Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Percy Mather: Pioneer Missionary to the Mongolians

Percy Mather: Pioneer Missionary to the Mongolians

After reading the D.E. Hoste book, I also read The Making of a Pioneer: Percy Mather of Central Asia, by Francesca French and Mildred Cable. Mather, a Scotsman, arrived on the field in 1910, almost a decade after Hoste became general director.

Sometime in his early years there he picked up a book written by another worker in China, Roland Allen’s Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? Roland Allen has had a significant influence on missions in more recent years as well. He sure made an impact on Mather, who after reading it committed himself to living by those principles, making strategic decisions to further the establishment of locally led churches across China. He also refused to be known as a pastor or leader, asking others to call him simply “Mr. Ma” and deferring to Chinese colleagues to lead.

At the same time he was eagerly reading the reports of a solitary old missionary, George Hunter, working away by himself in faraway Turkestan, in a city called Urumchi. Then, as now, Urumchi was home to quite a diversity of peoples: Chinese, Tibetans, Uyghurs, Hui, Tatars, Manchu, and Russians. But Mather had a special place in his heart for the Mongolians.
“Percy Mather had lost his heart, and had lost it to the Mongols. Ever since his first contact in Urumchi he had an impulse of friendship towards them. He loved their spontaneity, their hospitality, their simplicity… They loved him as he loved them and soon became fast friends. He instinctively knew the best way of approach to primitive folk and when he walked into an encampment, fiddle under arm, there was an immediate response and mutual understanding. Among the Mongols he became as a Mongol.

“He was unaffectedly interested in all their affairs, and the erection of a tent, the management of a restive horse, the training of a dog or the building of a camp fire were things which he delighted to learn. His letters are full of notes and of pen-and-ink sketches showing how these things were done. To the Mongols, Percy Mather always showed himself the friendly man, helpful, capable, approachable, eminently understandable and obviously without guile. If, in the country, he was their guest, in town he became their helper.” (pp. 154-155)
One day he wrote in a letter:
“The Mongols have been bringing me a number of presents late – milk, butter, eggs, a pet lamb, and last of all, a young golden eagle. It only just has its feathers, but is very big already and its claws are as sharp as needles. One has to be very careful handling it. Unfortunately it eats as much flesh in a week as I do in a year, so I cannot afford to rear it and have passed it on to a friend who is better off than I am.” (p. 178)
The book is mostly made up of excerpts from his letters, with minimal commentary in between. The contents do more to paint a picture of what his life was like than to describe his ministry or teach the reader anything in particular. It wasn’t an easy life: sometimes he walked 25 miles in a single day, in cloth shoes; often he and George (whom he always refers to as “Mr. Hunter”) went on long treks, taking little with them and camping out. Mather did most of the cooking for both of them and often seems to have been busy doing laundry, making bread, shoveling snow, etc. He knew when he went that it would be a lonely life without creature comforts, and so it was. When, on his one furlough, friends suggested he take a wife, he told his mother, “I would never do any woman the wrong of taking her as wife into such conditions as exist in Central Asia.”

Was the life Hunter and Mather lived unsuitable for women? Well, missionary women did end up coming into the area before very long. The volume I hold in my hands was composed by two middle-aged women who, with a sister and a young girl they adopted, traveled up and down the Silk Road and sometimes stayed in Urumchi. Known as “the Trio,” Francesca and Evangeline French and Mildred Cable (and Topsy) were a bit unusual. They went places few others did. Apparently, though, serving as a single woman or single man was altogether different from bringing along a wife. Maybe because marriage inevitably implied pregnancy and parenting, two challenges that severely limited where the CIM workers thought they could bring families in those years.

Even today there are still a lot of places like that today, places being “pioneered” by singles (male or female, but mostly female since single men form such a small part of the mission force). Families don’t go there, or don’t tend to last. At one point the agency I work with had 20 single women serving (pretty effectively, I understand) in Afghanistan.

Well, Percy Mather may have been lonely and without many comforts but he seems a cheerful sort who was a great help to his partner and quick to make friends with the people around him. The two men preached and taught, printed and distributed scripture booklets into the languages of the people around them, traveled around visiting isolated Christians and building bridges of trust with community leaders, and generally making the way for those who would come after them. They really were ambassadors. Mather’s struggles to master the many dialects without books and teachers led him to prepare grammar books and dictionaries for those who would follow. He worked so hard his health was weakened and he died when he was about 50, not even outliving Mr. Hunter.

Something that stood out to me was that Mather had all kinds of ideas about things that could be done, things he'd like to do, and didn't achieve half of them. The authors say:
“Percy Mather was a dreamer of dreams… he dreamed of a life spent among the Mongols – of one spent in bringing the knowledge of Christ to the Manchus – of saving the logical Tatar from threatening atheism – of reaching  the wild Qazaqs [Kazakhs] of the Steppes – enough to occupy him for six times the fifty years that was his allotted span.
“He dreamed other dreams – of becoming an accomplished scholar in all the tongues of Central Asia – of acquiring the skill of the surgeon that he might go to all these people with healing in his hands.

"He dreamed yet one more dream – to have done it all, and at last come home to the quiet fireside in Fleetwood, sit near the window which looked out to sea, watch the ships come and go, and have his loved ones around him.” (p. 287)
Do you know people who have that many dreams, and are at peace with the fact that they will not achieve them all? Or people who have that willingness to suffer and ability to pioneer? There still are so many places and situations where that pioneering spirit - and ability to dream - is needed. What bothers me is that in many cases, the pioneering sorts don’t seem to find the places that require them. Instead of pioneering in new situations, they pioneer where others are already at work.

You know what I mean. There’s a great work going on, but they don’t want to work with those people, want to start their own thing – or maybe they don’t even realize someone else is already carrying out what they see as “their vision.” The Apostle Paul talked about wanting to go to Spain where he wouldn’t be building on anyone else’s foundation. But how often do people go to, say, Rome, and neglect solid foundations that have already been laid… pioneer in a time or place when it would be better to partner?

Learn about some of those who came later, in this story: Church Growth in Mongolia (Pioneers)

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