How are missionaries compensated for their work

Learned from an ambivalent past

Since the violent death of the African American George Floyd by a police officer, the debate about racism and colonialism has flared up again in this country too. Although Switzerland had no colonies, there are numerous entanglements in colonialism: Swiss traders, trading houses and financial circles have benefited from the slave trade.

The Evangelical Mission Society in Basel has also been criticized for its actions, for example being an accomplice of the colonial powers. "Yes, the Basel Mission has cooperated with the colonial powers, otherwise it would not have been able to work at all," admits Jochen Kirsch, head of Mission 21, in which the Basel Mission is absorbed. "At the same time, however, many missionaries were also uncomfortable contemporaries for the colonial rulers."

For Kirsch, the current discrimination debate is nothing new: "Our ambivalent history taught us early on to meet people of different skin colors on an equal footing." This attitude has become an integral part of the Missionswerk DNA.

To make amends injustice

The Basel Mission, founded in 1815, began operating in West Africa in 1827. One of the instructions to their missionaries was to redress the injustice inflicted on people by the slave trade.

The Basel administration clearly condemned slavery. Even so, in the 1850s, the missionaries tolerated the fact that a total of twelve local staff members of the mission and 13 local parishioners owned family and house slaves. However, the missionaries also had the welfare of the slaves in mind, as the historian Peter Hänger noted in his dissertation “Slavery and slave emancipation on the Gold Coast”. Because for freedmen there were hardly any job opportunities in the society of the Gold Coast.

A dispute broke out between those who wanted an immediate and comprehensive ban on slavery and those who called for an interim solution to meet local customs. In 1862 the Basel Mission decided that all slaves should be released within two years and that their owners should be compensated.

Part of the we-understanding

Mission 21 has come to terms with the conflicting historical legacy of slavery and the African cocoa trade. “We don't want to hide our mistakes, we want to reveal them and learn from them,” says Kirsch. The pastor sees one of the most important lessons in equal treatment: partner churches have become independent at their request and represent their interests in the mission synod. "They are part of the we-understanding."

Kirsch notes that missionary work is primarily criticized in the global north or associated with colonialism. The pastor experienced this differently in the countries in which Mission 21 is active. "Mission is very important there." Mistakes are not ignored, but are given less weight. "You value our commitment that has been going on for over 200 years."

Lack of differentiation

With its research and educational work, Mission 21 tries to combat any discrimination against people based on their skin color. "We don't want to generalize, but rather give the people in our partner churches a voice," says Claudia Buess, program manager for educational events. She calls for more sophistication in the current debate: "We have to be aware of the terminology we use."

The archivist Andrea Rhyn agrees. The historian works in the research archive of the Basel Mission, which plays an important role in the processing of the history of the Mission.

Critical Research

In 2012 the archive put 30,000 historical images online. “Mission 21 wants to give back their history to the people in its partner countries,” says Rhyn. In addition, around 100 scientists from all over the world conduct research in Basel every year. Often the missionaries' records are the only surviving documents of that time. Religious topics are not as much the focus of interest as questions of politics and history, anthropology and linguistics.

"We want critical research to be done," says Rhyn. However, she regrets that since the 1960s only the negative of the mission has been discussed. "The more research is done, the more comes to the surface: both pleasant and unpleasant."