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Paul Hiebert’s contribution to mission

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A tribute

PaulgHiebertThere are countless Mennonite Brethren missionaries around the world today who carry within them some of the spirit of Dr. Paul Hiebert, who died of cancer March 11 at age 74.

It was common historically for MB missionaries to have biblical training, but Hiebert, while a missionary in India, uniquely chose to pursue PhD studies in cultural anthropology. His study of people groups and their respective cultures provided significant groundwork for the ways the next generation of missionaries engaged in mission. With his influence, missionaries gained tangible tools for both cultural analysis and reflection of ways the gospel can uniquely “become flesh” in any new cultural context.

In my own training in mission at the MB Biblical Seminary, Fresno, Cal., I was impacted by Hiebert’s challenge, as presented in several of his books, to respect and learn from the theological reflection of people from other cultures. When I later travelled to Congo to join Esengo, a choir that celebrated “The Year of Global Mission” with MBMS International, I took the posture of learning from my brothers and sisters.

I discovered some differences in the ways they viewed God and his mission for their particular context. For example, using tools of cultural analysis, I discovered numerous ways Congolese express their strong value of community. This, in turn, helped me reflect theologically on the importance of corporate prayer. In observing Scripture in this light, I soon discovered more instances in the biblical narrative of believers praying together than alone. Hiebert’s influence opened up the possibility that the Word can be made flesh in any culture, yet that “fleshiness” has different nuances which we are enriched to discover.

He loved people

Many notable MB leaders were also influenced by Hiebert’s scholarly and practical approaches to mission. Several MB missiologists from DR Congo, India, North America, and Paraguay received their doctorate degrees under his instruction, and some of his 10 books and 150 articles serve as standard reading in the study of mission at MB institutions. But wherever he worked, people were impressed with the way he held scholarship in high esteem while profoundly embracing people of all backgrounds with dignity.

E.D. Solomon, a former student of Hiebert and now professor at the MB seminary in India, recalls the last day he spent with Hiebert.

“He took me out for lunch and he ordered one soft drink. He asked me to drink first and then he drank from the same bottle in the sense of the Lord’s Supper. He removed the feeling of white missionary and Indian Christian Dalit.”

Nzash Lumeya, founder of the MB School of Mission in Congo, where there are currently 50 students in mission studies, recalls working on his PhD under Hiebert’s leadership.

“Paul let me use his office in a way that impacted me. When other missiologists from around the world came to visit him, he didn’t ask me to leave during their discussions. At times I was embarrassed but I later came to realize that he wanted to expose me to world leaders in mission.”

In 2001, Darren Duerksen, MBMS International missionary and PhD candidate, arrived in India where he spent considerable time with Hiebert.

“Talk about an amazing introduction to India and the MB work there!” Duerksen recalls. “He invited us to accompany him on a three-day trip to some villages, including the place where he did his PhD research 40 years previous. He really took an interest in us, and helped introduce us to the place. He was sharp missiologically, but also loved people.”

Hiebert’s passion for cultural analysis, theological reflection, and relationship building will continue to impact missionaries as they seek to discover ways the “Word became flesh” in their particular contexts.

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