September 2016 Evangelization Exchange – Edens

Young Adult Evangelization & Ministry

By Fr. Bill Edens, CSP

The Paulist Fathers assigned me to Portland Oregon in the summer of 2014 as an associate pastor of Saint Philip Neri parish, with a special focus on reaching out to Young Adults. My first thought was, “though I grew up in the Portland area, I am a missionary in a new territory, in a new century, and in a highly unchurched part of America.”

To explain the approach I took to this assignment, I need to describe what I had learned about missionary work in Ghana, West Africa 15 years ago. The Divine Word Missionaries who staff the Tamale Institute of Cross Cultural Studies in Northern Ghana taught me how to be a missionary in a foreign land.

What I learned is that when you have arrived in your host community, you should not hang around with your fellow missionaries. If you want to learn to cross cultural boundaries, you must immerse yourself and let your host community teach you how to be with them and communicate.

What often happens to American priests in Ghana is that you are treated with great deference by your host community. The people think that as a Westerner you have great knowledge and access to power and privilege. Unfortunately, the esteem with which they treat you becomes a barrier to really sharing in their lives.

The best way to engage your host community as your equals is to begin the process of language learning right away. You get a language helper and immediately go out and practice greetings in the language of your host culture. I found that the people laughed heartily when hearing my efforts at speaking their language, but they always asked me back the next day. With a consistent effort I improved quickly.

What I found out about the people of the Dagomba tribe is that they are poor but self-reliant. Some of those I met are as capable in their environment as I am in mine. I found the friendship was possible through mutual respect. I found that I wanted to bring the life of Jesus to them, but that Jesus was already present.

When I returned to America I wanted to put my new insights to work. Since I am a member of the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle, I decided that the first thing I should do in my new mission in Portland would be to hang out with young adults, learn about the local culture and lingo, and be adopted by my new host community.