The Dark Quiet Teatime of Mission

Vincent Donovan gives a sobering account of Roman Catholic missionary work in East Africa. When the missionaries first arrived, the big problem was slavery. The missionaries’ approach was to buy as many slaves as they could in the hope of christianising them. The result? A miserable failure and a distortion of mission that would cast a shadow over missionary work in East Africa for years to come.

The next missionary method was the school system. As Donovan writes, “The basic premise underlying all of this was that if children entered a mission school, they would not emerge from that school without being Christians. And the premise was essentially correct.”[1] In fact, Rome was so sure of this method that “In 1928, Monsignor Hinsley, Apostolic Visitor to East Africa, told a gathering of bishops in Dar es Salaam: ‘Where it is impossible for you to carry on both the immediate task of evangelization and your educational work, neglect your churches in order to perfect your schools.'”[2] The result? Education on an enormous scale but a weak, disorientated church that could hardly stand on her own two feet.

Independence came as a shock to the system. The African leaders of newly independent nations were quick to direct missionary efforts at nation building. In the postcolonial context the propagation of the faith was set aside and a new definition of missionary work emerged: “aid to developing countries, material help to these countries without any strings attached.”[3]

As Donovan concludes, “There is no mistaking the fact that missionary work is in a shambles. Born in slavery, disorientated by the school system, startled by independence, and smothered in nation building – mission in East Africa has never had the chance to be true to itself.”[4] Small wonder, then, that he felt the need to start from scratch in his attempt to bring the gospel to the Masai.

[1] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai, 3rd ed (London: SMC Press, 2001), 6.

[2] Ibid., 7.

[3] Ibid., 10.

[4] Ibid., 11.

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