The unlikeliest missionary

An inspiring and instructive account of the role of genuine friendship in opening hearts to the gospel.

Rudi Maier, Ph.D., is associate professor of the Department of World Mission, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

You might well say that Sumanajoti Thero is the "unlikeliest" of missionaries. He was the chief monk of a Buddhist temple. From his teen years, he had been interested in people. They were his "mission" and he sought for himself a role of service. In time he became one of the most influential monks in his region.

Establishing relationships is near the essence of Christian mission and ministry. My friendship with this Buddhist monk and his "witness" have fashioned an outstanding and illuminating experience in my life as a missionary. Our story illustrates what lies at the center of what makes successful evangelism and mission.

We became friends, though we were by all means unlikely partners. He, the Buddhist monk, and I, the Adventist Christian pastor, were different in many ways: in religion, in culture, and in age. But we shared a common interest in the welfare of the villagers around us, and we respected each other for our spiritual commitment. This personal respect for and recognition of each other bonded us together.

As we traveled together to various parts of the country, our relationship grew, and we shared our common interests with each other. One day when he was coming home from a week-long stay in the hospital, I invited Sumanajoti to stay with us for a few days to "recuperate" before returning to his busy place at the temple. He agreed. I brought him home that evening along with two of his junior monks. They stayed with us for four days.

This visit provided us an opportunity to involve them in our daily activities, including worship. Soon they "discovered" the health and Bible courses we had intentionally placed in their way. Thus seeds were planted.

Handling the prejudice

Soon after, Sumanajoti proposed that we should change the inaccurate picture many in the community had about our Adventist school, and work toward removing the hostility the village had toward Christianity. The monk had a plan. He wanted me to invite the key leaders of the village for a meal at our school—actually at our home.

We invited 12 leaders. As soon as our invitation letters reached them, they sought the advice of my friend, the chief monk. They had never been invited to the school before. Was this a trap or a plot?

We brought them to our campus and gave the group a tour of our school. Many of them had never been on the campus during the school's 32-year history. They were impressed with our work program as being part of our educational system.

As the guests came into our house, I washed the feet of the monk, Sumanajoti. This custom, so well known from the time of Jesus, still thrives in many parts of the East. My act of hospitality provided a message: We as Christians knew how to be respectful.

After a pleasant meal, it was time to talk. Everyone had something nice to say about what they saw and what they had experienced. Sumanajoti just listened. Finally it was time for him to speak. "I have been your leader for many years," he began. "Most of you I have known from childhood and early youth. All of you come for special occasions to my temple. We have talked together about many things in life." He paused, and as he surveyed his people one by one, they wondered what would come next.

"You have said nice things about this place," he continued. "But this is not what you are saying in our village when you speak about this school."

Silence fell over the group. Embarrassed looks went around. But the monk continued with his remarks, indicating that this was not really the main point of his speech. "For many years I had the same feelings. I was against the plan to sell this land to the Christians. But their money spoke louder than our objections."

He paused for a moment as if to straighten out the facts in his mind before he began again.

"But I had to change my mind. Several years ago we were involved in a major community project. We needed tools and we were looking for equipment, and I approached most of you. In fact I hoped you would get involved with us in such a noble effort, but you all had excuses why you could not give us the shovels, pickaxes and wheelbarrows. So I decided to lay all my prejudices aside, put on my newest robe and come down to this school. I knew in my heart that the Christians would never assist us in our work. But the principal, to my utter astonishment, agreed not only to loan us the tools but even to bring them to us with his own vehicle."

There was silence. Everybody could sense that the monk was not finished with his report. As he faced them, he confronted them with this question: "Who do you think were the true Buddhists?" He did not expect an answer, because he himself gave the answer with a kind but firm voice. "We are only Buddhists by name, but they have been Buddhists through their actions."

Visit to a Buddhist temple

Perhaps the most imposing challenge in sharing my faith came on the occasion of my visit to a temple complex. Sumanajoti wanted to "step in for a few minutes." While there, the people at the complex offered me a quick tour of the compound. It was an impressive temple, and I realized I was probably touring an important Buddhist location. I asked my guide if he was the chief monk of the temple"No," he said. "But the chief monk wants to see you."

I was led with Sumanajoti into the residence of the temple. There on an elaborate mahogany couch sat the chief monk. "So you are a missionary?" was his first question to me.

"Yes," I said.

"Is it right that you are here in this country to make Christians out of Buddhists?" I sensed that this was going to be more of an arraignment than a "get acquainted" session. But what was I to tell him? I was called not only to be the Adventist Pastor and Bible teacher at our school, but also to "organize and supervise the evangelistic work in the area."

At that moment, a short, silent prayer was all I had time to manage. But I was not the only one who talked to God that afternoon. The prayer of my friend, the monk Sumanajoti, undoubtedly sounded as sweet in the ears of God that day as that of the most eloquent preacher in Adventism. As I stood there with shaking knees and nervous voice, I believe God fulfilled His promise to give us words to witness for Him.

For two hours that afternoon I tried to explain to this monk that I could hardly make a Christian out of a Buddhist, because that work was not in the hands of human beings, but in the hands of God. For two hours I shared with him what it meant to be a Christian. All that time it did not dawn on me to ask him who he was. It was only at the end of the session, after his whole attitude had changed, that I dared to ask.

He told me that he was the chief monk of one of the three orders of monks in that country. In fact, his order was the most prestigious of the three. When I learned that, I praised God, not only for giving me the opportunity but the words to share in such a situation.

All this was made possible by my monk friend, Sumanajoti Thero, for it was he who wanted to share; it was he who opened the door for us to do so.

When we left that country, Sumanajoti and I kept in close contact with each other. After a year I received an unexpected telex informing us that the chief monk at the temple complex we had visited was ill and that he wanted to see us one more time. Unfortunately I could not afford to go immediately because school was back in session. Knowing what I know now, we should have gone anyway.

The impact of showing respect

Three weeks later we received a large bulky envelope. Inside it, we found a second envelope. In the envelope was a letter that explained that though he had held out as long as possible, the monk had finally died. He had wanted me to speak at his funeral.

The letter also stated that in a second envelope was a part of his cremated ashes. His successor and his disciples realized that the deceased monk was close to our family, and they felt that part of his remains should stay with us. I have returned to that country a number of times and the remaining monks still treat me as their brother. Showing respect opens minds and hearts!

The ashes of the monk that were sent to us are now resting in a small sandalwood box in our home. No, we don't worship that box. We handle it with respect. But who knows how many others have received a glimpse of Jesus because of my friend Sumanajoti and because of the willingness of the chief monk at the temple to take risks as he shared what he did before he died?

And what of us? God has given us a great opportunity to be involved in preparing the world for the imminent coming of Jesus by proclaiming the Good News to the people around us.

While we may rejoice with all our hearts that God can use a Samaritan woman and a Buddhist monk—"the unlikeliest missionaries of all"—the question still confronts us: Have we caught such a vision of God and Jesus that we too will be moved to share our faith?

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Rudi Maier, Ph.D., is associate professor of the Department of World Mission, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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