For two years, Jesse Zink served as an Episcopal missionary in the Diocese of Mthatha, South Africa, working in a shantytown community that was built on a garbage dump.
“I don’t think it’s going too far to say that my time in Itipini changed the course of my life,” says Zink, who was a member of the Episcopal Church’s Young Adult Service Corps. “The deep and daily exposure to the poverty and disease, but also the resilience and hope of a community like Itipini (which translates as “at the dump”) led me into seminary. I needed a place where I could reflect on and integrate the experience of my years.”
Zink, now an Episcopal priest about to start his doctoral studies in world Christianity and missiology (he’s not certain where he will be studying yet), is the author of Grace at the Garbage Dump: Making Sense of Mission in the Twenty-First Century. His book focuses on defining mission as well as mission’s importance.
“I have always loved stories,” he says. “Hearing them, telling them, sharing them. I returned from Itipini with the conviction that the stories of people like those who live in Itipini are not being told. I was also convinced that if we are going to move forward in addressing the problems of global poverty, we need to actually know about one another around the world, how we live and the challenges we face.”
He says he wrote his book “as a way to tell the stories of our sisters and brothers in Christ. … My hope is that the book will introduce readers to a way of life that can seem completely foreign to those of us who have running water, dishwashers, and roofs that are not tarps.”
“There are stories about what it’s like to be a student who is assigned a school project on electricity, even though she lives in a shack without electricity,” Zink says. “There are stories about people with AIDS who did not get to the life-prolonging anti-retroviral drugs in time, and there are stories of those who did.”
While in South Africa, Zink worked in a community center in Itipini that had a primary-care clinic, a preschool, an after-school program and a micro-credit program. “I was involved in everything,” he says.
Zink adds: “Not only did I want to tell stories in Grace at the Garbage Dump, I wanted to encourage people to reflect on just what the word ‘mission’ means. It’s a word we hear often in the Church, but sometimes I think we’re not always clear about what we mean when we use it.”
Before he went to Itipini, he says, “the thought of being a missionary had no appeal to me. It’s a word that has been degraded by its association with colonialism and imperialism.”
But his experiences at Itipini led him to “pose questions and reflect on what it means to be a missionary in the 21st century. Folks will have to read the book to find out just why I think reclaiming the word ‘missionary’ is so important,” he says.
Mission, he says, “is the reconciling journey we take with our sisters and brothers … toward the fullness of the peace that God desires for each of us.” It is also, he adds, “about encountering difference.”
“In fact,” he says, “I’ve taken to thinking that mission is what happens when we encounter difference in a Christ-like way. There’s an important element of vulnerability and humility to mission.”
After publishing his book, Zink created a study guide “as a tool for groups to use as they think about how they can be involved in God’s mission.” The study guide can be downloaded for free at www.jessezink.com. “God is calling everyone to a role in God’s mission,” he says. “Discerning just what that role is is a holy and important task.”
Zink will have a book-signing and study-guide launch on Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Global Episcopal Mission Network (booth 629 in the Exhibition Hall).
–Lauren R. Stanley