Two months ago, I had the opportunity to present a plenary speech at the World Council of Churches’ “Mission Conference,” which is held every ten years. I travelled to Tanzania where I was to give a keynote speech on behalf of 22 young indigenous leaders on ‘Mission from the Margins.’ Over 1200 delegates from around the world were in attendance and our mission was to present the agency of marginalised communities to radically transform the world through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The irony of speaking about the agency of marginalised communities throughout the world was that I did not believe I was capable or qualified enough to give a speech in front of some of the most renowned theologians, scholars, and missionaries. I was so blinded by fear that I arrived in Arusha without a completed script. Our group leader, Rev. Dr. Katalina Tahaafe-Williams tried to help and support me patiently but I was mentally frustrated.
On the morning of the speech Katalina and I aired our frustrations as the pressure of it all had the both of us in tears – I failed to deliver in ways she had expected. I had become so caught up in my own feelings of inadequacy, that I sabotaged the abilities which everyone believed I had as an indigenous Pacific Islander woman. With the script only being completed on the morning of the plenary, I was not sure whether I could go out there and deliver.
“This is not about you Mariana, this is so much bigger than you!” Katalina rebuked that morning. “You will step up onto that stage for our peoples and communities who cannot be here today! Do not make this about yourself when it is all so much bigger than any of us!”
Hard words to swallow, but true nonetheless. I had allowed my insecurities to manifest in ways which became counter-productive to a historically momentous occasion where the Pacific would voice the agency and concerns of marginalised communities throughout the world. My angst had rendered any effort to write futile because my focus had been centred on my insecurities. Katalina’s timely words that morning snapped me out of the miserable web I had spun for myself. I rose up, washed my face, and made my way to the conference hall where my group received me with words of encouragement. I took some moments to quietly reflect on the magnitude of what was about to happen.
As I stepped up onto that stage, with over one thousand people before me, all the emotional and mental strain in the lead up to the plenary left. I felt God’s Spirit touch me ever so graciously, a reminder in the Christian tradition, that no matter our deficiencies, God does not forsake. I thought of the young indigenous leaders who had journeyed with me and the communities we represented, indeed, this was so much bigger than any one of us.
“Jesus proclaimed that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him. To transform, empower, and liberate the poor in heart, spirit, and material riches. In doing so he affirmed that God’s mission begins always at the margins and not from the top echelons of institutions, governments, and powerful positions of affluence – Jesus operated from the margins and it was from these margins that he brought the transformation we proclaim!
Today is a call for a revolutionary reform of Christian mission, that in the era of information, technology, and globalisation, where excessive consumerism and hedonism feeds into the structures which uphold injustices of greed, violence, and oppression, we the church can no longer afford to ignore the prophetic voices coming from the margins. We can no longer subvert the margins to tokenistic agendas which serve the mainstream while limiting their agency as bearers of the Good News towards transforming this world.
The church has been in our waters for almost 200 years, bringing with it the Good News of Christ and transforming the religious landscape, where the church today remains a powerful entity in the Pacific region. However, it must be noted that for many island nations, the historical backdrop to this conversion was the proliferation of Christianity on the tail of colonisation. There was a ‘wholesale condemnation’ of our cultures as being ‘savage, lascivious, and barbaric,’ berefting our peoples of their dignity through a one-dimensional narrative which demonised our identity and subverted our agency so that we became mere receivers of the Good News and therefore never to be equal.
But by God’s grace we are reclaiming our agency by the power of God’s Holy Spirit. We have received the Good News within the context of our struggles and raised up disciples who live and walk by the Spirit, transforming our own lives as well as the contexts we find ourselves.”
The plenary speech received a standing ovation from the conference that morning. It was very emotional throughout and when it was all done, I stepped off the stage and into the open arms of my group. Afterwards, many delegates came and shared how they had been moved to tears with the message, some sharing their own stories of marginalisation and how they related to not only the struggle but the power of agency which was expressed in our plenary.
It was a great learning curve for all involved. We partook in an event that happens every ten years and managed to deliver a message which highlighted our agency as Christians from the margins. All in all, the friendships built with young indigenous leaders from across the world remains the biggest highlight. I continue to learn that for all our differences, the things which unite us as people serves a much higher purpose and calling towards a future filled with hope.