Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Spirit, Indigeny and Modern Christian Missiology: A Short Ride on a Long Train

It was a weekday afternoon and I was going home from doing some unjoyous errands and came upon a somewhat familiar, but conceptually incongruous sight, four young men dressed in black pants and shoes, white shirts, ties and the compulsory backpack - Mormon missionaries. They were getting on the same train as I was, but I made sure to get into the same car as they boarded, feeling much like a security agent sent to make sure that they would do no immediate harm, like a wolf patrolling the perimeter of its own forest homelands, sniffing at bushes, trees for signs of interlopers, dangerous to life and limb, family, child and nature's balance itself. I got on that train car with them to observe, to see if there were any new behaviors, any new evidence of their utility in a world gone modern, a world gone mad, to see if they would engage the passengers or myself, as they have in the past, to see if they were prepared to do harm or good.

I have come into contact with these young men in numerous situations. As a person who regularly gives eye contact to people in my travels and work, I have often become privy to the stories of homeless people, veritable life stories of contact-hungry people whose emotional or mental state we often would characterize as unstable, stories from people carrying bibles in their hands, scripture cards in their "briefcases or their religious hearts on their sleeves. Not all of them were Mormons, not all of them were mentally unstable, but many of them seemed to be wandering, aimlessly or aimedly, in the Land of the Homeless.

As I think back to these four young men, I am reminded of a number of my path-crossings with them. A few of these experiences come into focus now as I ponder, contemplate and calculate the primary role of indigenous cultural concepts and lifeways in the world's development. I am reminded of my great and deep feelings of trepidation, quieted anger and historical resentment as I watched these young men, or boys, without words, enter the train car and distribute themselves at least a seat away from each other, not unlike most young men in this society seen traveling together, too homophobic, insecure to sit next to each other and risk touching each other, keeping intimacy and genuine brotherhood at bay.

In yet another crossing of public transportive proportions, a pair of young, European (the only sort I've ever seen) Mormon men boarded a bus headed into deepest, darkest Roxbury, the predominantly African, Black or people-of-colored section of Boston, a city well known for its parochial demography, cut up into it's neat, yet contested sections of well-controlled diversity, carved by capitalist economy, modern classism and cultural momentum. I remember wondering even then, why just men, why not women...why the uniform....why wouldn't they dress as they might as they would go to the movies, if they ever went to the movies or as the people they so vociferously and dedicatedly sought to influence. I gazed upon them with resentment, with controlled and, then, controlling anger, seeing them as lead runners for an occupying force, a cultural, spiritual and political distraction, preying and/or praying upon a people, a population who didn't actually need them and who, most likely, in my estimation, they didn't even truly understand. It smacked so directly and powerfully of the christian missionary process in Africa, the violently coercive force of the forward military troops of and for European colonialism, with its concomitant cultural, spiritual, emotional, social, sexual, "racial", political and intellectual oppression that still lives like a rotting, but living zombie, watching from it's Washington D.C., London, Paris, Luxembourg and Beijing sarcophagi, seeking to forestall all genuine and independent inclinations of African people everywhere, let alone on this Boston bus or the neighborhoods it would whisk these two young men into that sunny afternoon.

I wondered why then in that day and age, was it necessary for yet another christian faction to come into "Little Africa" for it's pounds of religious flesh, its span of ever-increasing spiritual surreal estate amongst people that had been so completely stripped of their original, powerful and empowered indigenous roots and spiritual nature, supplanted by violence, not by intellectual discourse, out of compassion and understanding or spiritual comraderie or ascendancy. These African people were probably some of the most christian and christinized people on the face of the earth. It is well known that even now the face of christianity is changing most dynamically in the areas of the world least populated by Europeans, though they may hold strongest neo-colonial sway there. In short Africans, Latinos and Asians are the fastest growing groupings of new christians around the world. These two young men, bedecked in their workplace attire, were living, walking, fare-paying overkill. Roxbury didn't need them, replete with numerous christian sects of all ilks and sizes and influences and flavors. But there they were, fresh-faced and recently-pressed, ready to save African people from themselves for a god not of their own creation, as often stated by historian John Henrik Clarke, cultural advisor to El Hajj Malik el Shabazz (Malcolm X), but of their own historical coerced adoption, at home and abroad.

