Heaven help the missionaries

Georgie Anne Geyer

November 05, 1992|By Georgie Anne Geyer

PARIS — WE HAVE all known women like them. They have kind, open faces and generous spirits. They appear to be very simple, but they are not. They are missionaries, and I admit that I have a soft spot for them.

So as five middle-aged American Catholic nuns were brutally slain in the Liberian civil war this week, the deaths should perhaps register just a little more than all the impersonal statistics of slaughter we receive every day.

Even their names imply the healthy simplicity of their fresh, makeup-less faces: Sister Barbara Ann Muttra, 69; Sister Joel Kolmer, 58; her cousin, Sister Shirley Kolmer, 61; Sister Kathleen McGuire, 54; and Sister Agnes Mueller, 62. They were sisters of ** the Adorers of the Blood of Christ order in Red Bud, Ill., and had served in Liberia, on the west coast of Africa, for many years.

It is not, I realize, fashionable to feel strongly about missionaries today. They are looked upon in culturally correct circles as a vestige of Victorian times; as intruders into other cultures; as would-be saviors of humankind whose usefulness passed in the euphoria of the independence movements after World War II.

I disagree with that popular "wisdom." We face a period in human history when we had better have missionaries -- or at least what missionaries do -- or we will be in even deeper trouble than we are now.

Think of what these five women did. They went to the once-hopeful country of Liberia, settled by freed American slaves in the early 1800s. In that nation of 2.6 million, they taught school and staffed clinics and particularly succored the homeless and orphans. And they died, it's believed, when the marauding troops of rebel leader Charles Taylor shot them during the unspeakable civil war that has raged for three years.

Cynics would say that these sisters were "interfering" in the Liberians' lives by trying to teach people Christianity, health and literacy -- and to learn, in turn, from them.

But if I understand the basic missionary idea, it is that all people are worthy and able to learn. We are all under God's heaven together, so you honor and respect a person by expecting something of him or her.

This is vastly different from the prevalent idea in American charity today that the recipient of good will or good works is expected to do nothing. Consider most homeless programs where men and women can rarely change because nothing is asked of them. Morally purposeless charity really has as its guiding idea the notion that the recipient is incapable of changing -- and maybe unworthy of any expectation from others as well.

Missionary styles have, of course, gone through many variations, changes and reassessments. Until European nations gave up their colonies after World War II, Christian missionaries mainly set up churches and secondarily educated and trained people. (It is no accident that virtually every revolutionary leader in Africa's struggle for freedom was educated in mission schools.)

Then came the period in the late 1940s and the 1950s and early '60s when missionaries were thrown out of many of their missions in the Third World. (In Tanzania, to name just one country, once the mission schools were closed by the new "revolutionary" government, the education immediately sank to today's hopeless level.)

The latest style of missionary thinking is experimenting with sending "new wave" missionaries to the most difficult regions of the world to teach needed skills first -- and witness for Christianity second.

These five women, who perished so tragically and wastefully, were giving other worthy representatives of the human family exactly the tools they needed to live a dignified and spiritual life. It was they who had the ultimate respect for "the other" -- and it was they who paid the ultimate price for trying to change the world.

Georgie Anne Geyer writes a syndicated column.

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