May 31, 2018 – Roger W. Lowther
Driving west as a family across the United States, we decided to visit The Alamo, one of America’s most famous stories of courage in the face of impossible odds and certain death. Sam Houston called out “Remember the Alamo!” in a battle afterwards, which eventually led to the annexation of the state of Texas in exchange for the life of President General Santa Anna.
The Alamo holds special fascination for me, because it is one of America’s most famous examples of foreign missions. Franciscan missionary Father Antonio was determined to bring the gospel to Native Americans living by the clear waters of what was renamed the San Antonio River. At first, he led worship services in thatched huts but soon built the large chapel and buildings now known as The Alamo, and developed fields for farming and livestock. Over the following years, four more missions were planted downstream. The guide told us The Alamo was secularized when the job of the missionaries was “done,” turning the Native Americans into obedient Spanish subjects and the Native American village into a colony of Spain. The Alamo became a military outpost.
This sad story is all too common in missions history. Missions led to colonization led to military outposts, a progression that led Japan to kick out all missionaries for over 250 years and close the country to foreign influence.
In the early morning, I ran to Mission Concepción, the first mission south of the Alamo, and was struck by its appearance. It seemed more like a castle than a missionary outpost! Could not something smaller suffice? Were there not only a few living in the area? A cynical person may call the building a power play, but I personally found the beauty of the building moving. Inside, the walls and ceiling had at one time been decorated with beautiful paintings. Music, paintings, sculptures, and carvings helped display the beauty and glory and awe of God, attracting Native Americans and everyone else.
Estella Kierce, a Native American living today, wrote, “As I go through Mission Concepción, I have lots of questions. What were my ancestors thinking when they saw this beautiful church and heard the music? Can you imagine how their hearts must’ve been beating with anxiety?” (National Park Service website)
Arts in mission is an extremely powerful tool for starting churches in foreign lands, and that tool needs to be used wisely, with care to separate one’s own culture from the gospel message. Let’s “Remember the Alamo!” and the lessons it has to teach.
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