In the fall of 1986, six months after I had become a Christian, I felt God calling me to become a missionary one Sunday morning while I was sitting in the pew at the Chinese church I used to worship at. I was eighteen years old. More than twenty years later I am still waiting for God to bring about the fulfillment of that call. But in the waiting period I have done a lot of thinking and reading on the subject of missions. The one book that I keep picking up and rereading is called Bruchko (1978) by Bruce Olson. I reread it again for perhaps the tenth time last week.
"[Until] you really understand a people, don't judge." This is what Olson learned from his brief stay with one South American Indian tribe called the Yukos. The Yuko chief greeted Olson into his village by flogging him with whips, throwing him inside a hut and ordering his men to shoot arrows at him through the walls until he was covered with bloody welts. Olson said he later learned that two of the tribe's young men had just been killed by white settlers, so the Yuko chief had reason to be touchy about a white man's presence in the village. Later Olson would go to live with the Motilone Indians who gave him a similar reception. They shot him in the thigh with an arrow, marched him three hours to their village and held him hostage for a month while he developed a severe infection with fever and dysentery. He escaped, but returned to the village a month later and has lived with the Motilones for the last forty years. Since the Motilones couldn't pronounce "Bruce," they named him "Bruchko." Not only did he learn not to judge them, he became a part of their tribe.
Because of Olson's unintrusive, self-effacing way of sharing Christ's love, the Motilones' spiritual transformation took place without having their traditions and way of life upended. Olson reports in his more recent book that currently nine out of ten Motilone Indians consider themselves followers of Saymaydodji-ibateradacura (their name for Jesus Christ). Yet it was the missionary who became conformed to Motilone culture instead of the other way around. "We had to teach him how to speak our language, how to suck the juices from insects, how to survive in the jungle," the Motilones will tell inquiring outsiders. "When he was naked we clothed him. Bruchko is not the leader who brought peace to our people . . . It is Saymaydodji-ibateradacura. God incarnate in human flesh."
Fundamentalists are naturally suspicious of missionaries because their cross-cultural experiences force them to think outside the box. I learned this the hard way when I tried to explain to the leaders in my former denomination that my writings on homosexual issues are, for lack of a better analogy, a kind of missionary endeavor. You have to understand people before you judge. You have to be self-critical about your own way of thinking and doing things. You have to abandon your fears and prejudices and allow God to show you a new perspective. You can share the love of Christ with people, but you have to understand that they need time and space to find Jesus Christ for themselves in a way that makes sense out of their own context and situation. I had hoped this analogy would click with my former leaders, but I don't think they were very impressed.
People write to me all the time and say, "Where are the real Christians who really try to live as Jesus Christ once did?" For all of you who've asked me that, I recommend that you read Bruchko. It's an unpretentious story about a frail human trying to walk by faith, not a saint practicing a rock-hard piety. I can't think of many Christian books I'd recommend to both Christian and non-Christian readers without hesitation. This might be the only one.