19 January 2015

i am a missioner.

Yesterday, I turned 29 years old, so naturally I feel like this is my last good year of life before my youth leaves me behind forever. Ashley and I prefer to think of the entity of us as "young love" and to live out the words of Death Cab for Cutie, "stay young, go dancing." We'll see how that goes a year from now.

But as I age like a bottle of not-so-fine wine, I am spending more time reflecting on who I am and how I see the world around me. Living in Tanzania has given me lots to reflect on. With our first year in Tanzania behind us, I began to reflect on the very title that defines who I am: missioner.

channeling jean valjean.

Shockingly, I have come to not only accept but also embrace who I am: a missioner. Truth be told, that word has always bothered me - missioner (or missionary). It sounded ancient and with an edge of superiority. "I am someone with the answers to life and the keys to eternity so listen to me you unknowing and backwards primitive being." But I've moved past that. I think.

When I use the term missioner, I mean one who deliberately chooses to enter into the reality of life of another person, a reality that is quite foreign to the missioner, be it culturally, economically, etc., in order to mutually learn from one another and strive towards a more just and compassionate world. Some of that language comes right from the mission statement of Maryknoll Lay Missioners, the organization that supports Ashley and me in Tanzania. Our motivations for becoming missioners stem from Catholic Social Teaching and Gospel values which instilled within us a commitment to the poor, but our goal or work is in no way centered on bringing people to Jesus. Heck, most Tanzanians are more Christian than we are, evidenced by our struggles with going to church in Tanzania. But regardless, that's just not what we (Ashley and I) are about. In light of this understanding of mission, I am proud to be a missioner.

But lately I had a realization. I was reflecting with Ashley on how I seldom (if ever) feel at rest and that the work day has ended. Why is this? My wonderful job in the United States was incredibly demanding and I was, at the very least, sending and responding to emails 24/7. And I have already written about how I mistakenly thought life would be way more chill as a missioner in a developing country. But this is different.

It occurred to me that, as a missioner, my job description is not a job description. It is a life description. It is a vocation. By that I mean a strong inner calling (yeah, I know that word gets overused) towards a particular way of life - not a job, but a way of life. And life does not occur between 9 AM - 5 PM. Thus, my "job" as a missioner does not begin and end when I enter and leave the NGO office where I work. Those hours and that work is just one part of my ministry. I use the word ministry not to convey a religious occupation - not at all - but rather to emphasize that my life's work is to share my skills, my time and my very presence of being with other people. As a missioner, these actions are to extend during every waking moment of the day. Maybe you could say we should all do that.


But let's not get all high and mighty about this, because I'm pretty lousy at living out that vocation with any kind of regularity or joy in my heart. Often I feel frustrated or exhausted, neither of which encourages me to be compassionate. But here is my hope: that the desire to live out my vocation as a missioner - or even just the desire to have the desire - may be enough to stimulate something good.

My name is Michael Leen. I am 29 years old. My job title is missioner. My work is a ministry, reflective of my vocation as a missioner. I "work" when I'm facilitating a seminar on entrepreneurship at the office, talking culture with Tanzanians on the public bus, buying food in the outdoor market, conversing with beggars on the street, or inviting the neighborhood children into our home to play. Each moment is an opportunity to enter more fully in the reality of life of another human being, to further shape and define my character, and to respond with love and compassion. I just hope that I don't screw up so much in 2015.

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