Editor’s note: I’m a member of The Springs Church of Christ, which has been a long-time supporter of Paul Brazle and his wife, Carol, who have served as missionaries to Belgium for over 30 years. I’ve grown to admire the Brazles for their commitment and tenacity. But I’ve also wondered how an American Christian like Paul approaches the job of “missionary” to a European country that had a large Christian population centuries before the U.S. was even founded. So, I asked him to participate in this Q&A about that topic as an American missionary in Europe. I’m grateful for his candor. Here are his thoughtful and refreshing answers (some edited for length):
Question: Where did you grow up and what was your family’s background?
Answer: My dad was a preacher and a Bible teacher too, who emphasized “missions” a lot. In fact, in something of a parallel to what you are getting at with these questions, Dad was an American from Kansas who moved to Canada (via Montana) and so was often called a “missionary.” That meant that I grew up as not only a “preacher’s kid” but also a “missionary’s kid.” Dad provided for me (and my siblings) to have mission experiences. So, after one year of college I got to spend a year in Florence, Italy, as a “missions apprentice.”
Q: What led you to decide to lead a mission effort in Belgium?
A: In connection with my apprentice year in Italy, a classmate and buddy of mine went to Belgium at the same time. We connected a couple of times during the year and got to know the situation among our church fellowship network there as well as in Italy. At the end of the year, before returning to Canada, I hooked up with a summer mission project in Belgium. This was coordinated by my older brother with schoolmates from Oklahoma Christian University (then OCC) after he had also spent a year in Belgium as a “mission apprentice” (These days we call these “missions internships” in our circles.) Long story short, I got to be in Belgium for such “short-term missions” projects two more times. Then, when I married Carol, we surveyed and compared opportunities in Italy and Belgium and ended up choosing Belgium.
Q: How are you received by Belgium natives? I’m assuming that a lot of native Europeans would be resentful of an American coming over and presuming to teach me about religion.
A: There is certainly a basis for that assumption. For any number of reasons. More and more as America’s church scene becomes increasingly confusing or “worldly.” So, we steer well clear of the missionary designation where we can. That said, when we are ID’d as “religious practitioners” the question will come up again: “what for?” We seem to get the most benefit from asking the question: “If people are struggling with their faith in a Catholic context, or having left that previously, we ask to be free to offer an alternative way to embrace faith (again).” There aren’t many here who argue against freedom of religion; they just still laugh a bit when they see where it has led in the states. By the way, we came here in 1986. So, we have been here 35 years-plus. We came with a 3- and a 1-year old, added two more over time, raised them here in Flanders.
Q: So, how have you reacted to native Europeans who may resent your coming over to Europe and attempting to bring your faith to them as an American missionary?
A: Indeed, this touches very directly to something in my experience. I mentioned my dad being thought of by some as a “missionary” from Montana (or Kansas — i.e. almost Bible Belt) to Canada (Saskatchewan, just across the border from Montana). Much more challenging or awkward as it turns out, is the idea of an American Christian going to Belgium as a missionary to “preach and convert.” After all, after Italy, Belgium has likely sent out more (Catholic) missionaries than anyone over the centuries. Most of the Jesuits have had their base there. Father Damian went to Hawaii from Belgium. After I learned this, I became much more careful about the context and the listening ears where I drop the “missionary” word. I generally say we are doing church work. (Caveat: The visa designation on my ID always called me a “zendeling”… wait for it: a missionary.)
Q: What languages do you speak?
A: Our work is in Flemish (basically the same as Dutch; we speak “Nederlands”). I also can speak French well enough (learned in school in Canada; we use it in Brussels and south Belgium) and then I learned Italian that year in Florence. Dutch is a lot like low-German, so I can make my way there on a tourist level. I can still read most of the Greek alphabet, but that’s about it. When we came to Flanders, I had the basis of those four summer projects when I took random notes and was not shy to make big blunders. We both, Carol and I, did a month-long full time “snel-cursis” to get started and went from there.
Q: How has your Belgium ministry evolved over the years?
