From the Archives: December 1990

THE ODDS that this note will arrive for your birthday are poor, but know that I’m with you in spirit as you celebrate 16 big ones. ... What I want to say—some of it isn’t too jolly birthday talk, but it’s real.

Yesterday I stood looking down at a 16-year-old who had been killed a few hours earlier. I know a lot of kids even younger who are dead. This is a terrible time in El Salvador for youth. A lot of idealism and commitment are getting snuffed out here now.

The reasons why so many people are being killed are quite complicated, yet there are some clear, simple strands. One is that many people have found a meaning to life, to sacrifice, struggle, and even to death. And whether their life span is 16 years, 60, or 90—for them, their life has had a purpose. In many ways, they are fortunate people.

Brooklyn is not passing through the drama of El Salvador, but some things hold true wherever one is, and at whatever age. What I’m saying is, I hope you come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you—something worth living for, maybe even worth dying for—something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead. I can’t tell you what that might be—that’s for you to find, to choose, to love. I can just encourage you to start looking, and support you in the search. 

Sister Ita Ford was a Maryknoll missionary in El Salvador when she wrote this letter in August 1980 to her 16-year-old niece, who lived in Brooklyn. Ford was killed three months later by a right-wing death squad.

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Deconstructing God's Mission

Dennis Cox / Shutterstock.com

Dennis Cox / Shutterstock.com

When I ask people to describe a typical “missionary,” the usual response includes that of a young man with black pants and a white collared shirt (with a name tag attached) that knocks on doors, or perhaps an evangelical preacher who stands on (and shouts from) street corners, or possibly one who travels the far ends of the earth to help the poor and plant new churches. But just because some are more vocal and visible than others, such missionaries should not be acknowledged as the totality of all that exists, because:

All people in all places are missionaries, for all people in all places participate within a particular mission in some shape or form. Missionaries are as diverse as the human community itself.

While most missionaries do not self-define as such, the world is filled with them, many of whom serve with a high degree of commitment and faithfulness. For instance, if a missionary is – by definition – one who participates within a particular mission, then those who consume Coca-Cola are not merely consumers, but they are – by definition – missionaries of the Coca-Cola brand and its corporate mission. Similarly, there are countless political missionaries in all corners of the globe. As election cycles draw close, such missionaries multiply in mass numbers, and their energetic zeal often rivals – and sometimes far exceeds – the determination of many religious clergy labeled as extreme.

The world consists of countless missions and innumerable missionaries. As stated from the onset, all people in all places are missionaries, so not only should we hesitate to assume we know what a “typical missionary” is, we should also attempt to distinguish who a Christian missionary is to be within the context of countless other (complementary and competing) missions and missionaries. So what follows is a brief reflection on what the focus of God’s mission might be, and an exploration of how Christian missionaries may be able to function as a result.

Second American Ebola Patient Arrives in US

A small plane carrying Nancy Writebol, the second American Ebola patient from Liberia, arrived in the United States on Tuesday, making a brief refueling stop in Bangor, Maine, en route to Atlanta and Emory University Hospital.

The same plane, a Gulfstream jet specially outfitted with an isolation pod, brought the first American patient, 33-year-old physician Kent Brantly, to the medical center from Liberia on Saturday, WLBZ-TV reports. The plane was on the ground in Bangor for less than an hour.

Brantly, with Samaritan’s Purse, and Writebol, with Service in Mission, are medical missionaries who were infected with Ebola while working with patients in Liberia.

SIM USA said on Monday that the 59-year-old Writebol was in serious condition.

War on Poverty Anniversary Recalls Religion's Role in Appalachia

RNS photo by Don Rutledge

A mountain home with teenagers involved in work at the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board. RNS photo by Don Rutledge

HOT SPRINGS, N.C. — The 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty, which falls today, reminds us how intractable that effort can be, despite the hope and determined idealism when the legislation was signed.

Appalachia was one of the targets for the newly established Office of Economic Opportunity, utilizing programs such as Head Start and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). The anniversary also recalls how religion has motivated, shaped and sustained this effort, in many ways prefiguring the campaign, in both its successes and failures.

For more than two centuries, these Southern mountains have been a magnet for missionaries, both religious and secular, all determined to wipe out poverty, hunger, and ignorance — whether the region’s benighted folk wanted them to or not. Their too-common failing, local people say, is that the erstwhile do-gooders have not respected the strong beliefs and culture that already existed.

With the best intentions, altruists and uninvited agents of uplift have come with their social gospel of “fixing” local people. That is to wean them from violence and the debilitating use of alcohol, while bringing their brand of faith, along with education, nutrition, and improved living standards. Invariably well-meaning, these efforts have typically ended in disappointment and failure in places such as Madison County, N.C.

Dr. Livingstone, I Presume? Missionary Icon Turns 200

Nicku / Shutterstock.com

David Livingstone - Picture from Meyers Lexicon books written in German language. Nicku / Shutterstock.com

LONDON — When journalist Henry Morton Stanley found the world’s most famous missionary barely alive at the tiny village of Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika on Nov. 10, 1871, he gave the English language one of its most famous introductions: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

As Britain marks David Livingstone’s 200th birthday on Tuesday, Christians are being reintroduced to one of the greatest missionaries and explorers of the 19th century. A new book, meanwhile, introduces a darker side to Livingstone’s globe-trotting career and the corrosive effect it had on his marriage.

That 1871 meeting in the heart of Africa is the stuff of legend.

In 1864, Livingstone — already one of the world’s most famous men because of his trek across Africa and the 1855 “discovery” of the Victoria Falls that straddles modern-day Zambia and Zimbabwe — mounted an expedition to discover the source of the Nile River.

As months stretched into years, nothing was heard from the famed explorer.

The Hoola Hoop Mission

Hula hoop image, Gorilla, Shutterstock.com

Hula hoop image, Gorilla, Shutterstock.com

It’s a simple joy – hoola hooping. And that seems to be the reason Carissa Caricato left her job to travel the world.

A few years ago when Carissa traveled to Haiti for earthquake relief efforts, she brought a few hoops to share with the children. Amidst the devastation she discovered the power in these simple hoops to bring people together and transcend barriers of language and culture.