By Ben Gray
As I spread the news that our family was headed to Palestine, what I told people depended on the context in which I knew them.
At work I told people that we were moving to Jerusalem to be the communications coordinators for the Lutheran church.
To friends I said we were going to tell the stories of the persecuted Palestinian Christians.
At church I announced that we had accepted a call to be missionaries in Palestine.
All three were accurate, but in most circles I wasn’t comfortable labeling our family as missionaries. This probably seems pretty strange for a family who has agreed to give up their comfortable life and travel across the globe to work with people they don’t know, but it turns out we aren’t unique. In fact, the vast majority of the 30 new missionaries for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) that we spent the last week with were either uncomfortable or opposed to being called missionaries at the beginning of our orientation.
The term missionary conjures up images that most of us really didn’t want to be associated with.
There were colonial missionaries who went forth to bring God to the far corners of the world. There were missionaries who stamped out local customs and indigenous beliefs. There are missionaries who ride in on a white horse to modernize remote villages. There are missionaries who work tirelessly to convert and “save” the people of the world. And there are missionaries who end up taking much more than they give.
The ELCA has a much different view of missionary work and they call it accompaniment. We are going to accompany our brothers and sisters and to work alongside them. We go at the request of the church we will be serving, not because we think they need our help. We respect their culture and customs and do the work that they ask us to do. We don’t try to convert, baptize or “save” anyone. We live with the people we’re serving and we share in their sorrow as well as their joy. We are sent by Christ to have a true relationship with the people we serve.
I’m proud to be an ELCA missionary and won’t shy away from telling people that we were called to serve, but in the next breath, I’ll tell them what that truly means.