logo small

world map dots

Developing World Immersion Programmes: Good News for the Church in the West? Aidan Donaldson

The Tablet recently ran a competition as part of its 175th Anniversary celebrations. Aidan Donaldson from Belfast submitted a 1,000 word paper on the work of Project Zambia and how it puts Catholic Social Justice teachings into practice. His article won one of the four £1,000 awards, no mean achievement given that a huge number of theologians, educators, peace and social justice workers, development experts, parish and diocesan pastoral ministers, charities etc throughout the world. We celebrate with Project Zambia, not just for the donation to their work at the margins but also for the recognition from such an internationally recognised and respected publication.

Over the past two decades Developing World immersion programmes have been set up by many religious orders  and parishes throughout Ireland, Great Britain and other countries in the Western world through which people engage in actions of solidarity and mutual affirmation with communities living in the Developing World.  These programmes generally involve groups of all ages going from this part of the world for short periods of time to meet and work with communities, parishes and even dioceses  in the Developing World with the expectation that ever-deepening relationships and bonds between all partners in the encounter will develop and grow.  Through such encounters in the margins it is hoped that there will be a greater awareness of the conditions that so many in this world are forced to endure, that the 'voiceless' will have a voice and that this life-changing experience will be brought back into the everyday lives of those who have witnessed this and local issues of social justice and marginalisation will benefit from this experience of global outreach.  Yet, do these immersion programmes contain the seeds of something even more dramatic and wonderful?  Might they in fact be an exceptionally valuable contributor to the new missionary Church that Pope Francis calls for and a key evangelising agent in the renewal of the Church in the West?

The Foreign Missions - A Remarkable Story of Heroism and Sacrifice
The rich and courageous story of the many tens of thousands of men and women who have gone over the past decades from the comfort and safety of their homes in Europe to what we refer to as 'the foreign missions.'  The sheer scale of missionary activity over the past number of decades has been truly remarkable.  Indeed, it would seem that at one time almost every family in countries such as Ireland had some family member or close friend 'in the missions'.  Their contribution in the areas of health care, famine relief, education and (especially since Vatican II) advocacy and justice is a story that should be shared and celebrated throughout Ireland and beyond.  In Sub-Saharan Africa today more than 25% of all health care and education provision is provided by Catholic missionary orders.  This statistic is quite incredible and all the more remarkable when one considers the much of the contribution of the missionaries in the most difficult and dangerous places.  Indeed the self-sacrifice of those who have gone to the missions is almost impossible to comprehend In their thousands they left their homes, their families and friends in Ireland and embraced a new and often unknown world.  They had to learn new languages and adopt new cultures and completely different ways of living.  They had to face difficulties and challenges and endure hardship and suffering.  Some were imprisoned and many expelled by authorities that feared their work on behalf of the marginalised and voiceless.  Some were killed by oppressive regimes and by virtue of working in conflict situations.  Others were killed by those who saw missionaries as targets for robbery.   Many died due to diseases such as black water fever, yellow fever and malaria.  Many more returned home their health destroyed.  And yet, despite the cost and self-sacrifice, those in the missions steadfastly continue their work in a spirit of quiet and unaware heroism and love.

The new missions and new missionaries?
It would seem undeniable that the days when the Western Church sent missionaries (at least in the traditional sense) to the Developing World is coming to an end.  The average age of a missionary is now over 70 and the religious orders are attracting few new vocations.  But they are no needed anymore.  The Developing World is now providing its own priests and religious and in numbers that any vocations director in the West could only now dream of.  The vocations crisis in the Western Church is symptomatic of the crisis in spirituality that the recent decades of secularism, materialism and consumerism have brought about.  Indeed, it now seems that the Western World has now become new missionary territory and that it is the people here who need to hear the Good News. Our own marginalised - alienated young people, ex-offenders, marginalised older people, victims of substance abuse, the unemployed and all others who feel that they are not valued by society - are precisely the same audience whom Jesus addressed in the Sermon on the Mount and told them that they were indeed blessed and that the Kingdom of God was for them.  

Project Zambia is a new lay missionary organisation and part of the Christian Brothers network.  It works with marginalised communities in Zambia concentrating on HIV/AIDS victims, education, feeding programmes, orphanages, street children projects and community empowerment.  It has moved from a school-based project to involve parishes, community groups and others who have heard the cry of the poor and decided to both be the difference and allow the difference to be made to them.  It now works alongside marginalised communities in Belfast and is in the process of establishing a centre for social justice and advocacy there to work alongside the homeless, refugees and other victims of poverty and injustice.     

If we embrace this opportunity and gift of ‘reverse mission’ there will be a wonderful re-vitalisation of the Church in the affluent world which has contributed so much over many decades to marginalised people in the Developing World.  Perhaps it is only our engagement with poor and excluded (both globally and locally) that will rescue our society from the shallow values of greed, materialism and individualism.  It certainly would be a remarkable and fitting tribute to those generations of people who performed ‘ordinary miracles’ on a daily basis in the missions if their sacrifice does lead to the renewal of the Church in Western World.  And Project Zambia is part of this.