A: When we came, we had been invited by a small Flemish congregation. After some orientation and language study, we picked up on that. But within about 7-8 years, the Berlin Wall had fallen, immigration patterns were changing rapidly and the demographic of Antwerp- — one million people — was too, before our eyes. We watched, trying to figure it out, while our church morphed into a half international group. Since then, it has continued, and we are now a full-fledged multi-cultural congregation, with a sister congregation sharing our location which is Spanish-speaking. Our assembly to worship Sunday AM is in Dutch and English. Along with that, we have some activity among refugee immigrants.
Q: How do you connect with Belgium natives, and how do you connect with the immigrant community?
A: This one is a little more challenging: do I address “what have we tried” or “what has worked?” A lot of our contact (i.e. efforts to reach out and to connect) with the “Belgians” has come through what many call “friendship evangelism”. An example: from the start Paul started singing with a vocal ensemble and we have become part of that “family”. We have learned a lot from them — hopefully, they also from us.
Another “mainstay” in our contact efforts, first with Belgians, then more and more with immigrants, has been to offer English conversation lessons. We have learned to know a lot of folks over the years with this, and a lot of them learned about our church opportunity through it. With the actual refugees of recent years, our activity has been limited compared to some colleagues across Europe — but our Spanish pastor was a refugee himself with his family from Venezuela, and they have helped to step up our connections with them as a church family. Helping where we can with what they need.
Q: How do you measure success of your ministry?
A: That is the eternal question, isn’t it? In missions, even more than in ‘home-based’ ministry, I think. What does success look like? Some say you can’t measure spiritual things that way. Some want to see newsletters about conversions all the time. That’s a challenge in a ‘zone’ like Western Europe, for sure. In mission circles, they call Europe “hard soil”. Still, we are not too despairing when we look back and see relationships built over decades and people who say their lives have been changed. We always would wish there were more to show, it seems. But what there is, is gratifying.
Q: What is the state of Christianity in Europe? And how curious are they about “our” (American) brand of Christianity?
A: Even though the various nations have different forms of government, some with monarchies still tied to a state church in name, most have populations that are mostly secular and agnostic, even while many adhere to family traditions based in church and faith. There are a small percentage of folks in each nation that are active adherents in their faith. Europeans are generally very regional in their church diversity. For example, Germany has a generally Protestant part and a Catholic part. Belgium was considered to be 98 percent Catholic as late as 1985 when we came here. That has changed. That said, our Belgian friends marvel with bemusement at the denominational map of the U.S. with many streets having 5-10 different churches within a mile or two.
Q: From my life experience, it appears that the American Christian community assumes it is superior or practices religion more correctly than the rest of the world … how does the practice of Christianity in Belgium differ than here in the states?
A: Indeed, that attitude comes across all too much. It hinders attempts to share a message of a refreshing new –or old – look at how to do faith. Generally, we assume (in U.S. churches) that too much tradition will thwart a simple and straight-forward Christian practice. Rather, it sometimes looks like one set of traditions or habits has just replaced another. There can be some good things found in tradition. I think the key is finding a balance. The way the balance looks (or is measured) will just be different in social settings that are 200-300 years old compared with those of 1,200-1,500 years.
Q: When you welcome youth groups and others to Belgium during summer visits, what do you tell them about Europeans and the Belgium church that they might not be aware of when they arrive?
A: First off, we try to help them understand what the proverbial “ugly American” looks like. And how not to be that. We recommend just looking around more and speaking less — or at least, more quietly. We also warn them that when they make European friends, be careful about inviting them to come for a visit… They just might! And, if they do, they will plan to stay 3-4 weeks.
Q: The Springs/Quail Springs church has been a long-time sponsor of yours… what would you say to The Springs members that maybe you haven’t already said.
A: Indeed, it has turned out to be a long stretch. And we are thankful. The Springs church is our spiritual family, at “home.” (I told someone last summer we were going to visit our “home, away from home.”) There are a number who have visited and helped. That was a blessing. The support in prayer, and in funds, has been affirming and has blessed us with energy and will to keep on keeping on. So, that’s what we want to do!