Saturday, January 12, 2008

Someone Is Missing More Than Yoga Classes

Does anyone train, supervise, direct, and, if necessary, correct our volunteer missionaries on assignment in Presbyterian mission? I ask, because there is an obvious need in Jerusalem.

Presbyterian volunteer missionary Shannon O'Donnell is assigned, oddly enough, to a radically politicized and highly controversial liberation theology outfit in Jerusalem. (I say "oddly enough" since liberation theology has been widely repudiated after its excesses in Latin America and is hardly the stuff of Reformed theology.) She appears to be a sincere and idealistic person, but her biased assumptions and questionable behaviors do not represent what the overwhelming majority of Presbyterians would want to support with their mission dollars.

Her January 8 letter, dutifully publicized on the PCUSA web site, provides ample examples of her crying need for supervision, for someone wise and experienced to provide more direction and loving mentoring, as she grows in her ability to exercise sound judgment. The letter is filled with embarrassing and contradictory statements, such as:
  • "At first I was going to lie my way through the gym application process...." In O'Donnell's favor, she eventually didn't lie to get what she wanted, but only because she sensed that the truth might work this time. However, it does give one pause that in her ethics (or lack thereof), lying would be a potential and even primary choice about how to handle a matter. Apparently O'Donnell operates with the understanding that one can lie, if it achieves a desired end. Such a failing in basic ethics hardly recommends her as a Christian leader! Is no one supervising her and teaching better practices? Will someone do so now that the problem has surfaced?
  • O'Donnell did write a thoughtful and interesting analogy about Nazi Germany, telling of an alley protesters would use in order to avoid saluting Nazism. Turning introspective, she wrote: "How many hearts gave in to injustice to save their own lives? Which path would I chose?" Well, I could guess. Anyone who would consider lying in order to avoid a few questions to get into a dance class couldn't be expected to risk life and limb for the truth. We learn most about the heart by the small habits of life, not the vain grandstanding.
  • "I don’t know what Bush’s visit will accomplish, but I do know for certain that ... I will not be going to my yoga class at the YMCA...." How petty, self-centered, and inane! A head of state is knocking himself out to broker a just peace, and O'Donnell laments that she'll have to miss yoga because it gets too inconvenient. Perhaps a mentor could suggest that it's not all about her.
  • Within inches of each other, she wrote two very contradictory statements: (1) "I didn’t expect to feel accepted at such a place on the west side of town" (displaying gross prejudice against the inhabitants of Jewish Jerusalem), and (2) "I have also found that it is equally important not to judge others." Yet, she had prejudged others, and, from what she has written previously, she does it regularly. A little consistency between what she supposedly champions and what she actually does would be nice.
  • "We are to love people, even when it hurts," she writes. I see her working to live that out as she loves the Palestinians. That's good. But, in a way, given the propaganda in which she is steeped, that's not very revolutionary. She's just flowing with the stream of her political persuasions. How much more sacrificial and "hurting" it would be for O'Donnell to demonstrate genuine love for George W. Bush, for her own country, and, particularly in Israel, for the Jewish people and the government of Israel. For her, to love those entities would "hurt," I would imagine. I don't think she's seen that. She appears to be too busy being oh-so-politically proper in following her liberation theology dogma, with a broad streak of naivete and smugness showing through.

I am sure Shannon O'Donnell is a delightful person to know. She has given a good portion of her life to doing something she thinks is good and right. That's why it is all the more tragic that she appears to have no one wise and caring to help nudge her misguided and nascent energy in a more appropriate direction. Letter after letter displays her shortcomings.

Who should be watching Shannon O'Donnell's back? Who cares about her enough to gently, lovingly disciple her, rather than allowing her to flounder?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Frankly, I wouldn't expect the Jewish residents of Jerusalem to treat a PCUSA missionary with much warmth. Given that we are well known to send groups out of their way to visit Hezboullah and endorse sanctions against Israeli security measures!

Not that I'm saying that Ms. O'Donnel's claim has merit. I have no idea.

But given our sordid denominational past in regards to Israel, it would not surprise me one bit if our representatives did get a cold shoulder in some areas.

Toby Brown
Cuero, (deep in the heart of) Texas

11:51 AM, January 14, 2008  
Blogger Cameron Mott said...

"Who should be watching Shannon O'Donnell's back? Who cares about her enough to gently, lovingly disciple her, rather than allowing her to flounder?"


It could have been you; maybe even in private.

8:47 AM, January 15, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...


First, please give us city and state.

Second, I hear you. I would not have written in such a public way, were it not for several factors:

1) Shannon’s letter itself was most public and meant to be so. A public letter can be rightfully met with a public response. Any of us who put our opinions and possible errors out in the marketplace may find that they are subject to responses equally as public.

2) This was not the first instance of such negativism and bias by Shannon toward Israel and Israelis. Every time she puts ink to paper, it seems, her first assumption seems to be that Jews are willfully mean and vindictive. I have remained silent following letter after letter, but this one tipped the scale. Apparently no one had attempted to bring her practice within Presbyterian policy yet, or at least not effectively.

3) Shannon is not just some kid on an adventure; she is an official representative of the PCUSA. Her viewpoints, biased and naïve as they are, are being broadcast in an official capacity. Her actions every day are taken as the actions of the PCUSA in Israel. Anyone reading her viewpoints or observing her actions would think that her perceptions were what Presbyterians as a whole would certainly embrace. That is not so, and it needs to be pointed out publicly.

4) For some reason more political than wise I would assume, Shannon was placed in an organization known for its troublesome stands (opposition to a two-state solution, for instance) and controversial theology. Moreover, she was sent there ill-prepared, and apparently she is not being mentored or particularly supervised, or if such activities are being attempted, whoever is responsible apparently has questionable ability or judgment, as well.

This is not a particularly advisable arrangement. If you take an impressionable, naïve person and place that person without close supervision in a hotbed of propaganda and emotion, you will not normally get mature, wise, diplomatic practice as a result. That’s pretty much guaranteed. And thus, biased, careless, and troublesome opinions and actions seem to be coming from Shannon. Such ill-advised practice needs to be amended, and thus the public pressure for it to be so cured.

I wish Shannon well. I’m sure she means well, and she has sacrificed safety and comfort to be there in Israel. But she has been placed over her head with inadequate support in a situation beyond her abilities—and then allowed to flounder quite publicly and repeatedly. I am sure that the PCUSA can do far better by her, and recently I have been assured that my concerns have been heard and taken seriously.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

10:53 AM, January 15, 2008  
Blogger Cameron Mott said...

Still Jim, you could have quietly and, I believe, much more effectively and productivly "discipled" her privately.

Paola, Kansas by the way.

1:00 PM, January 15, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...


You may be right.

However, I cannot disciple Shannon. I have no authority, no right, no entre. It would take either her request or her placing herself in a position of--dare I say it?--submission. It would be cheeky of me and pretty much senseless to ever suggest it.

But Shannon does need someone to mentor or disciple her. Perhaps an overture from those responsible for her is afoot. That would be the most natural and fitting arrangement, and if my shining a bright light made it seem a good thing to do, I would be pleased.

Again, however, she's not just a private party out on a lark. She holds a position of prominence and responsibility, and so her viewpoints and her bumbles affect more than just herself. Her "case" is worthy of public discussion, and not just private conversations.

I would love not only for Shannon's work to be improved, but for procedures and assumptions that placed her (and others) in the situation to be rethought and amended. Thus, Presbyterian mission work as a whole could end up fairer, more effective, and of greater value to a missional church.

Maybe I dream too much, but I deem it possible and so I give it the old college try.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

2:33 PM, January 15, 2008  

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