SUNITHA MORTHA: MISSION AND ACCOMPANIMENT by Carina Schiltz, second year M.Div.
Sunitha Mortha, Director of Mission Formation in the Global Mission Unit of the ELCA, visited Wartburg this Spring and talked about our calling as followers of Christ and learning what it means to accompany others in a diverse world.
If you’ve attended a “Glocal Gathering” you might have heard Sunitha’s humorous, direct, and compassionate words. She highlighted the importance of going “back to the basics” and relating “God’s story, my story, and your story.” First of all, how do we understand God’s story? Based on this understanding, how do we place ourselves in this story? How do we view the “other” in relation to our understanding of the story? Sunitha said, “Now, try doing all this reflecting without putting yourself in God’s place.”
She went on to ask, “Where are the other Lutherans in the world?” Countries with more than five million include the usual answers: Germany, the United States and Sweden. But one also needs to include in that number, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Indonesia!
Sunitha asked the audience, “How does your church understand its place in God’s story? Are churches looking only inward? Do they think about what’s happening on synodical levels? Community levels? National levels? International levels? People, congregations, seminaries, synods are not separate: they work together. How does your congregation/seminary partner with other people and organizations? In other words…how does this relate to ‘mission’?”
One way people view mission is through their culture’s, community’s, or congregation’s narrative about origin and destination. This narrative informs how mission is understood and the purpose of mission. For an example, Sunitha explained that if the dominant destination narrative of a community is heaven/hell, there is a certain way one understands oneself and the “other” and where they belong. When there is a separating line between “us” and “them,” it is not difficult to see which place we’ll designate for “them”.
Those we categorize as “them” or “other” could be for any number of reasons, but the number one reason is that, somehow, they are “different” from us.
Diversity sometimes causes fight or flight because we are socialized to learn that the way we do things is the good/right/normal/true way. If “we” do things the “normal” way, what “the other” does is considered “abnormal.” Unfortunately, the history of missions has included the transfer of cultural and national values, which has been very damaging to the “receiving” culture. Those in the dominant culture see others as needing to “evolve” in order to “catch up.”
Hopefully, our communities and congregations can understand that the defining question in mission is not, “How does one categorize/define/change the other to be like us?” but rather, “How does one engage the other?” First, we have to take out the barriers between “my” story and “your” story. There is much that informs a person’s being that is deeper than meets the eye.
Sunitha offered a very relevant caution: a danger in the ELCA, and in many facets of life, is to surround ourselves only with like-minded people, ideologies, theologies, and thereby focus only on ourselves, rather than resting in justification. While we cannot hold all our differences, uniqueness, cultures, sub-cultures, and everything in one’s being in tension with another’s, God can.
She asked, “What if your community doesn’t look diverse, or what if it has no ‘others’? There is plenty of diversity, whether it be invisible to the eye or visible; there are others, outsiders, and many people who need to hear the liberating proclamation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If one’s congregation is not visibly diverse, one can think cross-generationally. “Start with what diversity is present,” she said. Accompaniment happens every day! Mission isn’t always about going “over there.”It’s about engagement, wherever one is.
If you want more information, visit the ELCA’s website on Glocal Gatherings near you.