There’s room in our tent

by Mark Safstrom

In the 1910s through the 1930s, Covenanters were engaged in a flurry of activity in establishing missions in China, Alaska and Congo, building on precedents from the previous century. For the centennial history of First Covenant Church in Seattle in 1989, Jeannette Adamson was recruited to write down her memories from these decades, as this had been a profound part of her own family’s story. As a missionary kid in China with her parents in 1927, they had been forced by an uprising to flee the country, and arrived by ship with a large group of missionaries at Seattle’s Pier 91. These 28 exhausted missionaries were warmly received by the members of the church, who gathered them all up in a fleet of cars to drive them up the hill to the “Tabernacle” for a nice meal, and then to stay in the homes of the members.

Jeannette also recounts how personal interaction made all the difference in establishing authentic community with people across the ocean. One visitor from China, Marcus Cheng, had commented in 1923 that his view of America “…was so much more interesting and lovely after I have seen the people and met the friends. Before, for example, [your pastor] was just a name to me and now I see the name and feel the friend behind.”

Observations like these shaped Jeannette’s view of missions, which she explains as being an extension of hospitality and community. Her recollections are framed with language from Isaiah 54:2. “Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes.” Her account is punctuated with this “tent” vocabulary, emphasizing that mission work was about making space for new friends, and sparing nothing in the process.

Admittedly, evangelization has at times been more about conversion (and its statistics and theological nuances) and less about making space. It is good when people like Jeannette remind us of what our priorities can and should be as we make room for others. We hope and pray that we and our neighbors will turn (or return) to God. Perhaps we should first be praying instead that we might make room for this to happen. Have we made enough space in our lives for authentic community? For miracles? Or have we only made enough space and time for evenings and weekends of television, catching up on work, working out, and long “to do” lists?

The scale of these early operations is remarkable, especially considering that many of the people involved were recent immigrants with scant resources. Some of you are probably still quite engaged in large scale outreach of this kind. What about the rest of us? What are we undertaking that matches the scale of this kind of “tent-stretching?”

Pietisten’s readers may find many different ways to answer. We hope that the community created in this journal is sufficiently spacious for everyone who resonates with our “Premises” (back page). As we consider how to make space, we might start with the realization that it is ultimately God who stretches to make space for us, and to seek us out whenever we are lost or distracted. This reminder of God’s providence is communicated by Chrissy Larson in her observations of the fascinating world of birds, as well as the subject of P.P. Waldenström’s meditation on “Knowing God.” David Gustafson’s account of the Evangelical Free Church’s heritage of benevolence ministries on the Nebraska prairie underscores the way in which ministering to people’s physical needs could (and should) go hand in hand with preaching the word. Jay Phelan’s book reviews present us with examples of two authors who dealt with the challenge of modernity by making space for their doubts and uncertainties as a means of dealing with these realities, rather than skirting around them. And Chris Gehrz explains how in teaching history it can be tempting to avoid dealing with the “dark moments,” but that there are many times when it is important to not explain them away.

For those standing on the outside of faith looking in, would it make a difference for you to see us being as honest about what we don’t know as we are earnest about what we believe and profess? Come on in.

Guds frid – God’s peace.

Mark Safstrom is Chief Editor of Pietisten, and teaches Swedish language and Scandinavian literature at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

See all articles by Mark Safstrom