It’s interesting to consider the unexpected outcomes of the work one sets out to do.
Case in point: a bit less than a year ago, the Wolof Research Project team was sketching out a research plan. We were considering how we could best conduct a large number of sociolinguistic surveys in multiple locations throughout this West African country. One decision we made was to train locals to be our research assistants, rather than conducting the interviews ourselves. The next question became, who should we recruit as said research assistants? At the time our team was also sketching out the geographic and demographic scope of our research. Which Wolof-speakers needed to be interviewed? Since our research was to be intricately related with use of Scripture in the Wolof language, it was logical to make this country’s Protestant churches part of the target population. And since the Catholic Church here sometimes uses the Wolof language and Wolof Scriptures in their liturgy more than Protestant churches, in addition to running a translation committee for Scriptures in local languages, it made sense to make the Catholic Church part of the target population as well. And finally, with the Protestant and Catholic churches here being in a majority Muslim context, Muslims needed to be included in the target population as well, so their opinions regarding Wolof could also be understood.
For the research assistant recruitment, then, it made the most sense to look to the Protestant and Catholic churches. This would both help us to reach the target population, as well as hopefully ensure that the research assistants would not only see the field research as a means to make some money but as a service to their own churches that could have ongoing ramifications.
And so, in each of the four cities where the research was conducted, our surveyors were members of the local Protestant or Catholic churches. We hoped that this would increase the impact of the research; local Wolof-speakers would not just be the “subjects” but they would also be the “agents.” Rather than our simply informing them of the research findings, they would encounter the findings, the reality of their context – firsthand and in a new light.
Little did we know what outcomes and impact this decision would have. Little did we know what impact it would have on our own outlooks.
From the start in City #1 back in February we began to see it. We ended up not having any Protestant surveyors in that particular city. This required Catholics to interview Protestants. Some of those Catholic surveyors were learning for the first time that there was a Protestant presence in their town, and that not all Protestants were foreigners. This sparked much discussion among them, especially when occasionally interviewees would respond with suspicion, asking what theological background SIL represented. This resulted in a memorable word given to our City #1 surveyors by our team coordinator, Bagne. He passionately explained that SIL is not exclusively linked to any tradition or denomination but rather desires to support all churches who preach and promote God’s Word. Bagne is uniquely placed to share such thoughts; he was born and bred in this West African country, was raised in the Catholic Church, has worked as a long-time Protestant pastor and SIL member. I was left with much to consider regarding, among various things, the stereotypes – not always accurate – that church traditions can have of other church traditions.
The unexpected impact continued in City #2, where the team of surveyors was mixed. Protestant surveyors who were interviewing Catholics reported with pleasant surprise that they’d had rich times of sharing with brothers and sisters in Christ. Catholic and Protestant surveyors alike shared at the closing ceremony what a privilege it had been to meet and work with members of churches that they hadn’t previously known. They said that they’re all located in the same town and yet it’s rare that they have opportunities to come together. I was beginning to see that the Wolof Research Project was serving, in an “accidental” way, to bring churches together that perhaps otherwise wouldn’t. This is no small thing in a country where the Christian population is no more than 5%, and of that minority Protestants comprise less than 1%. Surely with such a small percentage, a lot hangs on strength in unity.
It all came to a climax in City #3. This city’s Protestant population is the smallest of the four target cities, and so our team of research assistants was also the smallest but still mixed, Protestant and Catholic. For the closing ceremony, we followed the practice of inviting the local church leaders who had been involved in the research preparations and surveyor recruiting. The local Lutheran pastor came, as did the pastors and an elder of three other local Protestant churches. Though no one from our Catholic invitees was able to attend, among the seven recruits receiving a diploma was one Catholic, the youngest of the research assistants. When he stood up to introduce himself as all the recruits did, he mentioned that something he appreciated in particular about the research project was the chance to work alongside Protestants and Catholics. He said he was coming away from the experience having personally found that there aren’t many differences. He encouraged us all attending to pray and work for the unity of the Church because Jesus desires us to be one as he and the Father are one. I couldn’t help but wonder at the gumption his words took, considering he was the only Catholic in attendance as well as the youngest in attendance.
The theme of unity was then taken up by several others at various parts of the City #3 ceremony. Bagne responded and shared from his experience where he had seen organizations encouraging Islamo-Catholic dialogue; he shared that he had always said this dialogue can only come after increased inter-Christian dialogue (Protestant-Catholic as well as inter-denominational). He urged all of us who claim to follow Christ to also pursue unity since this is Christ’s prayer. And finally, the elder of the city’s largest Protestant church got up to share a few words. He is of Catholic background, and I’d happened to hear him preach the previous Sunday when he’d given some fairly strong words regarding the fellowship of Christians with former Muslim or Catholic practices. When he stood up, he echoed the others’ push for more unity. He said we have to love each other as fellow followers of Christ. “Because who’s my brother?” he asked. “It’s not my relative or even my fellow Christian. It’s the Muslim. So if I’m called to love my Muslim brother and I can’t even love my Christian brother, how can I be obedient to Jesus?” I’m confident I wasn’t the only one who found the whole discussion, and his words in particular, moving and convicting.
In a country where Christians are such a small minority, it doesn’t make much sense to me, in my limited experience and understanding of course, for there to be unnecessary division, lack of dialogue, and misunderstanding among the different church traditions. Surely especially where the Church is a minority, it needs to rally together to have an impact. And yet Christ’s prayer for His Church to be one isn’t even primarily a prayer of pragmatism but rather one which naturally follows his relationship with the Father — God’s character as three Persons in One.
If I’ve learned anything from living cross-culturally, it’s that different people and groups and church traditions can’t always do everything together. Maybe this is true for similar reasons that individuals (even Christians) can’t live with or work with or marry any and every other person. But I’ve also learned that there’s a certain level of love – and demonstration of it through actively being and working together – that is a necessary part of following Jesus beyond the boundaries of one’s comfort zone, whether the boundaries be personal or cultural or ecclesiological.
In an article that I recently read by South African theologian Desmond Tutu, I came across the following thought-provoking quote by Maurice Wiles:
“Theology today is inductive and empirical in approach. It is the ever changing struggle to give expression to man’s response to God. It is always inadequate and provisional. Variety is to be welcomed because no one approach can ever do justice to the transcendent reality of God. Our partial expressions need to be complemented by the different apprehensions of those whose traditions are other than our own. … We ought therefore to be ready to tolerate a considerable measure even of what seems to us to be error, for we cannot be certain that it is we who are right. On this view a wide range of theological difference (even including what we regard as error) is not in itself a barrier to unity.”
This is certainly not a perspective I often hear – in any country in which I’ve lived. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, nor of these unexpected outcomes of the Wolof sociolinguistic research that I’ve been pondering. Maybe we all tend to see the barriers which obstruct Church unity – rather than the drivers which push us towards it.
What if there were fewer barriers to Church unity than we thought? Or, what if the rewards for pursuing Church unity outnumbered the barriers, and were greater than we thought?
I aim to keep trying to understand, to keep looking for unexpected outcomes, and to keep praying – as Christ did – for His Church to be one, both in West Africa and around the world.