He is no stranger to the CWM family, and has journeyed and served in various capacities. And now, Rev Dr Michael Jagessar begins a new chapter with us as the Mission Secretary for Europe. Known for his boundless energy and for being “larger than life”, “passionate” and “prophetic” during his 12-year tenure heading United Reformed Church (URC)’s Global and Intercultural Ministries, Rev Jagessar sat down with INSiGHT to reflect on his new role, and how he plans to serve member churches in the UK and Europe.
Hello Rev Jagessar! Tell us a bit more about yourself and what prompted you to journey with the CWM global family?
Yes…this is me: mostly animated, expressive, and sometimes witty with a distinctive laugh. Some students once said to me that my fiery eyes reminded them of John the Baptist minus the rough look and the locust part of his organic diet. I am from Guyana where the indigenous peoples kept Eldorado out of the reach of Walter Raleigh by spinning some excitingly deceptive stories. It is land where the ‘Demerara’ sugar brand tells a bitter-sweet historical story. After ‘pirates in the Caribbean’ plundered most of the wealth and the IMF became a new form of piracy, I decided (in 1987) to follow the trail of the money which led me to Britain. I am still looking for it. As an Indo-Guyanese-Caribbean in the UK, I consider myself part of the Caribbean Diaspora, displaced multiple times, largely misunderstood and often taken for granted. My religious heritages include Islam, Hinduism and Christianity – Caribbean style: meaning I embody poly-doxy and multiple religious impulses! I have lived, studied and worked in Guyana, Jamaica, Grenada, Curacao, Switzerland, and the Netherlands before I accidentally landed in the UK and found a welcoming space in the United Reformed Church (from 1999). The URC took the risk of giving me a whole load of things to do in its life together and the rest is history and some good memories. I get excited over cricket, big screens and good films, authentic Caribbean spirit-filled punch, good Caribbean curry (largely creolised) and the ever elusive Anancy/Anansi (patron saint of the Caribbean). I hold the view that landscape-geography is a significant influence on one’s outlook. Coming from South America and the Caribbean (with its expansive seascape), my outlook has always been global and larger than some small corner. I sense that the global outlook and reach of CWM is where I can find kindred spaces and opportunities to robustly engage with some of the most urgent existential questions before us. While no ‘spring chicken’ (apologies vegetarians) I am looking for a challenge and a space to deploy the very few gifts I have been blessed with.
What does it mean for you to serve as the Mission Secretary for Europe? And coming into the role, what do you see are some of the challenges and opportunities for you and the member churches in Europe?
I see my role as one of facilitating conversations; coordinating activities; accompanying member churches as they strive to live out their missional calling as disciples of the Jesus Way in their contexts and beyond; sharing/translating/communicating the CWM story and vision to both member churches’ constituencies and our ecumenical partners; and perform the role of being a helpful bridge between CWM and its member constituencies in Europe. The Europe region may be small, but what it means to be witnessing Christian communities continue to challenge, excite and offer opportunities for renewal in the life of what is often perceived as and (mis)represented as ‘depleting’ Christian communities. Some of the urgent existential issues include the environment, a growing far-right movement, a refugee-migration challenge that feeds the closing of minds, hearts and borders; and an ongoing inability of Britain and Europe to grapple with their colonial past and especially people from these colonies who are now living here. My personal view is that the renewal of churches in the UK and Europe lies in our engagement with these challenging opportunities.
You have engaged with CWM in your previous work with the URC and as a theological educator. What have been some significant moments in your journey with CWM so far?
Many assume I am familiar with CWM. I am largely a newcomer but because my involvement is never half hearted, my engagement feels intense. Significant participatory moments include the NIFEA process (Caribbean-Europe regions); Legacies of Slavery (LoS) Hearings as one of the listeners; participating in the 1st DARE event; planning and delivering URC-CWM Europe subversive end of year conferences; identifying newer voices (talent spotting) from the URC to attend various CWM events; and working out the partner-in-mission process for the URC. If I am to select one of these that will stand re: my commitment and energy it has to be LoS. I would contend that the process and findings is a Kairos moment not only for CWM but for the renewal and transformation of our life together as member churches of CWM. This is it!
When you were Moderator of URC General Assembly, you led the church in thinking about being “mutually inconvenienced” for the sake of justice and inclusion. How is CWM being “mutually inconvenienced” as we continue to engage with being a “partnership of churches in mission”?
I took my cue from a former Guyanese poet Martin Carter who penned these lines: “I drank from the calabash of my ancestors. to free the memories shackled in the mind.” (University of Hunger 2006). Polarised views and positions continue to shackle us, especially mindset. My ancestral calabashes pointed me to what I have termed a habit of mutual inconveniencing. I ask myself: how may all of us around a table (to draw on a symbol that is both central to the Christian meal and at the same time a foreign implant) be inconvenienced for a view/position that is larger than the one we embody/bring/hold for the sake of the economy of the host – Jesus and God’s fullness of life project. As all are in need – how do all move away or aside (be inconvenienced) to re-negotiate belonging, towards a vision that is larger and beyond each view and complex identity. I need to note that ‘mutuality’ is not necessarily an attempt to gloss over the reality that relationships around the table is not one of a ‘level playing’ field. In the complex relationship between the oppressed and oppressor a call for mutuality can serve to cover up the costly and unequal nature of who have to give up what and for what or to what end! For me, the inconveniencing is a first-step towards necessary self-interrogation and hard-talk around power, privilege and equity. In many ways, CWM intentions are great and the programmes point to this direction. However, ‘moving beyond good intentions’, the challenge remains for CWM and member churches: how well are we modelling and living this out as habit? As one example, our commitment and follow-up work on Legacies of Slavery will serve as a litmus test as to where we are on the journey of ‘mutual inconveniencing’.
