"The Mission Impulse: Our Call to Serve"


Fr. John Chakos

The impulse to reach out to others in mission is universal. No one people or religion, no one philosophy or creed can lay exclusive claim to acts of selfless service.  But in some rare instances this impulse rises to such a level of perfection that we come to admire it as something both unique and exquisite and well beyond the pale of ordinary human experience. In his study-Thoughts about Missionary Work from Experience- Cosmas Grigoriatis, the apostle to Zaire, lays out the central principle for all who would follow the bidding of Christ into the mission field: “The missionary’s beginning is significant, however, it is not the sum of the matter…The outset might be blessed or might become blessed at the end. What’s important is that the giving be true and total, without holding back, with a disposition to self-sacrifice and self-denial, and with the aim of leaving our bones among the natives…”  To become an exile and martyr for Christ, “hating” our own life in this world so that others can be led into the fellowship of the Church is our calling and not just a career. Just before Jesus chose the twelve and sent them out he was moved with compassion for the multitudes, “because they were weary and scattered, like sheep without a shepherd.” This was His call to serve, just as we must all have such a call, knowing full well that it comes at a great cost. Today, I would like to consider three aspects of this calling that are essential if we are to be faithful servants and missionaries. They are sensitivity, self-loss, and solidarity.

            The first thing that we need is sensitivity. Some of us are not normally sensitive. It’s a big stretch for us to involve ourselves with the distress of others. We easily fall into the trap of not inconveniencing ourselves, like the priest and Levite who passed by their wounded neighbor for reasons either of safety or the desire to remain ritually pure. A study was done at Princeton University using the Parable of the Good Samaritan as its inspiration. Seminary students who had indicated that they entered the seminary to help others were told to prepare a sermon on the Parable and then go to another building to deliver it. They were also told not to be late. Along the route a man was planted, “slumped in an alley, head down, eyes closed, coughing and groaning.” To the surprise and shock of those who prepared the study, only 10% of the students bothered to stop. One was in such a hurry that he stepped over the victim to be on time. The study concluded that the fear of being late took precedence over the obligation to help the victim. How many people have we stepped over in the course of a day in order to meet our schedules. The pressure of daily life more often than not takes precedence over human need. Though we may be sensitive at times, usually we reserve our compassion for those closest to us and not for strangers. St. Kosmas Aitolos - Equal-to-the–Apostles - used a unique method to teach sensitivity. He would begin by saying, “How are you getting along here, my brethren? Is there love among you?” In his preaching he never tired of saying that if we want to be saved we shouldn’t ask for anything else in this world except for love. Then he would continue his dialogue with those who claimed to love God and neighbor. “Kostas,” he would say, “do you love that poor boy?” “I do,” Kostas answered. “If you love him, you would buy him a shirt because he is naked so that he too will pray for your soul. Then your love will be true, but now it is false.” Kostas finally conceded that his love was not true and willingly offered to clothe all the poor children of the village.

            In this engaging, but challenging way, St. Kosmas drew out his listeners in every village throughout Greece. He set a higher standard for them, one that they had not applied to their daily life. He was trying to make their love “true as gold.”

While serving in the mission fields of Africa and Guatemala, I am constantly challenged by the fact that the people who drink from the same chalice of Christ as I do come dressed in rags. With swollen bellies and emaciated bodies, open sores and lesions on their skin, in bare feet and burdened with children on their backs, they come to sup at the banquet table of Christ, those who walk many kilometers each day balancing tins of water on their heads just to stay alive. If Christ is in me, I cannot remain insensitive to their poverty. St. Simeon puts all of this in perspective for us when he teaches: “Christ takes on the appearance of each of the poor and assimilates Himself to all of them so that no one who believes in him will be arrogant towards his fellow being.” Most of us have not seen Christ face to face or in a vision, but all of us can see Christ in the face of the poor. Through them we are called to take stock of our lives and consider mission service.

This story is told about Mahatma Gandhi as he stepped aboard a train one day. One of his shoes slipped off and landed on the track. He could not pick it up because the train started moving. To the amazement of his companions, Gandhi calmly took off his other shoe and threw it back along the track to land close to the first. Asked by a fellow passenger why he did so, Gandhi smiled and said: “The poor man who finds the shoe lying on the track will now have a pair he can use.”

If, like Gandhi, we can put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, then the next step for us is self-loss. This means that we forget ourselves in serving others. Once a reporter wrote to Mother Teresa, requesting an interview. He wanted to know what made her tick. Mother Teresa answered, “You want to know what makes me tick? Take the money you would spend to come over here, and personally go to some poor person who has nothing and help him with it. Don’t write a story on it. Give. Lose yourself completely. Obey simply to God’s glory and your neighbor’s good. Then you will understand what makes me tick.”

