My Pilgrimage in Mission - Coming Full Circle (by Paul du Plessis)

This was prepared at the request of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research for the section - My Pilgrimage in Mission

   I liked (David Bosch's) definition of a  missionary:

  ‘.....a Christian who crosses a boundary in  the spirit of a servant’.

  It seemed to say what I was trying to be.

  1. Introduction
  2. A doctor learns to listen

  3. Widening opportunities

  4. The move into church leadership

  5. Truth and reconciliation in South Africa

  6. Available for consultation


My seventeenth year, and just at the conclusion of high school seemed to bring together a number of influences and incidents which shaped a commitment to world mission. But pivotal to it all was a Youth for Christ Easter Camp at Carmel on South Africa’s beautiful southern Cape coast. The film, ‘Through Gates of Splendour’ had moved me and I felt convinced that this was God’s word to me, confirming a vocation to cross-cultural mission.

Born in 1941 at Paarl, the home of South Africa’s Afrikaans language, and not long before the National Party gained control, I grew up in a Salvationist home committed to working out our differences. Parental and family influences were strong and positive, but mother asked me to refrain from further (heated) argument with my father over his strongly held views on racial separation. An uncle and aunt, Alf and Hyacie Erikson, serving in what are now Zambia and Zimbabwe spent furloughs with us every six years. We heard modestly told stories of their work; my uncle taught me to play chess; I held him in high regard. Though there was never a hint that I should be ‘doing likewise’, his influence on shaping my calling is unquestioned. Near the conclusion of high school my own mother had asked me what I was planning on doing with my life. I gave no answer. She asked whether I’d ever considered full time work as a Salvation Army officer. I told her that the night before I’d prayed seeking God’s guidance, and that morning the worship meeting had begun with: ‘Rescue the perishing, care for the dying!’

When I confirmed my willingness to become a Salvation Army officer, Candidates’ Secretary Howard Mead asked me what I would do before I entered training for ministry. I suggested law, journalism, even chemical engineering. ‘Have you ever thought of becoming a doctor?’ he asked. I hadn’t, but could immediately see the possibilities. I left it to the Lord: ‘If you provide the scholarship for which I’ll apply,’ I prayed, ‘I’ll follow your lead.’ A few months later I was at the University of Cape Town. That was 1959.

A doctor learns to listen

Ten years later, after the formative years of professional and theological training, my medical social worker/ Salvation Army officer wife, Margaret and I found ourselves at Chikankata, a 250-bed mission hospital in Southern Zambia. I was soon Chief Medical Officer, giving overall supervision to the hospital, the training schools and the leprosy programme. Life was demanding, but I valued even more than ever the quality medical training that had been mine with its emphasis on treating the person rather than the disease.

But there were soon calls for involvement in community affairs at district and national level. Kenneth Kaunda’s philosophy of a man-centred ‘humanism’ had its influence. I engaged with Zambian colleagues, initially somewhat tentatively. I learned to trust them and their judgement. Perhaps most influential was Tonga language teacher, Kenneth Maguswi whose counsel often emerged from late night explanations of customs, culture and language. He had schistosomal liver disease and required repeated massive blood transfusions. Even though this drained our scarce supplies of blood, not to give what we could, and to stop active treatment was unthinkable.

But I was being driven into deeper relationships with other patients also. As I listened to their stories I started to understand the complexities of their experience. It was more than just a disease that was affecting them. The pain of misunderstanding and ostracism had to be felt empathically to be understood. It was in trusting relationships with young people like James and Paul, bewildered by their leprosy, that I discovered that there were opportunities to share faith in Jesus. I was discovering the evangelistic opportunities born out of listening.

WHO and its 1977 Health for All by the Year 2000 articulated a global emphasis on primary health care that had emerged in the 70s. I’d had my reservations about how a community emphasis would serve our overall purposes in mission. ‘Will we not lose touch with people?’ I questioned. But the groundswell was irresistible and I went with the flow. But even when we established a network of community health programmes I saw them as wider opportunities to relate to the occasional patient in depth.

Widening opportunities

It was 1977 when Alan Waudby, Leprosy Mission International’s Deputy General Secretary, approached me. Was I willing to be their field representative for Zambia, part-time? The Salvation Army agreed and I soon found my learning widening and experience broadening as I travelled to many parts of the country. Denominations and missions varied in their approaches; another kind of empathy had to be applied.

Though styles are changing, in the 70s Salvation Army appointments were seldom a matter of consultation. But we were asked whether we were prepared to serve in Britain. The exact nature of the task was not disclosed, but by August 1980 we were in London, myself as medical adviser at the Army’s international office. The next decade gave even wider scope to learn, and hopefully to share and teach a little in the application of health policies internationally. Themes such as Disability, Child Survival and Development, Primary Health Care, Alcohol and other Addictions could be promoted through consultations, conferences and relationships with the network of Salvation Army health services personnel. HIV had appeared and it was necessary to challenge the Army to a response. ‘We are used to dealing with the marginalised and the socially excluded,’ I argued, ‘We accepted the drunkards and unmarried mothers no-one else cared about a century ago; we’ve worked with those affected by a stigmatising disease like leprosy, so let’s accept the challenge of this new disease.’