At that time, I was not yet aware of the depth of spiritual and cultural displacement that had taken place for African people with the onset of Euro-christian warfare, the legacy of power that would be disengaged from their hearts and socio-political structures, leaving them...leaving us...deep in alien territory, struggling to maintain our legacy of Ancestral connection, our relationship with nature and our relationship to our own stories of love, compassion, strength and spiritual ethos. that bus rode into Roxbury during the 80's crack epidemic. I'm not sure if those young men, the same age as those that would so devastatingly turn inward on themselves, killing each other so often, so brutally, "Black on Black", if those young Mormon men knew what to do with that Euro-political criminal legacy anchoring itself now in the minds of Africans generations and centuries-removed from their indigenous home, if they knew and could offer any more than yet another version of the same religious legacy that had watched, zombie-like, as they descended into hell.

Years later, but not many years later, I would be walking down a main street in Waltham, Massachusetts. It was a cool evening, darkening and quieting as I made my way back to Boston with a friend, back to the culturally and economically diverse, but gentrifying section of Jamaica Plain. We were "getting out of Dodge", as it were, when a Mormon tract was thrust in our faces by a seemingly friendly, but decidedly over-driven young man in black pants and white shirt and tie. I engaged him and his partner in time reciprocally to fend off his assumptive advances. Terse pleasantries exchanged, it seemed neither of us had lost a step, no rhythm displaced, but I can still remember the feeling of intrusiveness that accompanied the interchange. My friend and I might have only shared a passing greeting with the two young men in black, but were indiscriminately marked in that moment as being in need by people who didn't know us, who hadn't seen us long enough to identify the brand of our over-priced sneakers, but maybe long enough to place our faces into longer term memory banks to be recalled someday in a deeper exchange of human connection and compassion.

All in all, it seemed as though these young men also had someplace important to go, in a rush, though not overly so, but enough to notice...and they thought they'd throw out some of their bait to a couple of geographically convenient fish to see if they'd reel anything in. They didn't, but the hook snapped of in my jaw, in my craw, waiting to rust and fall out much later as as I chawed on numerous interactions such as this. Many more of them came from the Boston Church of Christ, which was known for gigantic churchish, revival meetings held then in the Boston Garden, too large for the average chapel. Their numbers seemed interminable as I bumped into BCoC reps everywhere, everytime, everyway imaginable, my freely-given eye contact making me a glaring target for their highest hopes for their conversion numbers goals. The BCoCies were often much ruder and more abrupt than the Mormons, but their approaches blurred, though no Mormon ever said, upon hearing my ever-challenging-to-some African name, that they'd instead call me "Adam". The rudeness of that interchange blocked the righteous and right (correctly applied) indignation deep in my throat. The anger passed, but the learning remained.

My anger had been re-upped for active duty as I walked past the living room of my parents' home to see two of these modern missionaries and an older Mormon counterpart sitting there, listening with rapt attention as my father, a deacon in the Roman Catholic church, explained to them, as it would be explained to me later, the finer points of how to approach the African community in USAmerica. It was not so much that my father was the one telling these people how they might best be influential to the African population in and around New Jersey, a formidable number to say the least. My father was at the time a vocal and empowered teacher of the African presence in and source of Roman Catholic doctrine, ideology and philosophical underpinnings. He championed the African historical elements of the Roman Catholic experience like very few others at that time, a time when non-European populations and control mechanisms were beginning to make themselves apparent in the Archdiocese of Newark and all over the world, the entrenched cultural momentum of the church showing it's bigoted and racist tendencies clearly to him and many others who dared to remove the planks from their own eyes (seemingly a very few) or who had their planks forcibly removed by nature of their cultural place as Africans or Latinos by a religious corporate conglomerate that did not value nor respect their presence in the world save for their regular and often stellar contributions to the ever-present collection plate and regular relinquishment of real estate the world over. My father was also relatively highly versed and enlightened in the realities of African history around the world, especially in USAmerica, so if these or any Mormons where going to talk to anyone about the African community, my father was one of the best ones in the world of christianized Africanity to hear it from, especially from the standpoint of a desire to protect Africans in a still hostile cultural environment, a necessity that exists to this day even with a quasi-democratically-elected president who claims multi-racial heritage, but is popularly considered Black.

My problem, again, with the presence of these particular Mormons in my parents' house was that they were indeed gaining intelligence on how to move "against" a population that didn't need them, already removed from the cultural container of their indigenous origins by a so-called-christian set of European nations before, during and after chattel enslavement in castles and ships named after their namesake, Jesus, himself. These particular, thoroughly-modern missionaries had a historical legacy that was playing itself out, continuing materially and ideologically on my parents' fine furniture. The horrid history of christian violence, murder, rape, abuse, cultural domination and degradation had not only knocked on the front door, but it had been invited in and offered a plate of vanilla creme sandwich cookies and orange soda (a stereotypical, but persistent memory I have from just about every Roman Catholic or christian fellowship apres-worship snack table).

