Pour la version française de cet article, veuillez cliquez ici.

This issue of Anabaptist Witness includes the publication of my article “Enfants sacrés et subsides coloniaux chez les missionnaires des Frères mennonites : La manifestation de la séparation raciale au Congo belge, 1946-1959.” An English version of this article previously appeared in the journal Missiology: An International Review.[1] The French translation, which differs only slightly from the English original in formulation and content, is published here by permission of SAGE Publishing.

Soon after the English-language version was first published in April 2018, I began to receive responses from readers. These included Congolese and North Americans, academics and non-academics, attendees of Belle Vue, North American missionaries who had taught missionary children, and Congolese who had interacted with them. Some of these responses were quite critical of my conclusions, while others were supportive. After reflecting on the challenge of getting history “right” and on the difficulties of addressing questions of race, privilege and power, I would like to offer a few comments to help guide those who have not yet read this article, as an accompaniment to the publication of the French translation. While I had reasons to leave out these details in the journal in which the English version was published, I believe that the absence of this information may have made the paper harder to read for some, and I regret the pain this may have caused.

First, I want to clarify my own allegiances and identities more clearly. I am a white, Mennonite missionary kid (MK), who attended a school similar to Belle Vue in Papua New Guinea. I am a supporter of mission in general, and am not doing this research out of a space of hostility toward mission or missionaries in general.

Second, I want to put this piece of research into a larger context. This paper represents a preliminary piece of research on a topic that will be the focus of my dissertation. In my dissertation, I explore the political implications of the church’s transnational identity by tracing how competing conceptions of church were performed, negotiated and contested among Mennonites in Congo who were either North American representatives of one of two Mennonite missions (Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission [AIMM] and MB [Mennonite Brethren] Mission) or Congolese who had joined the church under the aegis of these missions’ efforts. Within that encounter between expatriate Mennonite missionaries and Congolese believers over the course of the twentieth century, I use historical method to trace the significant shifts that occurred in the parties’ ecclesial self-understanding.  In other words, I explore the question, “How were changing conceptions of church performed, negotiated and contested, and with what specific political and social consequences?”

I am aware that the question of the MK school and of racial separation is part of a much larger story of the encounter between expatriate missionaries and Congolese people and the development of the Mennonite and MB church in Congo. In that larger story, there will also be opportunities to point out examples of close cross-cultural relationships, ways in which expatriate missionaries resisted collaboration with colonial domination, and ways in which both Congolese and North American Mennonites in Congo were faithful to their believers church convictions.

Finally, I want to clarify some of the things I am not saying in this article.

  1. I am not making specific claims about racism in this article. Rather, my claims focus on racial separation, power, and privilege. What I am trying to explore in this article is how racial separation, which often coincided with cultural separation, played out in specific ways in a colonial context that was undoubtedly based on a racial hierarchy. Missionaries, who are generally good people with good intentions and who want to build the church, share the good news, and relieve suffering, find themselves in a colonial context where the colonial government is engaged in resource extraction and domination over local people. The question that intrigues me is, how do white missionaries who genuinely love other people interact with the racial hierarchy that exists in Belgian Congo? I argue that they sometimes accept some of the privileges that they get just by being white in the Belgian Congo, that they benefit from that white privilege in relation to their children’s schooling, and that this has an impact on some of their prior convictions about the separation of church and state, contributing to a subtle shift in their ecclesiology.
  2. I am not denying the deep, loving relationships that developed between many North American missionaries and many Congolese, as well as between expatriate missionary children and Congolese children. The challenge here is how to celebrate the depth of those relationships without sidestepping the question of power. I once had a very painful conversation with an acquaintance on this topic. She, a black Jamaican-Canadian woman, was listening to me talk about my deep love for Papua New Guinean people in the village where I grew up. I referred to some people as my “grandma” or “my uncle,” since these were the kinship terms that we had been invited to use while we were living in this village. My friend challenged me about my use of these terms, saying something along the lines of, “you know she’s not really your grandma” and trying to point out that I was in some ways not part of that community. For years afterward, I was angry and upset about this conversation. How could this person so callously write off the relationships I had with my Papua New Guinean family? How did growing up in Jamaica give her the right to judge my interpretation of kinship structures in the South Pacific? Who did she think she was to deny the depth of my cross-cultural relationships!? It is only in the last few years that I have dared to revise my interpretation of her comments. Though I don’t know exactly what her intentions were in making her comments, I’m quite sure that somewhere in there, she meant to encourage me not to go through life as an adult MK oblivious to the privilege that came partly because of the colour of my skin, and that shaped my relationships with Papua New Guineans friends in ways that I – still! – do not always want to admit. While my dissertation will highlight many examples of open communication and close cross-cultural relationships, the goal of this particular paper was to focus on the way that white privilege shaped those relationships.
  3. I am not writing off the dilemma that missionary parents faced regarding the education of their children. On the contrary, I recognize this as a genuine dilemma. I am not sure that I would have done any differently than the MB and AIMM missionary parents in Congo, who collaborated to run the École Belle Vue. I would have wanted my children to have an education that prepared them for life back “home.” I would have been concerned about their academic opportunities. The point of my article is not that missionary parents sought separate identity, but that a separate school simply is a manifestation of separate identity, which lines up with race in this case even if that was not missionaries’ express intention. Moreover, this manifestation of separate identity has had certain impacts, or effects, on the the relationship between Congolese and North Americans, on their respective understandings of what church is, and on the missionaries’ decision to say yes to subsidies. As someone who has myself have benefited from an excellent education at a school similar to Belle Vue, I feel strongly that we who were educated at places like this need to do some careful thinking and reflecting, not only about how those schools were created and why, but about what impact they had on the relationship between missionaries and local Christians, or between missionaries and colonial governments. Another adult MK, Jon Bonk, wrote something along these lines in his book, Missions and money. “There is a singular lack of critical sensitivity to the impact of schools for missionaries’ children – often conspicuously exclusive enclaves of Western culture and values, bastions of privilege that the poor can only see from outside – upon missionary children themselves and upon the people from whom they are so carefully insulated and isolated.” He continues, “The psychological and physical well-being of missionary families provides what is probably the single most powerful complex of justifications for the relative affluence and privilege enjoyed by Western missionaries.”[2] Bonk’s words challenge me.

Overall, I believe that both Congolese believers and North American Mennonite missionaries generally had good intentions, just as I believe that I have good intentions in bringing up the topics of the MK school and subsidies. I am not engaging in this research because I want to hurt others or make people feel guilty, but because I am committed to the global church. That commitment compels me to revisit this time period and these questions, even as it also played a role in compelling Congolese and missionaries to enter into relationship with each other many years ago.

I am still in the process of conducting research for my dissertation. If you are

  • a missionary who served with AIMM or MB Mission in Congo between 1945 and 1980;
  • the child of such a missionary who has recollections of this period; or
  • a Congolese person who has memories of interactions with missionaries during this period:

I would like to hear from you! Please feel free to contact me at anicka.fast@gmail.com.

[1] Anicka Fast, “Sacred Children and Colonial Subsidies: The Missionary Performance of Racial Separation in Belgian Congo, 1946-1959,” Missiology: An International Review 46, no. 2 (2018): 124–36.

[2] Jonathan J. Bonk, Missions and Money: Affluence as a Missionary Problem — Revisited, Rev. and expanded ed., American Society of Missiology Series ; No. 15 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), 45.