Family life could so easily have been sacrificed. There was so much to do. Limits had to be placed. Strengthening regional and continental support mechanisms became paramount. Helping make others stronger was satisfying.

My ecumenical relationships strengthened during the ten years in London. It was here that I met up with Church of Scotland missionaries from Zambian days – Jim Wilkie and Fergus McPherson. It was they who proposed me as a member of the Assembly of the British Council of Churches, through which I heard of changes in China, in my homeland of South Africa and elsewhere. It was they who introduced me to the writings of fellow-South African, David Bosch. I immediately connected with so much of what he said. I liked his definition of a missionary, ‘a Christian who crosses a boundary in the spirit of a servant’. It seemed to say what I was trying to be.

But it was also through those ecumenical associations that I heard people like Beyers Naude speak of the need for change in South Africa. I thought the process should be evolutionary. I’d worked through the individual versus community issue earlier, and settled for the priority of transformation of the individual. William Booth’s ‘Essentials to Success’ had their influence: ‘ …it must change the man when it is his character and conduct which constitute the reasons for his failure … (it) must change the circumstances of the individual when they are the cause of his wretched condition and lie beyond his control.’ To what extent was the use of force legitimate? Neither in evangelism nor in social action could force bring about God’s purposes for the world. Even sanctions seemed a step too far for South Africa.

But my heart and mind were being changed. I’d come close to political involvement in South Africa in the 60s but set it aside, feeling that my work as a missionary in Zambia was making a contribution, albeit indirectly to the process of change in South Africa. I’d seen the impact of war in the Zimbabwe liberation struggle, and the anguish of a land-mine incident and detention by the Zambian authorities because I was South African still lingered.

I saw in the ‘active neutrality’ of the International Red Cross a policy that might better suit the Army, given its preference for silence. I tried to persuade Salvation Army leaders to take a more active position against apartheid and to engage in dialogue with exiled South Africans. But other demands were being made on me; I needed to forget about South Africa. 

The move into church leadership

Perhaps it was because of my repeatedly asking how health services fit into the overall purpose of the denomination that international Salvation Army leader, Eva Burrows asked me to lead a small group to review Salvation Army strategy in India. 12 months of preparatory research and study and an eight-week visit by the team focused the challenges and the opportunities before the Army and the church in India. So when we were asked to consider appointment to a leadership role in Central India in 1990 the answer had to be yes. But that did mean separation from our daughter, Catherine in her late teens just started at university, and from our son, Andre, just 12 who spent the next 4 ½ years at Hebron in South India. They had agreed to the move in a family consultation, but we missed them immensely. They say the experience has been a positive one for them.

We now lived in Madras. I was territorial commander of The Salvation Army in north Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka; I was a member of the Salvation Army’s Conference of Indian Leaders; I attended National Council of Churches of India assemblies; I was invited to address consultations by the Christian Medical Association of India; I spoke on Religious Fundamentalism at a Christian Council of Asia Symposium. The list could continue. There were great opportunities to influence the Army’s growth and financial autonomy in India. We managed a massive reconstruction programme after a major cyclone; social programmes were being strengthened. There should have been much to satisfy. Though I had assented to the change, I suspect that deep down I had not. Obedience had been a sacrifice I’d not made willingly. There had been loss of my connection to health; I missed the children; my own consultative style of leadership was not widely appreciated.

It took time to forge the in-depth relationships I had enjoyed in Zambia. Would I ever feel at home here, I wondered. The Lord was having to deal with my resentment. Hostility to some of the decisions that had been taken showed itself in anonymous letters, some of them containing death threats. I was not wanted, it seemed. I was experiencing the exclusion that James and Paul and others of the leprosy patients in Zambia had told me of. Feeling rather sorry for myself, one Saturday afternoon I decided to drive to the little chapel on St Thomas’s Mount in Madras. I looked around and saw not only the story of his own martyrdom, but pictures of the violent deaths of most of the other apostles. I knelt at the little rail before the altar and gave myself in fresh and glad commitment.

Madras brought me into association with the Church Growth Research Centre and the McGavran Institute.  I not only read their publications; I was able to discuss methods with them. Roger Hedlund’s book: Evangelization and Church Growth – Issues from the Asian Context, was particularly helpful. I would try to apply the principles where I could. So we arranged a series of Salvation Army seminars and consultations through Andhra Pradesh and north Tamil Nadu, promoting the concepts, and inviting responses. At the conclusion of one of these, PY Ratnam a member of the Madras congregation came to tell me of his life-long dream to have a church in his native village near Ongole. We followed this up with a series of conversations that subsequently involved the training college, the field secretary and Mr Ratnam himself. Prayer surrounded the initiative; the venture was not without opposition and difficulty, but it gave great joy to be able to officiate at the opening of the prayer hall a few years later. There were many lessons to learn. Not least was that I was mainly an observer of the Spirit at work, but also that my own involvement and encouragement of others could be significant. There was a place for the ‘indirect missionary’.

