The Common Good
March-April 1998

Sins of Mission

by Renny Golden | March-April 1998

The importance of learning to listen.

Tom Montgomery-Fate’s Beyond the White Noise is about border-crossing. By presenting a theology of listening, the book interrogates the premises and assumptions of mission.

Remarkably, the author accomplishes such profound examinations through narrative. He tells the story of his work with the people of the Philippines with such honesty and poignancy that missionary practice is laid bare and the ministry of the Filipino is revealed.

Tom Montgomery-Fate presents to the reader the moral lesson he has learned from Filipinos—the efficacy of listening. Such attentiveness is a political act that positions the privileged missionary as learner, as one who encounters the world of the people and their humility. In this encounter, Westerners must unpack the baggage of their knowledge and theology. Emptied, they meet the Word of God, which Annie Dillard calls wordless.

"Listening," says Montgomery-Fate, "creates an opening for God." As example, Montgomery-Fate tells the story of his meeting with Mila, a cigar-smoking market woman who, though she does not "speak" (Tom knows little Ilokano, Mila no English), offers the lost, befuddled, 6-foot-2-inch foreigner the hospitality of her house. "For me," says Montgomery-Fate, "the language of the heart which Mila ‘spoke’ exemplifies the idea of the ‘Word of God.’"

Montgomery-Fate’s relationship to the people of the Ilocos region of Northern Luzon could be described as a partnership, what he calls co-mission. "Co-mission requires that we attempt to create silence in order to discern both the ‘voice’ of the new culture and the ‘voice’ of God...patiently, quietly attempting to become radically permeable in relation to both the new culture and to God."

More than once Tom’s failure to listen to the people’s voice results in anguish. One remarkable chapter on "white noise" reveals the impoverishment of the privileged. Tom’s seemingly compassionate declining of the offer of a meal from Nita, a poor widow, resulted in unintended insult. Tom’s failure was due to his measuring Nita’s offer with the yardstick of a "culture of accumulation" rather than a "culture of distribution," where the community is obliged to provide for all, especially the stranger. Nita’s failure to share a meal with a stranger, even if it meant she would have no reserves, would have been a breach of hospitality that brought moral shame. One must listen, not only to words and to silence, but to the cultural signals the people are always offering to those who "have eyes to see and ears to hear."

STORIES LIKE THIS abound, as do others about North Dakota, Appalachia, and Nicaragua, revealing more than a book of theory or even a theology of liberation. These stories, which reveal the God of the poor, were not discovered in churches, universities, or conference rooms, but in "muddy rice fields, in markets overflowing with fish and conversation, in sweaty packed jeepneys and tricycles, in bobbing outrigger bancas on the South China Sea, in bamboo nipa huts, in isolated tribal villages." Narrative permits us to see cultural disparity not simply economically, but morally and politically.

Often books about "engaged mission" are not engaging, but Montgomery-Fate’s writing itself is compelling. He is able to "place" the reader in a country market in Northern Luzon:

I wandered into the chaos and was swallowed whole, submerged in a writhing labyrinth of color and smell: sizzling chicken feet and bloated sausages skewered on bamboo, huge kettles of boiled duck embryos, plastic buckets full of large black beetles, wooden crates overflowing with okra, eggplant, and seaweed, bananas dangling everywhere in yellow, green, and red clusters, dozens of greasy-hot, bright orange empanades dripping cool on metal racks, and a long row of shiny, steel pails sloshing with silvery milk-fish, snails, blue crabs, shrimp. Nearby a woman hacked off chunks of a thirty-pound blue-fin tuna with a bolo (machete).

Tom and his wife, Carol, confront "imperialist nostalgia" when they return to the United States to give presentations on their two years of co-mission work in the Philippines. Anthropologist Renato Rosaldo describes imperialist nostalgia as a Euro-American longing for a colonial past, which its powerful culture has transformed through the new colonialism of globalization. Such nostalgia is seductive for returned missionaries who no longer remember the daily deprivations suffered by the poor, but yearn for the humanity of a communal culture which, though technologically underdeveloped, relates to time not as a commodity, but as a place of healing and surprise.

Unlike so many books on multiculturalism, Tom Montgomery-Fate does not offer easy answers. The critical question his narratives raise is whether Euro-Americans can listen beyond the "white noise" of race, gender, and class superiority. Perhaps only when the privileged are stripped of answers can they truly listen.

Such dislocation is not to be feared but to be embraced, as Montgomery-Fate learned from Filipino children. Deliverance lies not in security but in recognizing that "vulnerability is not weakness."

RENNY GOLDEN is a professor at Northeastern University in Chicago and the author, most recently, of >Disposable Children (Wadsworth Publishing Co.), which is available form Amazon.com

Beyond the White Noise: Mission in a Multicultural World. Tom Montgomery-Fate. Chalice Press, 1997. Now available from Amazon.com.

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