December 14, 2018
To the editor:
As I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the imminent closure of the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, I’m trying to make a conscious pivot from sorrow and sadness to gratitude.
Sorrow and sadness are necessary. I’ll likely linger there awhile – regretting, hurting, evaluating, wondering, feeling a bit lost. But even as I continue to process those thoughts and feelings, I find myself exceedingly grateful for the impact this amazing institution had, born of prophetic vision, accompanied by seasoned sojourners and embodied by countless students now spread throughout the world, towels in hand.
It’s the “throughout the world” part I want to celebrate for a moment. Integral to BTSR’s ethos has been the Mission Immersion Experience or MIE as it came to be known. What attracted me to BTSR as a student was that robust cross-cultural engagement was so central and distinct an element of the curriculum as to be a requirement for graduation. Today “mission immersion” terminology may be almost cliché, having been uncritically adopted by many as a substitute for “mission trip.” However, the intention of BTSR’s founders was anything but.
For BTSR, MIE was not primarily about going and telling or doing. It was more about encountering, engaging and learning. Indigenous partners were the primary teachers and the new cultural contexts provided the framework “to make discoveries about one’s identity through encounters with persons of another culture and to note areas of strengths and weaknesses in overcoming estrangement inherent in cultural diversity.” Tenets like these were among the founding principles for BTSR’s MIE program that formed and shaped a generation of pastors and missioners.
With founding mission veteran Dr. Isam Ballenger, followed by Nigerian scholar Dr. Caleb Oladipo, students were empowered to “prompt a review and discussion of theological and ethical positions which are considered appropriate in light of cross-cultural encounter.” Mission immersion became a central, experiential basis for theological reflection. I dare say, we saw “faces of God” that we would not otherwise have seen.
For over 15 years, I was among those privileged to facilitate field experiences in East Africa as adjunct faculty for BTSR’s MIE program and in my capacity as CBF field personnel and director of Africa Exchange. Arranging and participating in those experiences formed and shaped not only our particular ministry, but also informed the missiology of organizations.
As I wrote recently to BTSR, “I remain in your debt for the formation you afforded me, for the faculty and staff who poured out their lives into mine and for the work you enabled by extension of your many graduates. BTSR is not an ‘it,’ rather a ‘we.’ And we live on according to the Spirit in which we were formed. From my first summer day of Greek class taught by Dr. Linda McKinnish Bridges (later elected the seminary’s president) in a room in a house on Palmyra, to the many missions classes that I soaked up under the mentorship of Dr. Ballenger, to countless campfires underneath African skies, relationships between BTSR students and Kenyan people, shaped through mission immersion, and more – to all this I say, thanks be to God.
Sam Harrell, CBF Global Missions