The 2001 Census for Northern Ireland contained an astonishing statistic. 99.1% of respondents were white by ethnic group and 99.5% of all people were European. At the time we must have been one of the least racially diverse countries in all of Western Europe. Being the last staging post before New York and thirty years of troubles undoubtedly contributed to a lack of desire on the part of the global community to migrate into wee Norn Iron. The statistics told what we knew to be true but never really thought about. I remember knowing the names of the non-white families in our town growing up, simply because they were so few that everyone knew their names. In such an environment a phrase I used to hear (and from sources you would have expected more from) was ‘act the white man’. Usually uttered to correct daft behaviour on my part, or that of my peers, in the various youth groups and sporting teams we took part in. ‘Act the white man’ meant wise up, behave properly, show a bit of sense, basically not behave like anyone who did not look like us or come from where we came from. It betrayed a basic and cultural level of racial prejudice.
‘Act the white man’ came back to me this summer in the most unlikeliest of places. During the summer conference, New Horizon, Simon Guillebaud was speaking about his time working as a missionary in Burundi. If you’ve never listed to Simon speak, or kept up to date with his work at Great Lakes Outreach I highly recommend you do. Simon is full throttle. Throwing his life and heart into working in the then most dangerous part of the world (it is now a relatively safe no. 10!!) Simon spoke of how he literally faced death at every turn. For three years he fully expected to die, but hey, he was doing a great job. The work of the mission was getting done and through support from others money was coming in. But then he realised something. As heroic as it might be to face death at every turn, what would happen to the mission and the ministry if the ‘white man died?’ Quite literally that would be it. Game over as far as Simon’s particular work was concerned. Providentially Simon took a year and spent it at All Nations College in London, returning to work in Burundi with a clearer focus. For the mission to survive, for it not to be dependent on him, he needed to pour his life and time into others who would keep it going if the day came when ‘the white man died’.
We all nodded. It was the wiser approach. It was a truer missional path to incarnate himself into the local culture and help raise up and equip local people to catch the vision and carry out the work. It was more sustainable, it made more sense. It is surely the right path for anyone on mission to take. It ensures that everything is not reliant on one guy. Sitting there listening, and knowing he was right, it suddenly struck me afresh about how what is true of Burundi is true of Belfast, or Ballymena, or Ballina, or anywhere else on this island beginning with B or any other letter of the alphabet. Why is the model of ministry in our churches still so dependent on ‘the white man’. On replacing the last white man with a ‘new man’ (or woman, though still more likely to be a man). Or course by now I hope you realise I’m not speaking about colour or gender. I’m asking why it is that our churches speak of every member ministry, the priesthood of all believers, the mission of all God’s people, and yet we still stumble from one white man to the next? Looking for someone who will come and be the teacher, the pastor, the evangelist, the leader, the healer, the reader, the prayer, the visitor, the visionary, the administrator of structure and sacrament. The ethos of many of our churches is set up to demand this, and the ego of those appointed can sometimes help perpetuate the myth. More than this the infrastructures within which we work are almost set dead square against the idea of anyone but the white man doing the work. Only a certain person can read, or speak, or celebrate. Spiritual authority is vested, in the Church of Ireland at any rate, in one person whose freehold is secure. Our models of ministry and mission are not easily reproducible. Go and make disciples, who will then make disciples, gets reduced to be a shepherd of the sheep, until a new shepherd comes along to do the same thing but in a different way. Nothing in this is to cast doubt on the need for Godly leadership. Every context needs this. But maybe we need more leadership that is prepared to invest in its own death. Maybe we need to find ways to kill the white man..