January 2007

Endulen Diary
Vol. 22, #1
January, 2007

Father John Bowen, an Anglican priest and professor of missiology at Whcliffe College at Toronto, Ontario, Canada recently visited Endulen and other Maasai missions. On his return to Canada, he wrote the following report of his trip to his Anglican Church Office that had funded his visit to Maasai country. I have added to the report to make it more understandable to a wider audience.

In the Footsteps of Vincent Donovan

Not many books these days can look forward to being read twenty-five years from now. Recently, however, The book CHRISTIANITY REDISCOVERED written by Vincent Donovan was reprinted in a twenty-fifth anniversary edition. What is this book and why does it continue to be popular?

The book is a first person account of a Roman Catholic missionary working among the Maasai of Northern Tanzania in the 1960s. Donovan applies the then popular notion of enculturation, the idea that missionaries should listen as much as speak, be aware of God already at work among those they wish to evangelize, and translate the Gospel into terms of the local culture. One of his influences was Anglican missiologist Roland Allen who, in the early twentieth century, had begun to write and teach this kind of non colonial, indigenized missionary work.

The strategy of Donovan was to visit Maasai villages and offer to teach them the Christian faith if they were interested. Then, after a year of instruction, he would invite them to baptized if they wished. Most villages asked for baptism, though at least one refused. After baptism, Donovan felt it was time for him to move on: he had given them the Gospel, but it was then their responsibility to work out what that would mean in terms of the structure, worship, and daily life of the new Christian communities. As a westerner, he could not do that for them.

I have used CHRISTIANITY REDISCOVERED in several evangelism courses, because in many ways Donovan offers a thought provoking, respectful model for evangelism in any culture, including our own. But from time to time the question has occurred to me: What happened next? The book ends with Donovan leaving Tanzania and flying back to the US, where he tries (with limited success) to apply the same lessons to ministry in the West. But what happened to those fledgling Maasai churches? Did they survive? And, if so, in what form? Did the Donovan vision of authentically indigenous Maasai Christian communities bear long-term fruit?

In the summer of 2006, in part thanks to a grant from Volunteers in Mission, I was able to go, with a student from Wycliffe College, and an African driver, to visit Catholic work in the part of Tanzania where Donovan had been stationed. What did we discover?

We were able to meet with three Catholic missionaries, Ned Marchessault and Joe Herstein, who worked with Donovan since the time he began his work in 1966. A third, Pat Patten came later in 1976. They have continued to implement his vision for the more than thirty years since Donovan left in 1969. They still refer to him as the visionary leader who inspired them to spend their lives doing what they have done. To my mind, while Donovan may be the catalytic leader and the best-selling author, these are the real heroes of this story.

What has happened over the decades since Donovan left?

Firstly, the missionaries have continued their work of what they call primary evangelization. One of the goals of the Spiritan Order, to which they all belong, is to share the Gospel with those who have never heard it. So they have continued to visit far flung Maasai villages to teach the Gospel wherever there is interest. These days, more of the work is done by Maasai catechists and evangelists, who have obvious advantages over white Americans.

Secondly, the Donovan dream of independent Maasai churches, untouched by western influence, except for the bringing of the Gospel, has not materialized in the way he envisioned. Fr. Ned explained it this way, saying in effect: The people said to us, we are grateful that you have taught us about the true God, but clearly it is important to worship Him in the right way. You have experience of doing this, so please teach us how it should be done. It is difficult for the Maasai Christians to take the initiative and look for ways to celebrate the gospel message in and through their own culture. Rather, the Maasai want to know how things should be done so that they are pleasing to God and that he bless them with children and cows. In their own ritual celebrations of every kind, from the naming of a child all the way to major age group rites of passage ceremonies, it is important and even crucial for the success of the event that it be done in every detail how their forefathers did the rites and ceremonies. The ways of the ancestors must be followed most carefully so that rites will have the desired result. Asking the Maasai to construct a service made up of their traditional signs and symbols to bring out the inner meaning of a ceremony is totally foreign and even repugnant to them. They want to know how a thing should be done so that it will work. The result has been that the Maasai churches practice traditional forms of Catholic worship, but informed by Maasai culture and customs.

We were able to attend a Mass in a distant village with Ned, and it was fascinating to share in it. Ned wore a simple black robe because for the Maasai black is the colour of blessing and the goodness of God. Black is the colour of the heaviest rain clouds). He also wore a sheep skin stole embroidered with lines of cowry shells, with which the women decorate their milk gourds, a sign of asking God for his rich blessings. Although the whole service was in Maasai, we were able to follow the familiar shape of the liturgy. However, when the sick and troubled people came forward to be blessed and prayed over, Ned sprinkled them with milk from a gourd decorated with cowry shells. The mouth of the gourd was stuffed with rich green grass, a symbol of reconciliation and healing. Again, for the Maasai, milk is a symbol of life.

Times are changing in Tanzania, however, and the present Catholic hierarchy is no longer interested in this kind of enculturation. There is a sense that enculturation is unacceptable and that we need to be Catholics in the proper way, that is, the way of Europe and of North America. If this trend continues, what will happen to the indigenous Maasai Catholic churches when the present generation of white missionaries retires or dies? Ned and others believe that the church will attempt to force these acculturated congregations to conform to the, one model fits all, way of the larger church and whatever enfleshing of gospel in Maasai signs and symbols will die out. There are few Maasai priests and few clergy of other tribes willing to come and serve in such remote places. Certainly there are Maasai catechists, who are passionate evangelists to their own people: but to what extent they can minister effectively without the infrastructure of the wider church is a real question.

Was this then a short-lived experiment in a form of mission based on a mistaken methodology? Some would argue so. But our experience of the Maasai Christians and the service we attended spoke of a depth of faith and commitment which, humanly speaking, would not exist were it not for the sacrificial efforts of Vince Donovan and the missionaries that followed him. The missionaries have loved these people, indeed laid down their lives for these people, in the name of Christ and his Gospel. And they are greatly loved in return. Maybe, in the eternal view of things, that is what really matters.

Till next month,


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