“I’m afraid of doing something dumb!”
Today, after 18 rich years of serving both as a missionary and as director for ELCA Missionary Sponsorship, I look forward to returning to parish ministry in the United States. And, as I look to my own new challenges in ministry, I confess that in my heart of hearts I still utter those words.
“I’m afraid of doing something dumb!”
“Don’t worry!” consoled Rolly. “Of course you will! And, at the time you do, you’ll be too dumb to know that you’ve done it! Know this, though. They’ll forgive you and love you in spite of it.”
Always being a bit of an over-achiever, I didn’t wait very long as a missionary to act on his prediction. In fact, it was on my very first day as a missionary that I fulfilled the prophecy.
You see, I was determined to do it all “the right way.” During missionary orientation, I had taken copious notes on how to enter a new context with grace. I had learned the importance of learning the local language. I contemplated how I could adjust my American standard of living to accommodate the local economy.
So, on my first day, I was going to do it just right! I was going to introduce myself to the faculty of the Lutheran high school where I was called to teach in Bratislava, Slovakia, in my newly acquired Slovak language. When it was my turn to introduce myself, I stood up and announced with great confidence, “Ja som Pani fararka Schockova. Ja som navozenstvo!” And, I was proud. I was being a good, cross-culturally sensitive missionary. Or so I thought.
They laughed at me!
What had I said? Why was that funny, I wondered.
Two weeks later, Dr. Kuruc, the director of the school said, “Mrs. Schock, do you have any idea of what you said?”
“No,” I gulped, my new missionary glow rubbed off by this time.
“You said, ‘I am Pastor Twila Schock, and I am religion!”
I was embarrassed. Like a balloon after a birthday party, I was totally deflated. That was not merely an arrogant thing to say. It was downright absurd.
And, today, as I look forward to entering a new context for mission, I am so grateful for that experience. That experience was the beginning of my long, arduous growth as a missionary. I learned how to listen and receive.
In the days to come, I would learn many cultural, religious and linguistic aspects about Slovak Christians. I would learn about the deep piety and Socialist government history which both grounded and fueled the faith of these people. And, most importantly, before I could hope to give, I needed to receive the gifts of the local culture.
I needed to learn that unless one greets an entire grocery store upon entry, one is perceived as boorish or rude.
I needed to learn that, if one brings flowers to another’s home, one must not put them on the table, but rather hand them respectfully to the recipient. To place them directly on the table is tantamount to a death wish.
I needed to learn that shaking another’s hand over a door threshold is wishing them bad luck.
Deepened skills of both listening and receiving have shaped who I am as a pastor and are gifts that I hope to bring to my new congregation.
My global neighbors have taught me much that missionary orientation can’t provide: on-the-ground training in new ways of living out faith; the ability to laugh at myself; and the ability to — despite the accidental and absurd things I might do — know and believe that the body of Christ has room for errors and will thrive nonetheless.
I am grateful for these 18 years and for the privilege of serving my global neighbors who were gracious enough to receive me — fumbles and all.
This summer, the ELCA is preparing over a dozen new long-term missionaries for service. To be sure, they are eager to do it right. To be sure, they will make mistakes. To be sure, our global companions are eagerly waiting for them to arrive, warts, gifts and all!
What is also certain is this: Now, more than ever, ELCA missionaries need our support. They need financial support. And, they need our prayers. Some of them will serve in challenging circumstances. All of them will know life-changing experiences.
After 18 years of service, I am concluding my formal service of ELCA’s global mission. But, my support will continue in new ways. Please join me! To sponsor or support an ELCA missionary, go online or call 800-638-3522, ext. 2657.
Twila Schock is a pastor of the ELCA in the Northern Illinois Synod. She is currently in transition from her position as director of ELCA Missionary Sponsorship and Global Gifts to a call at Christ Lutheran Church in Belvidere, Ill.
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