting the number of African born, African trained bishops who were of this highly conservative ilk was larger than any other faction of bishops. At that meeting, the bishops voted all sorts of policy changes and moved the Anglican church, worldwide, towards a position of modern conservatism that would be envied by the board of directors at Oral Roberts college.

The chickens. They came home. And roosted.