Truth and reconciliation in South Africa

Mid-1994 brought an unexpected phone call. We were to leave India for an as yet undecided appointment. A month later we were told it was to lead The Salvation Army in Southern Africa. It would be 27 years after we had left our homeland. We were going back at a critical time for the country. We had followed from afar developments like the un-banning of the ANC and the release of Nelson Mandela. How would these affect our country? Now we had a chance to engage in the process of change personally.

The experience of leading the Army in Central India stood me in good stead, but life was different. We travelled widely in the first six months, listening intently to what the people were saying, and what they wanted. It led to the formulation of a vision, values and mission statement for Southern Africa that had to be widely promoted. Here were commitments to spiritual battle, to strengthening congregational life, to responses to people in crisis, to Salvation Army involvement in national affairs and making a contribution to world mission.  This was a synthesis of the peoples’ views as we had heard them.

The vision statement included reference to national healing, reconstruction and development, so when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established it seemed inevitable that we would need to make a submission. My fellow-South African associate, and Chief Secretary at the time, William Mabena initially felt it might be too painful for us to go through the process that would be necessary. Other colleagues on the Executive Council felt differently. They wanted to proceed. I took soundings independently with some colleagues, Mzilikazi Khumalo, professor of African Languages at the University of the Witwatersrand and committed Salvationist among them. ‘If we’re going to say anything,’ he said, ‘then we must tell the whole truth. Don’t cover up anything.’ I kept his words in mind as we moved the process forward. The submission recorded the Army’s error in keeping silent when we should have spoken up. Benevolent actions were not something to hide behind. I was the first signatory. Whilst it was a statement of corporate confession I had to acknowledge my own inherent racism before I penned my name.

Available for consultation

1999 brought a new task – secretary for South Asia. The command function was relinquished and I was back in my more comfortable non-directive role, largely available as consultant to Salvation Army leaders in South Asia. In some ways it enabled me to continue the task of the strategy commission of the 1980s, but there were other emphases, not least the question of whether we have a special calling as a denomination.

The suggestion came from Joseph Vijay, Social Services Secretary for India. ‘Let’s convene a conference here in South Asia on poverty and the Army’s special calling to the poor,’ he said. It was planned for Bangladesh, but the events of September 11 forced cancellation, so it was held on the internet. The concluding statement challenged every Salvationist to focus on the formation of personal relationshipswith the poor, through which they will be able to listen to them. The conference and the statement had an undoubted impact on me.

Alongside this was a growing conviction that the Lord had laid on me a ’prophetic role’. I soon discovered why it is the gift that should be desired. Who would want to bear the loneliness that inevitably results? It took courage to speak out in international Salvation Army forums on topics where it might have been more comfortable to keep silent. But had I not learned that silence can be dangerous?

Another emphasis that needed cultivation in South Asia was ‘spiritual life’. In 1998 the Army had affirmed that unless there was a deep spirituality for Salvationists we were in danger of becoming just another secularising agency. Retreats were starting to flourish throughout the sub-continent, but were they having the desired effect? Opposition from other religions was increasing. Evangelism appeared to becoming more dilute than ever. I was directed, I believe of the Lord, to stimulate interest in the Lausanne Covenant, which became the focus of the four-yearly conference in 2002. It permeated my own thinking.

The challenge of how to help others find Christ remained a challenge for me personally. Was I becoming too absorbed in balance sheets and budgets, in disciplinary procedures and personnel development? They were all important, yes, but what about my vocation to mission?

Alongside this was the growing awareness that it was time for an Asian to occupy the role I’d had for five years. ‘Let me go back to where I began,’ was my suggestion to the Salvation Army’s international leader, John Larsson, when my wife and I offered to step aside. ‘For me that’s the bedside.’  He agreed.

Initially my thought was that I might become a hospital chaplain in Britain, but once again others who know me well were to have their say. They suggested I should resume clinical medicine. But where, and how? It was Prof Timothy Peters of the London Deanery who suggested palliative care. ‘Your CV seems perfect for that, and it’s not a popular discipline,’ he told me.

For most of my pilgrimage in mission I’ve tried to be more and more like Jesus, hoping, I suppose, that others would find him that way. If anything’s changed in the eighteen months that I’ve been back at the bedside, it has been to switch the emphasis. I’m still trying to find him! And I feel that if I do, maybe others will too. The change of emphasis has been from being a labourer together with God to being on a pilgrimage of finding him. And for me he can be found in the empathic relationship of listening and care that are the mainstay of palliative care. Matthew 25 has taken on fresh meaning.

Paul du Plessis

Prepared at the request of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research

December 2004