Fast-forward years later to a very cold, wintery night in Lynn, Massachusetts. I was, yet again in proximity to public transportation, leaving the commuter rail station after a long and hard day at work. Lo and behold, as I am crossing the street and, I might add, in the middle of the street, a card gets thrust in my general direction. At the end of my energy and patience rope, I firmly said, "No, thank you!". Trying to move on, I realize two key things: 1) this man's hand is moving again toward me on a dark, cold, "tough city" street after I rebuked his advances the first time and, 2) this is the same man that thrust a Mormon tract at me in Waltham years ago. It was as if deja vu had been scientifically proven an empirical surety. I continued to move past him, not needing nor desiring to nor owing him a look in the eyes. My body/mind/spirit knew it was him from his voice and body language and mannerisms alone. I walked briskly home that night in a sort of reeling vertigo, anger and disdain and a bit of confusion raised clear and sharp as the single-digit temperature that cut through my bared skin and sensibilities.

My feelings rose, pushed hard by the legacy of cumulative history and personal experience, but crystallized by the realization that not only had the spectre of christian missionary intrusion found me on this dark and frigid city street near where I tentatively called home, but that, somehow, amazingly and maddeningly, this same Mormon man had gotten, yet more completely rudely and disrespectfully - another shot at me. I was non-plussed. I was mortified and pissed-off and turned inside out all at once, but not so completely as when my warming brain began to realize that there was a defensible case for having hauled off and clocked him right there in the middle of the street - and that I had missed my historical opportunity.

It was a structurally perfect case. A man, alone, gets off a train at eleven o'clock at night. It's cold. It's dark. It's a city with a reputation of crime and bad elements. "Lynn, Lynn, city of sin...you never come out the way you go in!" was the belabored mantra. An unidentified (at that moment) man, so an attacker, thrusts a hand at this man-alone with no one to assist him in this moment of violent, unwanted approach. The man dodges, but strikes his attacker, clear and sharp - and hard - in self-defense...self-defense!... then stands over his unconscious attacker and waits for the police to arrive as he holds the criminal, vanquished, righteously defeated. My Ancestors would be collecting around me, nodding in tacit approval, calling forward the legacy of missionary attacks to this night hundreds of years later, executed courageously by one of their now glorified sons, a modern tribal warrior, still clenching his fist in case the perpetrator flinched a finger or parted a lip to speak.

Though I knew in my heart that this oppressor-approved fantasy was not the finest outcome for this brief, inopportune encounter with yet another christian missionary in the African midst, nor was it indicative of any personal response pattern that existed or would ever exist as part of my own heart, mind and body, I wrangled with the idea of the historical catharsis that would have been enacted by one functionally justifiable - and hard - punch to a christian missionary chin. I was livid as I told my friends the story, sure, as I did, that they probably did not share my zeal at the idea of dropping a man to the ground, missionary or not. I actually can't even remember their reactions, so caught up in my own instant, feel-good replay as I was. And as good as that punch might have felt, however fleeting, it wouldn't clear away the negative and continuing legacy of the christian missionary relationship with Africans or other indigenous people. Africans, on the continent and in the diaspora, still hold dearly to christian concepts and disempowered cultural concepts of themselves, so many displaced from their physical, spiritual and cultural home. Even on the Motherland, Africans flock to christian congregations in astronomical numbers. It is in Africa that the largest Roman Catholic basilica outside of Rome, Italy was erected in one of the most impoverished countries on the contintent. The contradictions are interminable. And on Turtle Island, Native Americans still live in the shadow of christian boarding schools that stripped children from their families, cultures, from their security, self-esteem and ultimately from themselves, contributing to the deep social pathologies that are the scourge of the reservation system. The works of Winona LaDuke, Oren Lyons, Vine Deloria, Jr., Wilma Mankiller and Alfred Taiaiake are but some of the many who so clearly recount the history of violence and devastation at the hands of those that would call themselves "Christians". We have but to look at John Henrik Clarke, C.L.R. James, Kwame Nkrumah, Seku Ture, Eric Williams, Lerone Bennett, Assata Shakur, Marcus and Amy Garvey and Malcolm X for that christian legacy as applied to Africa.

