Vulnerability as a missionary: Sister Anne Falola's experience

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Vulnerability as a missionary: Sister Anne Falola's experienceSister Anne Falola shares how her dream of becoming a "heroic missionary admired by all” was suddenly shattered, and how the experience became an opportunity to find her true missionary vocation.

Vulnerability is a fundamental quality of every authentic Christian mission, because we are called to follow Christ, ‘who, though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave.... (Phil. 2,6-8). The Kenosis of Christ makes vulnerability a way of being missionary and an important means for mission.

Pope Francis’ call to the Synodal Process is ultimately a renewed call to mission, but not from the hitherto held position of power and authority.... This cannot be achieved without accepting and embracing our vulnerability. For us as missionaries, vulnerability is an asset for mission, rather than a burden, because it permits us to enter into the human reality more deeply through our own participation in what is weak, oppressed and poor. When we embrace our own vulnerability, we become closer to the people in need of light and liberation.

The African continent is sometimes called the ‘garden of the Church in the 20th Century’, because of the fascinating growth of the Church in Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries. From an estimated 4 million professing Christianity in 1900, African Christianity grew to over 300 million adherents by the year 2000.

Heart of mission

One of the implications of this is that there are no longer exclusively mission sending countries or exclusively mission receiving countries. This change affects the power dynamic. The geography of mission has changed! Thanks be to God, Christian mission is now divorced from its historical link to colonization and westernization.

I have often been asked why Africans would bother going outside their continent as missionaries with the myriads of problems we have. To this I respond that the call to mission is NOT a rivalry of self-sufficiency, to which only those who are strong and have no problems can respond. This exclusive tendency is problematic because it associates mission with power, political influence, material wealth, colonization and domination. As an African missionary I see myself called to change this narrative, to bring newness, simplicity and energy, stripped of economic and political powers.

While vulnerability is vital for mission, it does not come easy. The missionaries I knew in my childhood were not considered vulnerable men and women. My missionary vocation was inspired by the Irish missionaries who in my homeland, pioneered initiatives in education, health care, pastoral and social frontiers. They were loved and highly respected. However, my notion of being that heroic missionary, admired by all, suddenly crashed!

Crashing into reality

When I stepped out of Africa in 1994, I realized that I was not received as a missionary. Instead, I was considered a migrant worker who had come looking for a better life. My desire for total self-giving was shaken and I was often hit with the fact that it is believed that an African has little to offer.

I realized that for many outside Africa, the continent was only associated with poverty, war, violence, disorder, primitive life, diseases, ethnic wars, political unrest, and corruption. While these realities cannot be denied, Africa is also a land of promise, for its vibrant life, its resilience, youthfulness, love of community, hospitality, generosity, and religiosity.

As a missionary from Africa, I learned to embrace this vulnerability which prejudices imposed on me, while I humbly assumed the dignity to change the narrative.

We are all victims of the single-story syndrome, built on the biases of others about us. We all carry the burden of our identities. This become more apparent when we step outside our own milieu – we are affected by the judgment of others.

The Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie beautiful articulated it: “It is not that the single story is not true, but it is not the only story.”

Communion in diversity

As missionaries, we are called to build communion in diversity, embracing its beauty and fragility.

As I draw this reflection to a close, I challenge myself and each one of us to embrace our own vulnerability.

My own vulnerability as a woman within a patriarchal society and Church; an African in a world of global power tussles; a religious in a world of growing religious indifference and intolerance; a missionary in a xenophobic world, and one called to the periphery in a world where only the centre matters. This, for me, is embracing vulnerability.

This is an excerpt from a talk given by Sr. Anne Falola during the UISG 2022 Plenary. Sr Anne is a missionary sister of Our Lady of Apostles. She holds degrees in Counselling and Spirituality. Her missionary engagement includes: teaching, pastoral and social work, interreligious dialogue, and missionary animation in her native Nigeria, Argentina and the UK. She is currently a General Councilor and resides in Rome.

Sr. Anne Falola