“Bonjou Pastor David! Kouman ou ye?” For more than three years I had anxiously waited to hear these familiar words again, especially the latter question: “How are you?” “Mwen byen,” I answered smiling. “I am well.” “Byen” because I had finally returned to Haiti after the longest time away since that first VIM trip with David Morton back in 1998. It had seemed so much longer because of the earthquake that rocked Port au Prince in 2010. But finally I could see the now familiar landscape, hear familiar sounds, feel the blast of summer heat, smell familiar odors, smile at familiar faces, and shake the hands of Haitian friends. Once again I was ready to work at freshening up what little Kreyol I could remember while hopefully learning a few new words or phrases along the way.
The young adults who came on this first CCYM Haiti Mission were quick to point out the wonder-full experience of many who travel to Haiti: “It’s amazing how much you can communicate without knowing the same language.” By the use of hand motions, facial expressions, and a simple form of charades, a great deal can indeed be communicated and accomplished. But that only happens when the right spirit is present – one of cooperation, appreciation, mutual respect, and a shared goal or task. During our first day at the work site there was much laughter and joy as we began working with our Haitian sisters and brothers, discovering how easily we could get past our language barriers. There were a fewtimes it sounded a bit like Babel, but more often than not it had the sweet sound of Pentecost.
We do use translators, or course. They are of significant help when it comes to enhancing our ability to get things done. Each day we rely on Joseph to help us understand how we can work together to reach our shared goals for the church, avoiding what could quickly become a frustrating struggle.
Returning to Haiti brought back to mind my experience of General Conference and my concern for the greater church. Multitudes of summaries, quotes, and frustrations have already been offered regarding the two challenging weeks of GC2012, so I won’t revisit the specifics again. But I will offer the three word summary I have shared with those who have asked about my thoughts as an advocate/ observer. It seemed to me that much of what could have been accomplished at General Conference was “lost in translation.” In particular, this seemed to be true with the proposals around the set aside Bishop and plans for denominational restructuring, though that may simply be due to the fact that those issues got levels of attention exceeded only by the “sacred cow” of guaranteed appointments.
While I have incomplete knowledge about the numbers or availability of translators throughout the two weeks of General Conference they seemed to me to be too few in both legislative and plenary sessions. There were also stories of delegates having to translate their own legislative materials from English, or receiving it only as they arrived in Tampa. In general, we just didn’t seem as prepared as we might have been for a church that claims to be a global parish. Words, phrases, ideas, and critical pieces of legislation were literally and figuratively lost in translation. Many left Tampa feeling not so “byen” because so much opportunity had been lost.
Sadly, one doesn’t need to sit through a General Conference to witness how much may be getting lost in translation when it comes to the church. In his well-researched book “You Lost Me,” author David Kinnaman writes at length about the absence or “black hole” of 18-29 year olds in worship in U.S. churches. The take away for me has been the unsettling reality that the truth, beauty, and wonder of the gospel is essentially being lost in translation. It’s being lost because we have been unable, or perhaps more often unwilling, to translate the gospel story into a language, and more importantly an experience that offers meaning to emerging generations.
Yes, some of it is about music, imagery, and overall worship style, but clearly not all of it because the problem isn’t limited to 18-29 years olds. To many people of all ages, the message the church offers is little more than “babble,” a problem that is exponentially compounded by the general perception that the church is – or rather “we are” - judgmental, hypocritical, homophobic, and a perhaps just a wee bit hung up on itself, as if we live for our own sake rather than the sake of Christ.
Perhaps that’s the root of the problem. Be it the microcosm of a General Conference, or the broader Christian church in general, maybe those outside the church who risk looking in, far too often see the powerless form of a self-absorbed Babel story rather than the power-full form of the Pentecost story. If we cannot learn how to communicate in the power of the Spirit among ourselves, how on earth do we expect we will find a way to communicate good news to those in the cultures that surround us? We need a renewed spirit of Pentecost in our midst, a spirit that is evident in mutual respect, intentional cooperation, and shared appreciation that comes not in spite of our differences, but because of them. We need the wisdom and power of the Spirit to help us find ways to translate the ancient faith for new generations, which means getting over and beyond ourselves to seek the leading of God. Perhaps when that becomes the primary focus of our prayers we will find ways in both word and deed to help the world become a place where every child of God can say “Mwen byen.” Come Holy Spirit, come.
By: David Hills On 6/30/2012
Topics: DS Speaks