Only a return to, an advancement on behalf of and with a renewed embrace of the indigenous cultural and spiritual reality that has dominated the development of human history over our past three million years would be recompense enough for the tragedy of misplaced materials and intentions that has marked the adoption of foreign and culturally-ineffective spiritual and/or religious systems, structures and ideologies. The intrusion of christianity has predominantly come along with the oppressive colonial and global capitalist systems of economy, ideology and sociology. Winona LaDuke, in her excellently written book, "Recovering the Sacred", recounts in no uncertain terms the dangerous lifeways that have been adopted and sustained in and by this modern world of capital above human potentiality and indigenously grounded spirituality. Poverty, disease and violence have become hallmarks of daily life for so many First Nations, Native American and indigenous people, not only here on Turtle Island, but around the world. And though there have been many instances of genuine support coming from people and organizations purporting to be of the Christian faith, the overriding relationship of christianity and the missionaries that carry it around the world, into villages and neighborhoods and cities, to indigenous cultures has been predominantly negative and culturally damaging. In addition, Vine Deloria, Jr. in his trademark work, "God Is Red", details clearly how Christianity is ultimately devoid of its original functional dynamics having been pulled out of its cultural and historical timeframe and geographical setting to be transported about the earth in its current form. His book explains the necessity for indigenous peoples, particularly Native Americans, to hold onto and utilize the spiritual frameworks that come from their own cultural experience and the dangers that arise from giving those indigenous systems away for foreign systems that come from other cultural frameworks. Brenda Norrell's "Censored News" (http://bsnorrell.blogspot.com) highlights many of the realities of Native Americans in the modern world and many of the challenges that have arisen for these people in a world that forcibly projects foreign systems of thinking and being upon them. The contradictions become clear and unquestionable.

Enter then these four young Mormon men on a train. I'm not sure if their training for missionary work prepares them to have a deep understanding of the people they attempt to win over to their way of thinking. I am not sure if their teachers gave them a fundamental background in the reality of chattel slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism and cultural imperialism. I'm not sure if their education included compassion, caring, love and sensitivity. History clearly shows us that these virtues are not compulsory additions to christian life and work, though they seem to be major tenets of the faith in general, how and if they get implemented is another issue. The larger issue is that these missionaries and christian missionaries in general seem to have no concern for indigenous people's spiritual and cultural independence, displaying an arrogance and ignorance that are stellar in scope. The adoption of christianity by indigenous peoples has actually moved them further away from their most genuine historical relationships with Spirit, with the earth, with water, wind and all the elemental and nature spirits. This has been tremendously damaging to the naturo-spiritual human dynamic, to indigeny in general. Historical and modern missiology is, again, largely ineffective, if not dangerous to indigenous life and those, like Africans, who have been forcibly ripped from their indigenous roots, that which sustains and defines them. Missionaries have more important and more fundamental work to do amongst themselves, reconciling the contradictions that are the hallmark of modern christianity at large.

These particular four young Mormon men said little if anything to each other during their short trip. Maybe my energetic attention toward them gave them pause (not overstating my influence, but realizing the possibility of their intuitive abilities) or they were deep in thought of their duties ahead, just as I was that day as I considered my own upcoming initiation into Dagara Eldership....yet there watching these young men, officially called "elders" in their religious construct. This time, there was no anger, only concern for those young men and the work that they engage in, the effects of their missionary work in the world. Before they left the train, one of them looked up at me and began to put on that smile that I've seen so many other times before, but he backed off of what I suspected was going to be an amateurish attempt at small talk leading to religious proselytizing. He backed off nicely before he could display the arrogance that comes with some forms of ignorance, such as I have seen in similar situations, once begun by asking me about a book I was reading, then swerving conversationally like a drunk driver toward biblical allusions.

It was apparent that modern christian missiology was alive, structurally supported, but probably not well in that moment. This missionary process was and is problematic and dangerous to healthy human development. Humanity is still in need of a major transformation in its relationship to Spirit. Indigeny, indigenous culture and spirituality is the fundamental path back to that renewed, healthy human-Spirit relationship and the essential ideological shift that so many people world-wide, whether they are indigenous or not yet aware of their indigenous soul, are correctly and currently calling for and working toward.


loveloki said...

thank you so much! your blog is a breath of fresh air....a lifeline to me. there is nobody who even begins to understand if i want to discuss these issues. i will be spending lots of time here, digesting your ideas. i look forward to a book.

Ukumbwa Sauti, M.Ed. said...

Loveloki, you have no idea what a lifeline your response is to me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart and the book is in the works. Be free to contact me directly as I invite all to do. I feel these issues are key to positive human development and the sustenance of hope in our hearts and indigenous souls. Thank you.