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My Understanding of Mission

By Barbara Hüfner-Kemper

Keynote Address at Voices: A Transformative Leadership Event for United Methodist Women Language Coordinators and Presidents.

My name is Barbara. I am from Germany. My husband and I came with two of our children to the United States last year. After a time of adaption we have settled in, and we are happy to be here.

To be honest, I never thought about coming and living in the United States. I worked as a missionary while we lived in Brazil for eight years, and two of our kids were born there. The time in Brazil was a very important time in my life. I learned so much and it challenged my vision of mission in many ways.

When we came back to Germany, I worked in my private practice as a psychotherapist and provided training for the German government and Ecumenical Association of Protestant Missions, preparing and counseling expatriates and missionaries. After some years in Germany, I felt the desire to leave again and to work in another country. I thought about Mozambique—but our three children did not agree, so we decided to stay in Germany.

Then appeared the opportunity for my husband Thomas to work for the General Board of Global Ministries [GBGM] in the United States, and we discussed it with our 14-, 18- and 19-year-old children, all of whom agreed that this would be a great project for the whole family. They are supporting this project even though our oldest daughter is staying in Germany to complete college.

We were touched by our children’s clear decision to come to this country. Thomas was accepted as the new general secretary for GBGM, and I had the deep feeling that this would be a good way forward, and I gave up my private practice and most of my work in Germany. In times like these you ask yourself if this is the way that God wants you to go.

Right now I travel to Germany four times a year for work but most of all to see our oldest daughter who is in college in Germany, and living without her is so hard for me. Here in the United States I am waiting for my job permit, and I am looking for a job.

I would like to share with you my favorite mission story in the Bible. The story tells about the encounter of home missionaries (as some of you are) and missionaries who came from another country.

One important thing I learned from Brazilian women was “Fazendo teologia,” doing theology. This means we all are getting involved, that it’s not something only priests and pastors can do. We are all “doing theology” in our daily lives. We are all missionaries. In the Bible story we meet traveling missionaries and settled-down missionaries. It is good to have both groups here in our meeting. The story that I will share with you starts with a confused man who doesn’t know where to go.

Mission Means to Get Lost: Acts 16:6-8

In Acts 16:6-8 we read about Paul traveling from one place to another, and it seems like he is really lost, so many cities, so far away from one another, more than hundreds of miles in opposite directions, a zigzagging from place to place. It seems that he really got lost. And that is my first main point: Mission means to get lost and feel confused and at the same time to trust in God’s Spirit, who says I am with you whatever happens.

Mission includes getting lost sometimes. What happens here with Paul has nothing to do with the right path. Mission is fortunately not the straight path: we are not sure all the time of what to do and where to go. Missionaries know this very well, and no GPS is going to help. On the one side there is a perfect job description and on the other side the reality of life, the concrete circumstances of the mission placement.

I came to Brazil with my job description but found a different reality and a different set of circumstances. I felt lost and had to do a lot of networking, connecting me with other people. I was trying to understand where I was, learn a new language and live with a feeling of being so limited. Hard and tough experiences that help us to stay away from perfection help us live and accept all our daily grammatical and other failures. At that time I felt lost. Which one of you has experienced getting lost, too?

In our lost and confused situation it’s so good to have this kind of story in the Bible. In God’s mission we can get lost sometimes; that is part of the story. It’s not easy. Following God’s call in your own country at home, or in another country, is never easy going. We are not called by a God of success and accomplishment but by a God who says, “I am with you.”

Who is Helping Whom? Acts 16:9-10

A vision appears at night. “Come over and help us.” At night, while sleeping, a solution appears. Sometimes we get lost, we try and try to do so many things, we want to control the situation, and it seems that it all depends on us, but God’s Spirit comes at night, a voice saying “Come over and help us.”

And that is my second main point: Mission asks, who is helping whom? The first step in mission is that the people we are called to help are really helping us. Mission has and needs mutuality.

During my first time in Brazil, a pastor from a small Methodist church in a nearby slum came to me and said, “Please come over and help us.” Because the pastor asked me to help, my time of confusion ended. Finally I had a new, meaningful task. I felt so good, working at that place, surrounded by all the people helping me to understand more about their culture, helping me to learn Portuguese, helping me, finally, to feel at home.

Scientific research about happiness tells us that one important condition and reason to be happy is to feel useful and helpful to other people. The voice at night does both: it calls us to help others and invites us to live a happy, meaningful life.

Now that I am here in the United States I feel lost again sometimes. I think, Why did you give up your work, to come here and to do what? To learn a new language? To wait for your work permit and to look for a job? Am I crazy? I am so happy that we have this story in the Bible! To get lost is part of our mission. That comforts me.

I had recently made an appointment with a dermatologist by phone, and I was happy and proud of my accomplishment. If you speak more than one language you know that speaking on the phone, not face to face, is very difficult.

I went to the doctor, found the right street, the right building, the right suite, and then when I looked at the sign at the door, it said “Gynecologist.” I thought I had made an appointment with a dermatologist, but it was a gynecologist.

This could be a funny story, but on this day I started crying, feeling so stupid, blaming myself, a 50-year-old woman, not knowing the daily things of life, not fully functioning. It was the last straw. I couldn’t stop crying—adaption is a stressful time. Spending our entire life in the same place or traveling around the world, we get lost so many times.

My getting-lost story is a story from a white and well-off woman. Can we imagine what it means to come here without money, without being recognized, not knowing how to sustain your own children, being exploited, working as domestic workers and earning just a few dollars per day?