Member churches in Europe and European society as a whole currently face significant challenges. Which particular issue(s) are close to your heart? And why?
I sort of hinted to this already in the above responses. There is a thread running through the challenges facing member churches of Europe and European society and it has to do with its colonial past, the presence of what is termed ‘migrant churches/communities in Europe’, and what it means to be made in the image of God. Be it the environment, migrants and refugees, the many incarnations of phobias, depleting churches etc, member Churches in Europe needs to intentionally look at our inherited deposits of faith/ liturgical practices and the ways these have influenced and skewed our living out the Jesus way of full life for all. What went wrong? Why? Where? Is it getting any better? Examples abound and we need to together honestly name them – lament – apologise – exorcise – invest in restorative justice – grapple with what in our theologies caused/still cause us to want to dehumanise and commodify another human being. To be the change we wish to see and liberate ourselves and constituencies from restrictive habits is where I find energy. I believe that Churches in Europe are facing a Kairos moment and that from within the inherited treasures of the faith there is much we can rediscover and redeploy to witness to the Jesus Way of full life for all. The world is still waiting to believe us.
In your previous work with the URC you have worked to promote the inclusion and participation of BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) people so that the church is truly multi-cultural. What have been some highlights of this, and what can CWM learn as we engage with issues of inclusion and our commitment to be anti-racist?
The United Reformed Church’s (my current ecclesial home) declared being a multicultural church in 2005. While important, the journey became stuck in the stifling dynamics of parallel communities/lives within the United Reformed Church, and in danger of re-inscribing exclusion by becoming locked into an unhelpful ‘marginality syndrome’ or ‘multiculturalism at arm’s length’. The problem has been and is with our understanding of ‘culture’ narrowly viewed as relating to ethnicity, which meant that ‘culture’ only had to do with people that looked like me (or not White). My contribution has been in making a case for an intercultural habit/method to enable necessary critical engagement intra-culturally and between/among cultural perspectives. Hence, our 2012 URC declaration and commitment: ‘multicultural church, intercultural habit’. I quickly realised that if there is going to be any constructive movement in engendering spaces, opportunities and actions that will bring about change and transformation, there was an urgent need to move beyond discourses about a multicultural and inclusive church, and diversity that have been guilty of over-racialising – genderising – minoritising human relations in unhelpful ways. While space(s) to affirm diversity and minority groups are very critical and important, there is evidence to suggest that too much emphasis on separate rather than common needs or vision, in practice have contributed to the further marginalization of minorities. Power and power dynamics remain in place. Empire remains undefeated as we play the game by its rules! And in the process what remains largely un-interrogated are the privileges and power base of the dominant group and their positions.
The status quo is afraid when we try to focus on intersections: how there is a connecting chain across the complicated narratives of life-denying practices and how any pursuit of justice for all must be a collective effort demanding multiple/collaborative projects. For the Status Quo, when all you’ve ever know is privilege, equality-equity-inclusion feels like oppression and fantasising about their persecution! Hence their mantra for giving it time and that the peace and unity of the organisation or body is paramount. There is much we all need to un-learn and re-learn in moving beyond our good intentions of being anti-racist. It will include: a commitment to work together across all forms of injustices to enable transformation – ushering in a different reality, a life affirming one; exposing the underpinnings of power which must be recognised, disclosed, analysed and re-deployed – as our belonging is renegotiated in context of our diversity; investing in a moral imagination of becoming intercultural that seeks to move beyond dialogue and talks of inclusion to justice in the making.
In what ways can European member churches play a role in helping CWM fulfil its vision and mission? In your opinion, what would be a game changer for the above and how do you see CWM’s role (and your role) in helping to facilitate this process?
Through ownership, presence, and engagement. CWM and member churches are in a symbiotic relation and by this I am here referring to a mutuality type. That’s the challenge: giving and receiving and being open and honest to be challenged by each other for something larger than each of our perspective/tradition. This is what it means to be mutually inconvenienced. I think this is fundamental to a partnership of equals.
The URC asked itself the question “What is the Spirit saying to the churches?” What do you think the Spirit is saying to CWM at this moment?
The Christian community ought to share the conviction that the life of our churches should be shaped and guided at every point by the question, “what is God saying to us in this historical moment?” We may wish to suggest this or something similar to head-up the agenda of every CWM meeting or gathering. Mindful that collective discerning (together) may best serve to protect us from individual narcissistic imaginings of the Divine only speaking to me as an individual or certain people, allow me to pose my feeble discernment (as questions) of what the Spirit may be asking us at this moment:
- Are we able to decrease so that Christ and the Jesus way of full life for all may increase?
- If we are deeply committed to being inclusive and we take justice seriously: who are the ones missing from our conversations? – what new spaces do we need to make room for? – who would be giving up what? What are the difficult debates we need to have? Are we modelling just practices?
- As a believing community are, we actually operating as functional atheists – afraid to be bold – to take risks – to step out in faith – to be open to be surprised by the Spirit?
Tell us two things about yourself that many people don’t know about!
I write poetry and short stories – currently I have a good collection and waiting for an opportunity to publish these while looking around for a good budding illustrator.
We (our family) also collect rare books. Among our collection are children story books (with few words and more illustrations) from all over the world. With my maverick imagination, I find more theology in these storybooks than the volumes by big names collecting dust on seminary shelves. I wish more of our theological statements can draw insights from stories. People will certainly read and grasp that! A transgression has been and continues to be whenever we turn narrative into fossilized doctrines that even Jesus would run away from!