What Can We Learn From William Penn About Missions?

Jaclyn and I love history, and I love that we get to live in a part of the country that is saturated by it. As many know, Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn and His fellow Quakers (1681-1682) who set out on a “holy experiment” to establish a place where they could live out their Quaker ideals free from religious persecution. Our community, Haverford Township, was founded by Welsh Quakers in 1683 who purchased the land from Penn. 1 Unlike many of the European settlers, William Penn, believing that all were created equal, desired fair relations with the Leni Lenape Indians who occupied the land. Penn is believed to have entered into a treaty with the natives uttering the following words:

We meet on the broad path­way of good faith and good-will; no ad­vant­age shall be taken on either side, but all shall be open­ness and love. We are the same as if one man’s body was to be di­vided in­to two parts; we are of one flesh and one blood.2

Penn took on a posture of humility and sought to understand these locals. He learned their customs, grew fond of their values and beliefs, did the best he could to learn their language, and became their friends. Listen to how Penn describes their language:

I have made it my business to understand it, that I might not want an Interpreter on any occasion. And I must say that I know not a Language spoken in Europe that hath words of more sweetness or greatness, in Accent and Emphasis, than theirs; . . . 3

There’s a lot we can learn from William Penn when it comes to mission and discipleship. Our posture should be one of humility, entering not as experts full of solutions, but as friends full of questions. We don’t enter as if the world began when we showed up, but rather we seek to understand what God has been doing in a place long before we got there. We seek to understand the language of the people, or in our case, what passions and pain define the community. We seek to look below the surface and understand the deep hurts, pains, struggles, joys, victories, and motivation of a place. (Here’s a great article on learning how to connect to the pain of a community, particularly in the suburbs.) We slow down enough to listen to what God is doing in a community.

In just a short time here I’ve heard the community speak of the mismanaged pain that leads to opioid abuse, I’ve heard of a neighbor’s journey with cancer and domestic violence that’s led to the creation of a local non-profit to help others battling with the same, and we’ve celebrated the culture and music of the community at multiple community events. This doesn’t always seem like very productive work, but the importance of listening to the community and becoming entrenched in a neighborhood should not be overlooked. This is where we begin.

I love how the Message paraphrase puts John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

Jesus was sent in flesh and blood to a real time and place, a neighborhood. He came in utmost humility and showed us how to be people that live in, understand, and bring the Kingdom to the neighborhood. We can get pretty overwhelmed when we think of all the problems in our world. It becomes so paralyzing, we don’t know where to start in making change. The issues easily appear much bigger than us. Whether you agree with their cause or not, if NFL players are having such a hard time bringing awareness and change to issues, what part can I play? That’s where the neighborhood comes into play. I want to suggest that if we want to make an impact, we need to become more local, we need to begin with the neighborhood. Just like the first Quakers and Catholics of Haverford Township, we need to become people of the neighborhood.

Make sure to watch the two videos on the page for a further look at the first church plants of our neighborhood.

  1. http://www.quakersintheworld.org/quakers-in-action/8/The-Holy-Experiment-in-Pennsylvania ↩︎
  2. http://www.penntreatymuseum.org/wordpress/2015/12/04/william-penns-treaty-with-the-indians-at-shackamaxon/ ↩︎
  3. http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/amerbegin/power/text6/PennIndians.pdf ↩︎