To be in missions and of colour
If only I'd known the work involved when serving the exclusively Afro-Ecuadorian valley community of Chamanal, I would have better braced myself for this labour of love.
“Look,” remarked a community member, “Jesus is black!”
This observation was made immediately as I began to dramatize the story of Jesus healing the blind beggar from Luke 19. It was so startling, that I paused to contain myself from laughter.
“Yeah, I guess He is," intoned a fellow OM colleague, Alfredo. “Jesus looks just like you and everyone here. Didn’t you know that?”
I had, unknowingly, assumed the responsibility of affirming the self-esteem and community value of a people long downtrodden by neglect.
This experience opened my eyes to what would become a deeper understanding of why a "black Jesus" was important.
Located in the Carchi Province, just south of the border between Ecuador and Colombia, the beautiful Chamanal valley community is made up of over 500 of some of the most loving and receptive Ecuadorians of color, despite their underprivileged economic state and severe underdevelopment. As part of a relief and development initiative, OM is supporting the missionary church of Iñaquito with their monthly outreach to the community. As a diaspora and people of color, the Chamanal community demands special attention to the sensitivity that accompanies their position in Ecuador.
“As people of Chamanal...we understand that many problems exist amongst us here in the community, but it has taken us a long time to recognize this. Before, we always felt that our situation may have been happening to us, not because of us,” explained Marta Espinoza, a community member.
Of course, for Marta and the hundreds of other local Chamanal community members, the idea that their situation might be happening “to them rather than because of them” might have seemed reasonable. To her own admission, however, it is customary for them to assume responsibility for what one might be experiencing and to identify oneself as the source of a community-wide problem, rather than an external force or opposing party causing the situation.
Violence among youth, incidents of gossip and backstabbing against members of the same family, absent fathers and mismanagement of the minimal sources of income--self-induced problems.
Everything else--such as the lack of potable water, for example--is a larger problem beyond the blame of this community.
But it seemed that the Chamanal community, as people of color, were using their ethnicity as a gauge for the injustices and intercultural divide that they were facing.
As with “black Jesus,” I was able to see that this community hasn't accepted the pardon and forgiveness that Christ offers. He offers a pardon that says, "You are whole and complete in the midst of your struggle; in fact, because of it." But instead, they see only their supposed problems as part of who they are.
For the people of Chamanal, their view of being black equates to that of any ethnic group, where seeing Jesus in relation to oneself through a sort of subjective lens is normal. The lesson remains that all mankind being created in the image and likeness of God ought to obey His commandments and seek His will equally so, even if the expression of that looks or appears different-- Jesus is equally representative through these subjective lenses and through our collective identities in Him.
Personally, the social and physical experience of my “blackness” shines bright in the Andean Region of Ecuador. As I make my daily interactions within this community in which I have been immersed over the course of two and a half years, there has been a distinct response to me as “the other” when I am engaging with new people for the first time.
My presence strikes a cord for many indigenous Ecuadorians, particularly given the cultural tendency to associate people to belonging to specific regions of the country based on appearance, and to be "out of place" or "dissimilar" is often addressed. Being a young man of colour living and interacting with members of an indigenous community is not a cultural norm and gains me attention. Even more pronounced, the fact that I am neither a husband nor a father makes the dissimilarity more pronounced.
However, the purpose of my time in Ecuador, the reason I subject myself to the cultural differences, is what wins the trust of many of my Ecuadorian friends and colleagues. My intention to mobilise Ecuadorians to have similar opportunities in leaving their comfortable environments in the name of Christ to serve as missionaries is the winning factor.
Even more than my “blackness," the fact that I bear the name of a Congolese Province, have the blood of a West Indian islander, and chose a North American education, then chose to serve in the Andes Mountains makes me stand out in a rewarding way for the Kingdom.
My entire existence is an anomaly. In storytelling, however, it has proven to be a beneficial advantage. I've taken on a very peculiar role of aiming to minister to those other than the masses—other anomalies, those who make up the minority. This fight, an entirely spiritual one, has taken on personal implications, which are evident in the way I respond to most people. It overwhelms the potential interaction I aim to have with many new people and is the bedrock of my existing relationships.
The gift to be of colour--any color in the scheme of God’s colour palette--is the meaning of Christ’s pardon. Whether that colour is black, as in the case of the people of Chamanal, or any other colour through which we choose to see Christ, the experience of engaging each other about this topic helps to remind us that Christ sees the human nature of our hearts, not our ethnic representation through colour. These identities which we so often blatantly portray to the world are His to mold to reflect His diversity.
Today, after working intensively with the people of Chamanal for 12 months, their view on colour remains a collective one, one of blame and self-deprecation.
One thing has changed, however: Paradise/Heaven/The Kingdom of God is a much clearer concept for them, a concept they speak of with much anticipation. Even more, many families have modeled this concept in their interaction with other Ecuadorian ethnic groups, such as the indigenous people of their neighbouring valley. Instead of so much focus being spent on the questions regarding why their social and economic situation is unfortunate, many more families are lending a hand to offer help, comfort, and clarity to members of the Chamanal community.