Missionaries use their feet
People Matter was a regular column by Phillip Jensen in Southern Cross, the monthly magazine of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.
Jensen, P 'Missionaries use their feet'. Southern Cross, June 2001.
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In the bonhomie of the Olympics a strange nostalgia came over the older generation. Strangers were engaging in friendly conversation in the street like the old days.
The motor car is one of the great inventions of humanity. It places within the reach of most people the capacity to travel huge distances relatively quickly, cheaply, in great comfort and with sense of personal freedom and control. The car enables us to travel door to door on our own timetable.
There are disadvantages to car travel, like pollution, traffic and parking, but most of these are community problems rather than personal disadvantages. For some regular trips commuting by public transport is cheaper and more convenient, but in general it is hard to persuade people to give up travelling by car.
However it was in visiting a ‘carless’ missionary family that I saw the gospel disadvantage of car travel. Everywhere we walked together, people greeted my friends. They would introduce their friends from Australia and would talk briefly of cabbages and kings. I cannot repeat the conversations because of the language barrier. The conversations were inconsequential and even trivial—but they were the building blocks of relationship. Our missionary friends were well known and liked—they were part of the neighbourhood and community.
Visiting a park we became engaged in a serious conversation with an elderly man about life and philosophy, about the second world war and his family, about his joys and his disappointments in life. It was natural and easy—because conversation was natural and easy. Sharing something of our faith was easy in such a context.
It made me reflect again about our treasured motor cars. Driving out of the drive, waving only at the next door neighbour, we travel in the splendid isolation of the radio community. We know more about what is happening on the other side of the world than the other side of the street. We know the names of the families of the stars better than the names of our nearest neighbours.
The car gives that sense of control that makes us rush—without time to stop and chat. Walking by its nature takes longer and is more easily interrupted by the reality of the humans we meet and greet or even travel with. It is like the two people who were walking and talking on a seven mile trip from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Fifteen minutes by car and no interruptions from strangers!
Part of the difficulty of evangelising in a modern city, especially a city of high rise housing, is the problem of having no point of contact with the community. It is not our problem alone—for the community no longer has much contact with itself. The car is not the only villain in the piece, but it was interesting in the Olympics that the same openness to conversation happened as on the mission field and people talk of happening before the 1960's.
The mission field I was visiting was more high rise and urban than most of Sydney. The car was as universal there as it is here. The difference was the missionaries' efforts to talk to people as they walked around their neighbourhood.