by Regina Mondez
In response to Mennonite Church Canada’s Future Directions Task Force Summary, I would like to offer some thoughts on the importance of longterm international ministry, as opposed to the FDTF’s statement favouring commitments of a few months to a year.
In the last five years, I have been involved with Mennonite Church Canada ministry in the Philippines. My first involvement was as a full-time staff with Peacebuilders Community, and then I moved to Manila and became part of PeaceChurch Philippines. In the last three and a half years with PeaceChurch, we have been journeying together as a community – learning, dreaming, and struggling to follow Jesus in this conflicted land.
I grew up within the Integrated Mennonite Church (IMC), which was established with the help of foreign missionaries. It was a product of several missionaries coming to the Philippines primarily for livelihood assistance, and biblical education. In the late ‘70s to early ‘80s, a lot of people were attracted to the Mennonite teachings, and many church leaders and pastors “converted” to the Mennonite faith. The different churches across the country were later organized into an “integrated” Mennonite church. For many years, the Mennonite churches in the Philippines received financial support from North American churches. Today, the IMC no longer receives any foreign financial support, and continues to survive through its local churches’ meagre sources of income.
Research and experience led me to realize that the experience of the current IMC (still on ‘survival’ mode after many years) was a product of foreign mission with good intentions, but not a lot of good relational investments. The few people that foreign missionaries initially came in contact with were fully trusted with huge funds and projects for the church and for scholarships, but only a few of those projects created a long-term impact.
In the past decades, there was (perhaps) millions of dollars poured from North American churches towards supporting the church in the Philippines, but I still wonder why the huge amounts of support has not produced concrete, tangible results visible at present. If there was anything that surfaced, it is the “relationship” built through years of connection. Missionaries who spent little time in the Philippines are never forgotten by the people they interacted with, the same way the Filipinos are remembered for their hospitality and friendship.
But why is the IMC still experiencing challenges within its own leadership and survival? There were relationships built by foreign missionaries to Filipino leaders, and there were funds that supported their initiatives in the past, but what could have gone wrong? I believe it was the time invested in building relationships. Foreign missionaries came for short visits, saw that people needed food, education, housing, livelihood assistance, among others, and they went back home to raise money to be sent to the people they built relationships with. The problem is, the way those charitable actions impacted the Filipino thinking was different from the original intentions. To avoid “colonial” type of missions, they let the locals decide on what to do with the huge amounts of money and how to distribute it. SO here is the underlying issue: Filipinos are not good financial managers. Most Mennonite churches are composed of members who grew up on day-to-day survival mode. What they earn for the day, they spend for the day. They are not used to huge amounts of money entrusted in their hands. If they receive more money than usual, the culture is to share it with their relatives, friends, and neighbours by having a feast for lunch, and the following day they might go hungry again.
This aspect of Filipino mind set is only one of many other things that could be different from a North American perspective. I can try to write longer to explain it, or there are perhaps tons of books published about the Filipino psyche that could be a good source of information, but an outsider can only truly understand our culture, the way we think, and the way we feel, if you spend time “experiencing” our culture. “Experiencing” a culture could be done in a 3-6 month “field trip,” but if the church is concerned in “understanding” the local culture, real-life, day-to-day interaction, laughter, communion, and struggles are the best ways to experience a culture. It only happens after years of investing authentic relationships with people.
At PeaceChurch, we have community members that come from various economic classes. This does not become a barrier for us to interact and share and live together as a community, but one of the things we are learning is that we need to be financially accountable to each other as a community. There are people in the community who may always need assistance for their daily survival, and the rest of us could always provide that. But if we really love them and care about them, we can teach them how to manage their own resources, how to save, and how to spend wisely. That is exactly one of the things we are working towards now. Teaching one another to be financially responsible is more helpful than dumping a million dollars into our bank account, which could probably disappear in a few months if we do not know how to manage it. But we can never arrive at this realization together, if the missionaries were only here for a few months. It takes a long time to be able to unfold every single layer of mistrust, shame (which is a big part of our culture), and indifference.
As Mennonite Church Canada is now looking toward its future direction, particularly on international ministry, I hope the Filipino experience would be considered. Cross-cultural ministry can be ‘colonial’ only if you do not truly and fully understand the culture you are going into. It matters little how many people you build relationships with – there could be thousands, there could only be one. But what matters is how much time you spend understanding that culture. How much emotion, more than finances, you invested with the people around you, and how much trust and confidence you developed, that once you figure out which area we needed help with, you can confidently offer support without being ‘colonial,’ but merely being a representative of Jesus in our lives.
Regina Mondez is a Mennonite Church Canada Witness partner in the Philippines. We are grateful to have her voice in the conversation. This letter was received via Darnell Barkman and is published with the author’s permission.