Indigenous Memory and Mission

Indigenous Memory and Mission

Asking questions about the good ways to walk with indigenous peoples

Photo: Jocabed Solano speaks abotu the work of Memoria Indígena at CMS in Oxford

As we continue to seek the best ways to join in God’s mission, we welcomed two advocates of indigenous Christians to the CMS offices. They asked lots of thought provoking questions…

“I shall come as a stranger with everything to learn again.”

John V Taylor, former general secretary of CMS

For more than 150 years CMS and SAMS people in mission have walked alongside indigenous people groups in Latin America. As we continue to do so, we are getting valuable guidance from Jocabed Solano and Drew Jennings-Grisham of Memoria Indígena (Indigenous Memory).

During a recent session with them at CMS in Oxford, we were reminded how much we have to learn – and unlearn – when it comes to mission within indigenous communities.

Missing stories

Jocabed is from the Guna people in what is now Panama and is the director of Memoria Indígena. She also coordinates the Latin American Theological Fraternity’s “Identity, Indigeneity, Interculturality” group.

She is a second generation Christian and as a child she remembers hearing about missionaries: “During Sunday school, the teacher asked ‘Who wants to be a missionary?’ and all the children put their hands up.”

Yet as she got older she wondered, why is there no history recorded about indigenous missionaries? Or women? Why are the stories of indigenous Christianity missing?

She is now committed to creating space where these stories can be found and told – to “fertilise” the theology of the global church with indigenous insights.

“We want to create a space where indigenous people can say, yes my history is important. And encourage the writing and recording of the indigenous experience, not just writing but preserving our orality.

“Churches should be listening more to what God is doing in different contexts. It’s impossible to talk about mission and justice without hearing indigenous views.”

Expanding our vocabulary

Epistemicide is defined as the killing, silencing, annihilation, or devaluing of particular ways of knowing.

Indigenous peoples in Latin America are contending with epistemicide as western industries and influences erode their way of life.

Jocabed says, “The local education today is very much western, there is a loss of language, culture, identity, knowledge about plants and the land…. All of this comes from epistemicide.”

This is a double tragedy: not only for the indigenous people seeing so much knowledge and tradition disappear, but also because this knowledge could be vital and valuable for the rest of the world, particularly regarding issues such as climate change.

“We have 72 words for earth,” Jocabed points out, and yet few people in power turn to indigenous peoples for climate change remedies.

Indigenous communities can also offer a valid critique of capitalist systems and show another way.

“We are working to preserve indigenous identity. When you look at Revelation 7:9, which speaks of a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne…. You have to ask what does this mean when indigenous communities disappear?”

Listening hard

According to Jocabed and her colleague Drew, among indigenous peoples, “There is much respect for British missionary allies who have done incredible work over the years. But there is still more work to be done in decolonising these relationships.” However much westerners want to empower local leaders, they are still usually the ones with the financial power.

Working hard to collect and share the history and theology of indigenous Christians: Jocabed Solano and Drew Jennings-Grisham

A good place to start is listening to stories, asking tough questions and listening to the responses together.

Drew shared one story of visiting a community in northern Bolivia in the Amazon, travelling several days up river in a canoe. There he met an indigenous pastor in his 70s, who had been one of the original members of a church founded by North American missionaries.

“I asked him to describe his church, and he started drawing in the dirt, a picture of a big canoe with a bunch of people in it and at the back, there was a man standing and steering with a motor. He said, ‘This canoe represents our church and our work is to navigate upstream against current of the world, and invite more people into the canoe.’ He then said, ‘The man in the back is the missionary.’

“He then drew another canoe, with a man in the back, paddling without a motor. He said, ‘When the missionary was here we were flying upstream and then one day the missionary left and took the motor with him. The motor is economic power, connections, education, resources…. When he left everyone had grown used to the motor and nobody knew how to paddle. Everyone sits in the boat and I am the man in the back and everyone expects me to paddle.’”

How does the church at large begin healing and reconciliation in the light of this story? How do we walk in a good and healthy way with indigenous communities?

Drew told another story from an indigenous group in Colombia. “One elder told my friend: ‘The missionaries came and said that God was everywhere, all powerful, all knowing… If this is true, God was already here before they got here and we already had a relationship with the Creator…. People came to our home and we offered them hospitality, as we are open to learning new ideas. But after all we listened to, they never showed any interest in what we had to say.’”

More tough questions

So the question, Drew said, is how can we make space for dialogue and the Holy Spirit to work?

How can we come alongside our indigenous friends with posture of humility?

How can we see the indigenous face of God? Not just to glean tidbits of culture to fit our Western models but to understand that God wants to show us more of Jesus through indigenous people?

Drew said, “Lots of mission organisations talk about partnership and interculturality and working side by side. We have change our discourse but we still need to do work in decolonising the logic in our theology and mission practices.”

Jocabed added: “I’m sure in your library we’ll see histories of CMS. What would it be like to rewrite those books from the perspective of communities who were objects of mission?”

That was just one of many deep questions that need to be asked as we journey together, such as:

  • How free to indigenous communities feel to critique mission organisations?
  • Are we really willing and able to listen to critique?
  • Are we willing to let indigenous people set the parameters for our relationship?

Ultimately, are we really ready, in those famous words of John V Taylor, to be strangers, with everything to learn again?

Get our email newsletter: