Book review: Unlikely Friends

Anvil journal of theology and mission

David W Scott, Daryl R Ireland, Grace Y May and Casely B Essamuah (eds.), Unlikely Friends: How God Uses Boundary-Crossing Friendships to Transform the World, (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2021)

by Rev Dr Hannah Steele, lecturer in missiology, St Mellitus College

This fascinating book offers a variety of contributions on the theme of boundary-crossing friendships in mission. Compiled by four of her former students as a tribute to Dana L Robert on her 65th birthday, it focuses on a topic which has been central to her influential writings upon cross-cultural mission. With the current tendency to focus on strategy, resource and innovation in mission, this book is a timely reminder of the simple yet profound gift of friendship and its prophetic and powerful impact. Robert’s work reorientates us to the foundational practice of friendship in Christian mission and the wisdom there is to be gleaned from the lived experience of those who follow the missionary call of Christ. It follows a central thread in Robert’s own work, which asserted that in the development of world Christianity it is transnational friendships, often behind the scenes, that have slowly and faithfully shaped its emergence.

The book is structured around 12 differently authored contributions reflecting on the role of friendship in diverse contexts and thus raising a variety of critical themes. Soojin Chung skilfully tells the story of the inspirational Pearl Buck, who fought against the systemic racial hierarchy that persisted in transnational adoption. Buck’s own experience of adopting two mixed race children led her to conclude that cross-cultural love was the basis of true family, built on a vision that all humans are created in divine likeness. Michele Miller Sigg writes about Emile Mallet who, during the cholera epidemic in Paris in the mid-nineteenth century, built a network of female friends who ministered alongside street children, vulnerable women and women in prison, inspiring a new generation of Christian women to be missionaries. Taking us on a global and historical tour touching down in the East African revival, Latin America in the early twentieth century and Boston in the height of racial tension in the 1960s, Robert’s former students narrate stories of ordinary missionaries who go under the radar yet through the generosity of their practice of cross-cultural friendship enact the coming kingdom. There is much we can learn from them, and this collection of essays walks us through a journey in which we can do precisely that, challenging us to think about the narrowness of our own social interactions and the possibility of blessing if we are prepared to courageously cross boundaries in friendship.

The second half of the book attends to some of the challenges of such transnational friendships, engaging critically with the danger of cultural dependency and the ever-present danger of what Kendal Mobely astutely calls “the ethical dualism of white supremacy” (p.128). I would have valued this theme being expanded more, but one of the challenges of a collection of essays is the tendency to whet the reader’s appetite rather than offer a comprehensive dealing with a particular subject. I particularly appreciated Bonnie Sue Lewis’s contribution on the value of interfaith friendships and the mutual enrichments of friendships that cross even religious boundaries and open our eyes to ourselves, one another and the presence of God in the world.

In our post-Brexit Western context, where societal division seems more apparent than ever, the importance of friendship in crossing cultural and ethnic barriers cannot be underestimated and carries a prophetic and eschatological potency. Unlikely Friends presents a vision for friendships that transcend the often preferred comfort of homogeneity and alikeness to express something of the joy and value found in difference. While it would be disingenuous to speak of friendship as a “strategy” in mission this volume comprehensively demonstrates the role relationships have and continue to play in shaping world Christianity.

The final section contains tributes to Robert from colleagues and former students. This is perhaps less interesting to the reader wanting simply to explore the missionary and theological value of friendship, yet it is nevertheless testimony to the impact of a remarkable scholar, not least in terms of the sheer breadth of contexts those tributes come from. It would seem that Robert really is a living embodiment of her message.

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