There's an overall tone of hopelessness to this story, and yet by reading it, I feel as though I have been freed of questions and anguishes that have plagued me since I donned the mantle of missionary kid when I was seven years old. How do we respond in the face of such blatant, crushing, impossible poverty? How do we respond to our own privilege? Am I lording my white privilege over the other races of the world? Have I grown up believing I was better because I was born into more money? And whether stated, or implied on purpose or by accident, I think something that Apricot Irving's memoir stresses is that richness cannot be measured only by money. There is so much more to the world than material wealth.
The Gospel of Trees is, in a sense, an exploration or what happens when people who want to help try to force themselves on another culture, assuming that they know better when they know nothing about the culture they are "educating" in the first place. This is a major, gigantic, dangerous flaw in the realm of Western Christian mission that can and should be addressed. So often, well-meaning people enter a world in which they don't speak the language, they don't know the customs, they don't agree with the religion, and they desperately want to help. Why do we assume that we can help in the first place, and that our form of helping won't do more harm than good?
It is possible to damage with our good intentions. It is hugely possible to do great harm under the banner of selflessness and altruism. It is possible for men and women to do evil in the name of Christ, whether they intend for it or not. The Gospel of Trees is an illustration of good intentions gone wrong, and the entitled help of privileged people ravaging a country already riddled with suffering.
Are we entering the places and situations we live in with humility? With questions? Are we leaving our assumptions and pride at the door to make sure we're not accidentally harming someone by bringing in a good system that, plainly, will not work in the situation we're in?
This book is not an easy read for people who have lived under or around the mantle of missionary. I don't know how many times Apricot Irving's incredible prose made me cry hot, painful tears, and I cannot imagine how depressing and crushing the narrative might be to missionaries living internationally, or returned "home". But as a missionary kid, The Gospel of Trees gave me permission to confront the questions and pains I had tucked away. The Gospel of Trees breathed calming breaths into my fears and allowed me to look up and out again. The Gospel of Trees was a great, massive weight lifted from my shoulders by the gentle chisel of Apricot Irving's stunning words. Through this book, she has given me a gift:
"I offered [her] the benediction that an irreverent and holy vicar in London had given me: Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Go in peace.Forgive yourself, forgive others, and go in peace. That is what I would like to learn to do.
We clinked glasses.
The missionary mantle, prickly with expectation, was not easily shaken off, and yet it had been our baptism into sorrow and beauty."(The Gospel of Trees. Apricot Irving, 2018. p.348)
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