Where Total Engagement Meets Radical Humility

When I first joined Maryknoll as a mission promoter, I saw my role as inspiring others to know and care more about the world, particularly the poor and marginalized, and to convince them to respond in a Christian ways. Ironically, the "Christian way" revolves around relationship, dialogue, and listening. Yet there I was, standing at the front of the room telling people that mission is not about telling people what to think, but sharing your life in a way that affirms God's love for both them and you.

Evangelization as mere "telling," of course, supposes both that I have it all figured out, and that you have none of it figured out - that I am engaged in something greater than myself, and that you merely ought to be. But, as often is the case, the life of Jesus it challenges our notion of how we participate in the world. Jesus, of course, lived a life of total engagement with others, but one also of radical humility (it was noted to me recently that he spent 90% of his life - 30 of his 33 years - in obscurity). He was a son, a friend, a community member, and a carpenter, but certainly no public figure. 

He surely touched many lives during this time, as he did in the Gospels, but he was doing so in that humble way that we are all called to live, as a person in loving relationship with both those in his natural circles and those on the margins. He also no doubt learned a lot through these relationships, as well. We see later in the Gospels those times that people surprised and taught him: when he was amazed by the faith of the Centurion, or moved to a change of heart by the Canaanite woman. And we see in his mother Mary's words of the Magnifcat notions later expressed by Jesus in the Beatitudes. The idea that God is willing and even eager to listen and learn through relationship with us speaks to the engagement and humility in which we are invited to participate.

And Jesus' entire public life and ministry took on this character.  We too often put ourselves at the center of our life stories, but Jesus put the Good News at the center, and that meant putting others ahead of even his own life.  Jesus called disciples, and those disciples struggled to accept the challenge of total engagement and radical humility that Jesus set forth. That struggle spiritually is to make space for both, when too often one crowds out the other.  

If we dive head first into engagement, bucking the social norms of putting ourselves before others, sticking to our own, and valuing things over people, then we at least want to reward ourselves with a sense that we are making the difference and that the world would be so much worse without us.  Sometimes, it feels like this is the only thing that will get us through. On the other hand, a humble recognition of our own limitations can lead to feelings of insignificance, that full discipleship is the work of a noble few - perhaps those missionary priests, brothers, and sisters - and that we are not among them.

This requires all of us to embrace a sort of paradox: that God needs us to participate in God's love, but that this love will break through whether or not you or I personally respond to that call.  Jesus' life was premised on the fact that he would not be in the world forever, and that the only way God's mission could continue is if others participated. That should help us to see the value of our own engagement, but also to recognize that no one of us, not even Jesus himself, is tasked with entire realization of the Reign of God. We are all in this together, and rely on God and one another, as God relies on us.

In my ministry with Maryknoll, I have been moving more and more towards seeing myself more as a facilitator than a speaker.  Through mission education, we are trying to provide a space and means for people to explore more deeply their own call to mission. When I gather people at mission education sessions, I start with the question, "What brings you here?" How everyone in the room lays the groundwork for whatever journey we are moved to take together. But whatever the journey, it requires me to listen to and learn from others, share from my own experience and that of the Maryknoll family, and to accompany others in discernment. And, with the help of so many great missioners to support me, I even sometimes get it right.

Kevin Foy works in mission education for Maryknoll in the Pacific Northwest.