Dournes comments on a potentially terrifying aspect of missionary work:
We do not fully realize the dreadfully heavy responsibility of the missionary who is the very first to come and give a picture of God to people who know nothing of him. The picture once painted, the paint is too bright and fresh for any correction to be made. If my behaviour gives the lie to it, or if a Christian passing through causes scandal, the work is totally ruined. This is probably the worst suffering a missionary can undergo.
Of course, this aspect of missionary work is an aspect of all intentional Gospel witness — not just in overseas missions, let alone (as Dournes here relates) in pioneer missions. Apart from grace, the task would be too heavy, the risks too great for fallen people like us. But God can and does revise the pictures we paint of him: it isn’t just us at work, but the Spirit.
Dournes describes his first day among the Jarai:
Though only for a night, a house was open to me. I climbed the steps; my luggage was brought in. And there I was like a savage among the civilized; I spoke not one word of the Jarai dialect, I knew no one, and no one spoke my language. (14)
Though I know a little (precious little) Khmer, and bit more Jarai, what Dournes describes will be our experience soon enough, first in Phnom Penh, then in Ratanakiri. To change the metaphor, we’ll be toddlers among grownups, pointing and mispronouncing our few words. But learning.
Last year I read God Loves the Pagans: A Christian Mission on the Plateaux of Vietnam, which recounts the first 5 or 6 years that Catholic missionary Jacques Dournes spent among the Jarai of Vietnam (among other tribes). As I have the chance I’ll be sharing bits of it here on the blog — primarily to aid my own reflection on the material. Right now I mean simply to introduce the book.
Dournes was first familiar to me through his anthropological and linguistic work on Jarai. His unpublished Jarai-French lexicon, full of notes and illustrations in his own hand, is an unparalleled resource on Jarai words. In the course of my dissertation research, I made use of both the lexicon and another book of his on Jarai speech and story-telling. I’d known that he was also a missionary, but it wasn’t until reading God Loves the Pagans that I learned anything about his primary purpose for being with the Jarai.
A word of caution before I proceed. I hardly need to mention that I’m not Roman Catholic, and I don’t mean this blog post (or any others) to endorse distinctively Roman Catholic teachings. Nevertheless, to the degree that Baptist and Catholic missionaries engage in similar tasks — learning a language, studying a culture, communicating the Gospel of salvation (granting that we understand both the Gospel and conversion very differently) — but to the degree that there are these similarities, Dournes has a lot to teach me.
What did I learn? I learned about particular Jarai words with definitions quite similar to corresponding Hebrew words. I learned about the ways in which Jarai culture and traditional animistic religion are interwoven. I learned about Dournes’ method of investigating traditional religion to find ways that God has been preparing the Jarai for the truth (like Paul in Athens).
So now to it.