The Common Good
May-June 1998

The Receiving End of Mission

by Joe Nangle | May-June 1998

Once in a while you get to see people assimilate a value from a different culture.
It’s an enriching experience for everyone concerned.

Once in a while you get to see people assimilate a value from a different culture. It’s an enriching experience for everyone concerned. Recently I observed this phenomenon at close range and came away heartened at the openness and generosity of the receiving group, as well as at the cultural gift bestowed on them.

A Catholic parish in an American city, which shall remain nameless, has found itself divided over the leadership style of a relatively new pastor. The story is not new, and from the outside it’s futile to ascribe blame for the situation. In fact, all sides in their better moments tend to agree that no bad will is involved in the impasse—just differences over the exercise of authority.

For the purpose of these regular reflections on community, what is important is the way in which a segment of the parish finds itself dealing with the situation. Under good lay leadership, several dozen women and men have set out to satisfy their need for spiritual nourishment. While consciously remaining part of the parish, these good folks have gone out and sought lay, religious, and clerical ministers who can supply for them what they find lacking in their own pastors. To one of these "outside ministers," their experience resembles closely that of the base ecclesial community phenomenon of Latin America.

In the late 1960s, church leadership in Latin America began to appreciate the potential for parish and diocesan life that lay in the local, grassroots groupings, or base communities, of people there. Pastoral workers—lay, religious, and clerical—were instructed to journey with these groups and, when appropriate, point out the gospel values being lived among them.

A community’s efforts to bring electricity into the barrio, for example, or acquire jerseys for the local soccer team, or provide desks for the neighborhood school could be celebrated in gospel terms. At a certain point, therefore, the evangelizer might suggest that these efforts mirrored Jesus’ words: "I have come that they may have life, and life ever more abundantly" (John 10:10).

The pastoral worker never was to impose her or his views on the local group, much less take leadership of it. The grassroots communities had already demonstrated quite competent leadership of their own. However, through a creative highlighting of the gospel values underlying the efforts of the group regarding electricity, or sports uniforms, or school desks, or any other human need, they could well begin to consider themselves a Christian community. And in time, again with pastoral encouragement, they might wish to celebrate their struggles and successes around Communion, thereby becoming a base ecclesial community.

At least to one observer it seemed clear that the folks from this Catholic parish in the United States approximated the experience lived by the thousands of base ecclesial communities in Latin America over the past 30 years. When this was suggested to them, the reaction was one of those revealing "Ah ha" moments. They felt like a base Christian community, despite all of the geographical, social, and cultural differences between them and their brothers and sisters to the South.

SEVERAL QUITE wonderful results emerged from the near-instantaneous acknowledgment of the parallels between this U.S. group and the base communities of Latin America. Most significant is that they admitted feeling affirmed in what they were doing to provide their own spiritual nourishment. The base ecclesial communities function mainly on their own with weekly meetings, a unique methodology, and above all under their own leadership. Similarly, the U.S. folks were quickly developing their own style of decision making and movement forward.

Second, there seemed to be agreement in this U.S. group that they had no need to leave their parish community. In Latin America the base ecclesial communities very often formed part of the parish or diocese, and ideally those institutional entities become the "community of base ecclesial communities." So, with regard to this North American community, whatever the problems, divisions, and difficulties between them and parochial authority, they sensed a right to lay claim on the parish as their own.

Finally, there was the sense that expending too much energy on the internal problems of the parish would waste everyone’s time—time better used for building God’s peaceable reign in this world. The base ecclesial communities in Latin America generally had little time or leisure for "churchy" matters. Theirs was a daily struggle to make life a bit better for themselves, their children, and their usually impoverished class.

Receiving such inspiration from another church, especially one that lives its gospel life in a so-called developing country, strikes me as an all-too-rare experience here. For much of this century, we in the North have provided the missionaries and have presumed, therefore, that we offer the inspiration to "emerging churches."

Today, however, the tables are turning. Often, in the wonderful designs of God we are the ones on the receiving end of mission. This new moment, dare I say "new grace," in the household of faith can only enrich our brothers and sisters who give, and us who are gifted. My friends from this conflicted U.S. parish provide living witness, again, that it is blessed, if humbling, to receive.

JOE NANGLE, OFM, is executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C.

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