            The life of St. Kosmas gives us insight into this feeling of self-loss necessary to the calling of a missionary. He lived during one of the darkest periods for the church in the Balkans. More than 200 years under the Ottoman yoke was taking its toll on the religious life of the local inhabitants, with the real possibility of its extinction. For 17 years (1743-1760) he lived a life of relative safety in the peaceful, but detached world of Mt. Athos. As a monk he could devote himself to prayer and asceticism, bending his will to the dictates of the monastic rule. In a way, one could say that up to now he felt that he was living for himself, weeping for his own sins and studying the Scriptures and writings of the church fathers. Although he grew in wisdom and faith, fulfilling a childhood dream to become learned in the faith, he found himself unfulfilled in the spiritual life. As he probed the Scriptures, a greater vision for his life emerged: “Studying the holy and sacred Gospel, I found in it many and different teachings which are all pearls, diamonds, treasures, riches, joy, gladness- eternal life. Among the other things I also found this teaching in Christ which says to us: no Christian…should be concerned with himself, how he can be saved, but must be concerned also with his brethren so that they may not fall into sin. Hearing this sweetest teaching spoken by our Christ, my brethren, to concern ourselves with our fellows, that teaching gnawed at me inside my heart for many years, just as a worm eats away at wood. Considering my ignorance what should I do?” (Vaporis)

            Just like Jeremiah of old, Kosmas could only alleviate that “fire in the belly” returning to the market place of life. Although he understood the dangers of leaving the monastery, he could not resist this greater will to serve: “I said to myself, let Christ lose me, one sheep, and let him win the others” (Vaporis). Following the example of the apostle Paul, who wished to cut himself off from Christ for the salvation of his own people, Kosmas willingly offered his own salvation for the salvation of his brethren: “You might accuse me, my brothers, of defiling the holy habit and mission of the monk by abandoning the blessed quietude of the monastery to rejoin the tumult of the world and confront its vices. You are right on that score. The salvation of the monk depends upon his total renunciation of worldly activity. And yet disregarding considerations of my personal spiritual welfare I decided to risk even my sure damnation to stand by your side. I looked out of my window and I perceived you wounded, bleeding, and crying for help. I saw you submerged by waves of ignorance, egoism, hatred for one another. And I decided that I should not tarry a moment longer out of consideration for my personal salvation. Yours matters to me above all else” (Vallianos).

            A similar threat of extinction for the fledging church of America in 1821 concerned the Bishop of Irkutsk. There was no itinerant priest to keep alive whatever Christianity the Aleuts had absorbed. To avert such a tragedy Bishop Michael, under orders from the Synod, read a letter to all of the priests and deacons in the city in order to see if any of them would be willing to go to occupy such a lucrative priestly position on the island of Unalaska. To a man they all declined in writing, including Fr. John who explained his hesitation after hearing from a spiritual child of his- John Kriukov- who spent 40 years among the Aleuts: “No matter what stories he told me about America in general or about the Aleuts in particular, no matter how he tried to persuade me to go to Unalaska, I remained deaf; none of his persuasion even touch me.” Having one of the best parishes in the city, enjoying the love of his parishioners, being in the good graces of the authorities, owning his own home and having a larger salary than any offered for service in Unalaska, he had no desire, as he puts it, to travel to “God-knows-where.”

            In mid-February, preparing for his return, Kriukov made one last futile attempt to convince the young priest to reconsider. Later that same day at the Bishop’s residence, Kriukov had come to say farewell to the hierarch as well. It so happened that Fr. John for the first time was in the bishop’s drawing room when they met again. Kriukov again began to tell Fr. John about the Aleuts’ zeal in prayer, things that he had heard before. In his own words he describes a sudden change: “Blessed be the name of the Lord! I began to burn with a desire to go to such a people! Even today I recall vividly the tortures I endured while waiting impatiently to inform the bishop of my wish. He was truly amazed and said simply: “We shall see.” With the refusal of one of the other priests selected by lottery, the Bishop finally accepted Fr. John’s plea. Moving from self-interest to self-loss, Fr. John wrote, “the Lord saw fit to establish his field of ministry in America- and that despite my opposition.”

