The word “mission” is, for me, a complicated word. In fact, I don’t know that I believe in mission. The word itself acted as a stumbling block for me before I applied for this internship. I’m allergic to the connotations that it carries. I’m tempted to run as far away from anyone who calls themselves a missionary as I can get—and the idea of being a missionary of any sort terrifies me. Switch the word to another, like “ambassador,” and I might be tricked into participating, but use this one and I will probably disappear around the corner before you finish the sentence.
Yet here I am, working on a project that has indeed taught me something positive about mission.
When I mentioned the question we’ve been asked to answer—“what has your project taught you about mission?”—to a friend this afternoon, she asked me what I was going to write. Two words immediately popped into my mind: wait and listen. And no, not because I have been waiting and listening for the word “go,” preparing to start my “real” mission. Waiting and listening are not precursors to “real” mission; in my own experience, those missionaries—whether they go by the title or not—who inspire me most have been dedicated practitioners of waiting and listening. I believe that mission is about being in a state of constant anticipation and reception, which I see in the biblical characters of God and Jesus and Holy Spirit: receiving the world into their arms and heart and bosom.
I read a quote recently from an article that describes this state of openness more accurately than I can: “In his book, A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer writes about the two ways in which our hearts can be broken: the first imagining the heart as shattered and scattered; the second imagining the heart broken open into new capacity, holding more of both our own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope. The image of the heart broken open has become the driving force of my life in the years since my wife’s death. It has become the purpose to my life.”
So how does my (evolving) definition of mission connect to my (evolving) project and the church?
At the start of this internship, Karen, one of our supervisors, repeated that the purpose of this internship is not exclusively the completion of a project so much as providing space for personal development and vocational discernment within the context of the church. That is exactly what has happened for me. I’ve been given space and time to imagine my future self, to open myself to possibilities. I’ve been able to wait and listen. Before this internship, I was distracted by a thousand possibilities. I had no idea where I might belong within the church. The Montreal Mission Internship gave me many up close examples of clergy and lay people who serve the world and the church in diverse ways, and my mentor listened as I dreamed and articulated my vision, coaxed my ideas into the open, and offered advice and encouragement along the way based on her own extensive wisdom and experience as a journalist and Christian and woman.
It’s very difficult to imagine, as a twenty-something only two years into postgrad life, that I could find my way as a Christian, an activist, a storyteller, a photographer, a writer, a friend—or whomever else I am and become—without the support and mentorship of other Christians and professionals. This internship has given me just that: multiple people whose primary responsibility during this time has been to mentor me. They have become a network and a safety net, a family of sorts that I hope will continue to be a part of my life in Montreal and beyond.
Young Christian adults need that kind of community not only to thrive but also to figure out what it means to become a participant in the church’s mission. I know that becoming an adult requires becoming independent of one’s parents; but the idea that anyone can grow without a community to foster that growth is not only silly but dangerous. The church’s existence is one indication that everyone needs such community. Yet it is increasingly difficult to find space to belong in the church. Internships like this one open the doors of the church to young people like myself, introducing us to the work of the church in a safe environment where we can get a much more clear picture of the landscape of the church and all the valuable roles it is possible to play.
Without this opportunity to connect to the church and imagine ways I might belong and work as a member of the body of Christ, I’m not sure I would have plugged into the church communities of Montreal. Even a “cradle Christian” like myself has difficulty figuring out how they might matter in the church as a young person and why they should bother to join the church if they aren’t interesting in traditional “mission” or “ministry.” That said, a lot of my inhibition is related to stereotypes and negative experiences I have had or heard about in the church. Thanks to this internship I have been introduced to leaders I admire who have familiarized me with some of the structures I would need to navigate to become an integral part of the church.
Additionally, I am much more confident that women—like some of the priests who have mentored us—are as capable as men in church leadership roles. It’s no longer a belief or theory I can’t prove to myself with living examples; they are people I can touch and see in the flesh. The importance of diversity in church leaders when it comes to race and gender and sexual orientation, in their roles as deacons or priests or others, has become so obvious to me now, to the point that I cannot imagine how churches with homogeneous leadership teams could possibly reflect the true body and mission of Christ.
When it comes to my particular project, I have learned that I must do more waiting and listening. The waiting and the listening have shaped the bulk of my learning, readjusting my expectations and changing my goals, challenging me to go deeper and further. I still have a lot to learn. Some things have come into focus for me, such as a more clear sense of the next possible steps to take. I’ve gained a network of people to turn to and learn from—mentors, encouragers. I’ve been encouraged to pursue dreams I have in practical ways, such as seeking funding for future storytelling work with alumni of foster care. I’ve had time to let ideas percolate, and I’m excited to see them come to fruition. I’ve had meaningful conversations about what the purpose of my project really is and I’ve been able to refine my goals and definitions. I’m more convinced than ever that the church has much to learn from young adults who have aged out of care, and I’m also hopeful that the church can offer resources and networks and safety nets for young adults who have aged out of care without families to support them in their development.
I want to conclude by making a bold suggestion. The Montreal Mission Internship is a perfect model for how the church can support young adults who have aged out of foster care. What I have received as an intern is something every young adult—especially those without the safety net of family—should receive as they step out into the world on their own: mentors to guide them in vocational discernment, financial support for a time to dwell in an imaginative space, and a flesh-and-blood introduction to people who embody a variety of ways to be involved in the church’s mission to serve and bless the world. Those without families and other social networks to support them in their twenties might benefit even more significantly from a program such as this one.
I believe the church has more to offer young people who have aged out of foster care and I hope to see more bridges built between the two communities in my lifetime. And I would also like to see a church responding by being ready to receive young people regardless of their backgrounds, waiting patiently for them to find a place in the church, and most importantly, listening to them. My own experience with the church through this internship has proven to me that such a relationship is possible, and I would love to see that relationship made available to many, many others.
Tala Strauss was born in South Africa and moved to Canada when she was seven years old. She has spent the last five years studying philosophy and political science (with a little journalism, creative writing, and poetry on the side) in Boston and working for human rights nonprofits in LA until last summer. Tala’s project this summer focused on listening to the stories of young adults who have aged out of foster care and using photography and storytelling to share those stories with the church, the child welfare community (locally and beyond), and anyone who may stumble across the stories in various different forums. To read more reflections by Tala and the other MMI 2015 interns, please visit here. To view some of Tala’s photography, please visit her page here.