The word “missionary” has an unshakably antiquated connotation. Conjuring images of white men in polished, holy attire, armed with bibles and crosses. Through a modern lens, it is difficult not to perceive missionary work as condescending and outdated. That said, especially for those not at all engaged in the realm of religion with a lack of popularized representation of missionary work through film and television, assumptions about what missionary work looks like today are just that, assumptions. Through “The Last Missionaries,” an insightful documentary on the long legacy of Polish missionary efforts in Papua New Guinea (PNG), director Simon Target exhibits the warm, pure relationships between Polish foreigners and the people of PNG, aiming to shine a positive, commendable and educative light on the 21st century missionary cause.
Throughout the film, viewers follow along with the storylines of several Polish missionary workers. The missionaries reside in various parts of PNG and have differing goals, ranging from establishing a functional system of higher education, improving medical care for HIV patients and performing religious rites for their local parish. They are all, however, united by the common thread of purpose. The film is divided into segments about the missionaries’ respective stories. During the segments, each missionary responds to the question of whether they will ever return home to Poland. The answer to this question is, for the most part, a resounding no. It isn’t that the missionaries don’t miss their native land, the comfort of their family or their cultural traditions, but rather that, through the five, 10, 20 or more years that they have spent in PNG, it has become home, perhaps more of a home than Poland ever could be now.
The overall sense of certainty that the missionaries possess is astounding. Target’s exemplification of the driving force of purpose that the missionaries hold has the impressive effect of making audience members look inward and contemplate where they find their own sense of purpose. Hearing the miraculous stories of people who have completely remolded their lives around the mere feeling that they are called to serve, though in part hard to grasp, is incredible. Whether we connect with the religious component of the film or not, there is an undeniable admiration established within in us by the missionaries’ selfless lifestyle and dedication to service.
As the world adopts what seems to be an increasingly cynical position on mission trips and religious crusades, it can be challenging to perceive missionaries with an open mind outside the conventional holier-than-thou aims and intentions of “saving.” While it is not to say that missionary work is entirely devoid of self-righteous motivations, perhaps our preconceptions of conversion rituals and bible-thumping are unreasonable, and a degree of respect for those dedicated to living out their truths should be granted.