Many are those that we as a Mission Board have sent out into remote regions of the world, not fully knowing what might come of the experience. Most of the time, the outcome is very positive and often life-changing.  One who served as a short-term missionary in Tanzania described an event that later led him to serve in the mission field for two years. The American missionaries were to arrive at the mission site on a given day to begin construction on a catechetical school in Kazikizi. The parishioners of the local parish of St. Nicholas announced the upcoming project to the local inhabitants of the area. The long-awaited day came, but not the team members. Their arrival had been delayed by two days. The local people, many of whom had never seen a white man, began to openly doubt the veracity of the reports. The thought that a group of wasungu (white people) coming to work in such a destitute and remote region seemed beyond belief. Finally, the construction team arrived, eager to begin after the embarrassing delay. As they assembled to survey the work site, they lifted their eyes to the surrounding hills, only to behold an incredible scene. Coming to welcome them were over a thousand curious and incredulous onlookers. At that very moment, the future long-term missionary would say that through this mass movement of over a thousand Africans villagers he felt Christ calling him to serve. He bonded with them in their need and pledged to serve them. This brings us to a third element in the call to missions- the experience of solidarity.                                                                                   One day the Orthodox nun and missionary Gavrilia was openly challenged as to the legitimacy of her mission by a Protestant missionary: “You may be a good woman but you are not a good Christian!” The nun asked why? The missionary answered: “Why?” Because you have been here for quite some time and you go about speaking only English. What local languages have you learned?” She explained that she didn’t have the time to learn any, because she moved from place to place and before she could learn a dialect, she was called somewhere else. “Well, you are not a good Christian! Nor can you be a missionary!” Then Gavrilia prayed: “Lord! Give me an answer to this.” She asked it with all her heart. Then she gave this answer to her accuser: “Ah! I forgot to tell you. I use five languages!” “Indeed?” Which five?” “The first is smile…The second, tears…The third, touch…The fourth, prayer…The fifth, love…With these five languages I travel the whole world. And then the man, perplexed, said to her: “Just a moment! Say that again so I can jot it down!” And he took out a piece of paper and wrote the five languages! Gavrilia concludes by saying, “With these five languages you can travel around the world and the whole world is yours. You love everyone alike- irrespective of Religion or Nationality, irrespective of anything. God’s people are everywhere.” Is this not the experience of solidarity manifested in her approach?

            Often we think of missions as that great enterprise of the church where we go about “saving the heathen” or leading whole tribes and cultures into the true faith of Christ. While certainly that has happened in the past, it is not the only part or even the most important part of missions. If we try to promote our faith in a chauvinistic manner employing a “we know better than you approach,” then we are bound to fail. The mission field is no place to live out our religious fantasies of conquest or subjugation, as in the days of the conquistadores or colonial powers. I think a better way to think of missions is in terms of human fellowship, motivated by the kind of love shown by missionaries like Mother Gavrilia. Her main motivation was the desire to help others and not merely to disseminate information about the faith. Maybe some of our missionaries will learn far more from the people they serve than they will ever teach them.

            The mission magazine Porefthendes in 1960 writes about the motive of love as the impetus for mission: “The natives must understand that we love them and their country and their worldly problems and that it is only because of love that we are among them…” The article goes on to quote Metropolitan Macarios of Moscow on the subject of Christianizing the Tartars: “Win the confidence of the Tartars’ hearts and do not guide them to baptism out of any other motive than love alone.” And so we, too, must ask the question, do we as missionaries feel a connection to the people we serve? Do they feel that we love them and genuinely care for their well-being?

            In preaching the Gospel, St. Paul exudes this loving spirit to the Thessalonians: “But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children” (1 Thess. 2:7). What a beautiful image of care this conveys. Then he adds, “So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the Gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become so dear to us” (1 Thess. 2: 8). It’s hard to imagine a more compelling sense of solidarity. These people had become his very life, for whom he would “labor and toil…night and day” so as not to be a burden to them (1 Thess. 2:9).

Without sensitivity to a person’s need, a willing self-loss that stops at nothing to imbue the spirit of Christ in others, and a feeling of genuine solidarity with them, we cannot ascend to love’s summit. Our compassionate response to suffering is what defines our humanity. Thus our concern for the salvation of our brothers and sisters who are deprived of the knowledge of Christ is that impulse that gives rise to that “true and total” giving of the self. Let me finish with these words of a Russian writer who described the kind of compassion that encompasses the attitude of one who would serve Christ in the fields of mission: “He who pities another must leave his own place among the good people on the sunny side of the gap, must go out and find the other where he is- in the darkness, on the side of evil- and be ready to stay with him there; if he returns at all, it is with the other and at his pace…”