Joseph Donders

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Joseph Donders  

Missionary of Africa (1929–2013)  

As a boy growing up in Holland, Joseph Donders, who was known as Sjef, dreamed of traveling the world as a missionary. As soon as he could, he entered the seminary of the Missionaries of Africa—then known as the White Fathers—and was ordained a priest in 1957. After pursuing a doctorate in Rome, he was sent in 1970 to Nairobi, Kenya, where he taught for fifteen years at the University of Nairobi while also serving as a chaplain. A collection of his sermons there, Jesus the Stranger, was later published in the United States, where it became an acclaimed best seller. It was followed by many other books.  

In Africa, Donders came to understand just how much his own version of Christianity was shaped by Western assumptions. His missionary training, he saw, had focused on saving individual souls—an approach rooted in the individualistic spirit of the West but which was jarring to the African sense of community and peoplehood. The experience of reading the Gospel through African eyes, described in his book Non Bourgeois Theology, changed his perspective in many ways.  

In 1984 he moved to Washington, DC, to serve as the first director of the Africa Faith and Justice Network, organizing relief efforts and advocating for a transformation of U.S. policies toward Africa. But he remained always a missionary, struggling to find new language to transpose the Gospel from its original setting in Palestine into a wider world. He died on March 7, 2013.  

“I remain in the church because it is through her that I first came into contact with the Spirit that enlivens both me and the world. I remain in the church because it is my only hope.”  

—Joseph Donders 

© Liturgical Press.

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.

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