Mission means getting lost and feeling confused and trusting in God’s Spirit. Mission means asking who is helping whom. The first step in mission is that the people we are called to help are helping us. Mission has and needs mutuality.

Encounter: Acts 16:11-13

“Encounter” is my third main point: Mission encounters differences and asks about what people have in common. It is a nonjudgmental approach. It is listening and understanding. It means sitting down together.

In Germany, theologians call it “Sitz im Leben,” which means “seat” or “place in life,” meaning the circumstances, the reality of your life, blends in with your theology. From reading the Bible with Brazilian women I learned there are never just women around but there are children too. In this passage women and children are around, working in a very hard job: dying purple cloth, a difficult and a very dirty business. That is the “Sitz im Leben,” the seat in the life of these women and children.

The story tells us about different people who encounter one another. On the one side we have women who had settled down and were doing a hard job, sustaining their children, gathering and praying outside the gates, being a part of the excluded people. And on the other side, men traveling and preaching. It is an encounter of differences: different cultures, different languages, different genders, different ways of life, different circumstances of life and different personalities. Mission is the encounter of differences, the meeting of different people. But the important issue is not to talk about differences; the important question in mission is to ask: What do we have in common? The keywords in our Bible story are “listening, speaking and responding.”

This means not judging, not interpreting, not dominating, not telling what is right or wrong, not taking on an attitude of feeling better or behaving in a superior way. Sit down, don’t judge and be humble. Maybe this is the reason we have to feel confused and lost sometimes. I think this is especially important for missionaries from dominating cultures, as from Germany or the United States. If we don’t have this kind of experience we run the risk of continuing to be or becoming arrogant. To have this kind of experience saves us from feeling superior—it makes us humble. It makes us sit down, forces us to look eye to eye. It makes our nonjudgmental mission possible.

That’s how Paul’s mission starts—not helping others but being helped. That’s how nonjudgmental mission works. We are helped and we are helping. It goes both ways.

An Open Heart: Acts 16:14-15

My fourth main point: Mission starts with women and kids with an open heart. Mission requires that knowledge and feelings meet each other and come together.

It’s the story about how mission began in Europe. It’s the same here in the United States with the Methodist mission work and I guess it is the same all over the world: Mission starts with women, with women and children.

The woman’s name here in this story is Lydia. Lydia was a seller of purple cloth. For a long time scholars thought that she might have been a very rich woman, but the fact that she gathers with other women outside the gates lets us doubt that. Maybe she lived in a community that existed only of women and children. We do not know how they lived together. We also do not know anything about her sexual orientation. But we know one important thing: “The Lord opened her heart.”

Recently I met a woman who had come from China to the United States as a student many years ago and is now working as a national missionary for GBGM, and we had a wonderful conversation. She told me about her conversion, saying, “The Lord opened my heart.” When she visited her family in China she spoke to her relatives about what it means to be a Christian and her family converted too.

It’s not just Lydia; it’s Lydia and her household. It’s not an individual perspective; it’s the collective perspective. It is not the I and myself; it’s the we, the us. When I look around me I feel surrounded by so many Lydias here.

What is the way of women doing theology? We are all women here, but there are so many differences in languages, cultures, different races, ways of life, doing different types of work, earning more or less money, living with children or without, living alone or living with others, and surely different personalities.

In Brazil we asked how to read the Bible with women who aren’t able to read. We started a project of acting out the stories of the Bible. When I went back to Germany, I attended continuing education training in bibliodrama, which is a creative kind of Bible storytelling with body and soul. My experience from working with women in different countries and cultures is that sharing the Bible, doing theology, is what we have in common, despite our differences. And this is what we are doing now. Despite all our differences, we have one thing in common: Sharing the stories of the Bible.

And the Lord opened her heart. Heart means different things in different cultures. Head and belly, too. In my German culture we say the head stands for thinking, reflecting and analyzing. And the belly stands for feelings, for the gut feeling. Put one hand on your head and one hand on your belly. Now let them come together, encounter each other, and you will find your hands at your heart, close to your hands and arms, hands and arms that you can use to do mission. When thinking and feeling come together we are able to open our hearts to act. There is also a little bit more space for breathing in this area. We can feel a little bit stronger.

Mission starts with women and kids with an open heart. Mission needs knowledge and feelings to come together to move into action, to stay secure and strong.

Another important issue in this story is why Lydia is urging Paul to stay. Why isn’t she just asking or requesting? To urge is so much stronger. Take first a posture of requesting and then a posture of urging. Feel the difference. Why is she urging?

When we move ahead to the next story we can find the answer. Paul goes away and encounters a slave woman and helps her from being exploited. After this action he is put in jail. Maybe the reason Lydia is urging him to stay is to keep him from jail.

Make Room

And this is my last point: Mission with an open heart is doing, inviting people in our houses, urging people to stay and to come. Making room in our hearts, churches and countries for political and religious refugees. We will feel blessed, to be helpful and to have a meaningful life.

May God’s Spirit come over us by night in our lost and confused situations. May God’s Spirit make us sit down, not judge, but understand different ways of life. May God’s Spirit open our hearts and churches to welcome new and different people and to be aware that first of all they help us. May God’s spirit open our countries in Europe and the United States for political and religious refugees. May we be blessed by helping others. May God’s Spirit who says, “I am with you, every day, and whatever hap- pens in your life” make us stand secure and sure in this mission.

Barbara Hüfner-Kemper is psychotherapist and missionary living in White Plains, N.Y.

Last Updated: 04/12/2014

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