Mission is Conversation
By Kara Crawford
When I was a child, I thought of missionaries as people who traveled to other countries to preach the gospel. They were almost always from nations in the global North, rarely spoke the language of the country in which they served, and lacked respect for indigenous cultures—or so I thought. I was sure they did not try to understand the people in their place of service, let alone form relationships with them. The only purpose of missionaries, I imagined, was to preach the gospel, whether or not the people wanted to hear it.
I continued to hold these beliefs even as I applied for the Young Adult Mission Service of The United Methodist Church. I had participated with my youth group in a variety of “mission” experiences, during which we generally did things like home repair or a week-long children’s program, but we did nothing sustainable for the community we entered. In college, I studied International Relations and learned about the role that missionaries played in colonization and exploitation across the globe.
Although I was skeptical, I entered into the process of discernment. I learned that the actual model of United Methodist missionary service is nothing like what I had imagined. In fact, the purpose of missionaries is to engage in relational ministry, that is, to form relationships with community members in our host communities and participate in their ministry. Without relationship, ministry cannot and does not happen. Relationships are what it’s all about.
For my first placement as a Mission Intern—then a three-year program for young adults, with both foreign and domestic service—I was sent to Bogota, Colombia, to work with the Popular Communication Center of Latin America. There, I had various communications-related duties, primarily helping the team give workshops in how communications can be used as a source of empowerment for base communities of women and children in the struggle for their rights.
What quickly became apparent was that forming and strengthening relationships with community members would be my most important task. I needed to learn about their lives, struggles, strengths, and needs. We needed to understand our common humanity and learn to embrace and celebrate our differences. This involved crossing boundaries of age, nationality, race, class, and education. It meant building authentic relationships and allowing them to transform our hearts.
| "What quickly became apparent was that forming and strengthening relationships with community members would be my most important task."
Every relationship or process began with dialogue—a conversation. Through conversation we came to see God in one another and learned to change the world by changing ourselves. My work in Colombia would have been difficult, if not impossible, without a solid base of relationships on which to build. And those relationships would have been difficult, if not impossible, to form unless I could speak Spanish, the local language.
Language is critical to our lives and interactions. In Colombia, speaking Spanish was a survival mechanism. It allowed relationships to grow and empowered me to engage in relational ministry. My ability to speak Spanish was never perfect, but it allowed me to talk with local people independently and to live in community with them. Being able to communicate allowed relationships to grow and flourish, to engage in relational ministry. Breaking down the language barrier enabled us to let ministry happen. There were misunderstandings at times and moments lost in translation, but it meant a lot to me to be able to speak to form relationships without the intervention of a translator.
Now that I’m back in the United States, my second placement involves working part-time in Ministry With the Poor—a focus area of The United Methodist Church—and part-time at New Day United Methodist Church—a new church start in the Bronx, New York. These placements have reinforced for me the importance and necessity of conversation. Most of my time with New Day is spent building relationships with church members—finding out their interests, gifts, and passions. In Ministry With the Poor, the conversation focuses on how to live in relationship with “the poor” in order to engage in transformative ministries, while allowing our shared lives to transform us.
It all begins with conversation. Without conversation we cannot enter into authentic relationship with one another, and without those authentic relationships, transformative ministry is less likely to happen. Mission is conversation that can lead to deep transformation. If we allow ourselves to be transformed by our relationships with the communities we serve, we can become part of the larger mission—God’s mission—which is truly transforming the world.
Originally from Illinois, Kara Crawford is a Mission Intern with the General Board of Global Ministries, where she works in the Ministry With the Poor focus area. At New Day UMC, she is a community and congregational organizer. This article originally appeared in the July-August 2013 edition of New World Outlook.
Kara Crawford shows a video to Zenú indigenous women in San Andrés de Sotavento on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.
Kara laughs with a coworker during the filming of a children’s program video with CEPALC in Colombia. All Photos by Yesid Fernández