Monday, January 26, 2015

Contrasts

The Christian Reformed Church of East Africa near Kitale
Most countries have significant internal contrasts, with areas of great wealth and areas of great poverty, often in very close proximity to each other.

Recently I experienced such a set of contrasts but in two churches in Kenya.

One week I'm preaching in a church of about 100 people, including children.  It is a mud church, on someone's personal property.  It is in a rural area, surrounded by maize fields and cows pass by the windows regularly.  The service starts at 10 am and finishes around 1 pm.  The people all hang around after the service and share a meal together.

David Masai, a pastor of the CRCEA, also a trainer for CbBaM
The next week I preached three services in a church of about 6000 people, with choreographed dancers, elaborate sound systems and city folks.  I am told I have 20 minutes to preach for the first sermon, 30 minutes for the second service, and 40 minutes for the third service.  At 20 minutes during the first service, the pastor (a student at ATS) gets up to let me know time is up.  Time is managed to the minute.  People are herded out the back door, while a flood of people enter the front door, tightly managed by ushers, to allow the next service to start on time. 

AIC Fellowship Church in Eldoret
Back in the US I am struck by the contrasts in food compared to what I eat in Kenya.  There is a great website that shows what a week of groceries looks like around the world (To see it, go here):
  • In Cairo, Egypt, an average family spends $78/week on food.
  • In Ecuador, $32/week
  • In North Carolina, USA, $342/week
  • In China, $65/week
  • In Mexico, $189/week
  • Food for one week for a family in Ecuador
  • In Mali, $30/week
  • In Kuwait, $252/week
  • In Japan, $361/week
  • In Italy, $295/week
  • In India, $45/week
  • In Germany, $568/week
  • In Cuba, $64/week
  • In Canada, $392/week
  • In Sarajevo, $90/week
  • In Australia, $428/week 
Food for one week for a family in the US
What is interesting is how different the food is in each country - very processed versus very fresh. And I just learned last week that about 40% of the food grown in the US ends up in the landfill due to waste.  This is mostly because of the amount of food that we throw away in restaurants, institutions, and our own homes.

Lands of contrasts.  These are just two very small contrasts of course.  One could list thousands and thousands.  But it can feel overwhelming when changing between cultures.  I continue to get flashes and waves of the contrasts from day to day, and often find it difficult to articulate.

I will be dropping the blog to every other week for a period of time, especially while so much of my time is being consumed by writing the Discipling Marketplace Leaders book and manual.  I continue to appreciate your prayers for this process!

I could see these two children from my seat in the rural church.  They studied the back of my car for such a long time, pointing things out to each other.  It was very cute.

Monday, January 19, 2015

When Advocacy Works

On December 8, I wrote a blog about Pastor Moffat Weru and the fire he experienced in his business (click here to read the story).  A number of you replied with sympathy and prayers.  A few of you offered gifts or loans to help rebuild his business.  If you remember, Pastor Moffat had just graduated as a Marketplace Minister and was running a motorcycle parts shop when the shop two doors down from him caught fire.  The fire was spreading and in an effort to "help," community members broke down the doors of Pastor Moffat's shop and carried his goods out to "save them."  Unfortunately, most of those goods were then looted and the fire did not reach the interior of his shop.  Pastor Moffat had insurance but the insurance company denied his claim as the fire didn't reach his shop.  When he argued that they broke in and stole, the insurance company stated that because it was such a large crowd it was a political looting and therefore his insurance didn't cover that.  When Pastor Moffat pursued the security company, who also carries insurance on properties that they protect, they said they weren't responsible because the security guard was doing everything he could to stop the fire.

Shaking our heads over the injustice of it, we rallied to figure out how we could help Pastor Moffat.  But for just a few days we forgot that we had power that goes beyond that.  Power in the name of advocacy. 

Of the four activities that we do to help businesses develop, three are based on internal issues:  training, mentoring, and access to capital.  But anyone who has done a SWOT analysis, knows that there are both internal and external issues that face businesses (or churches or organizations), with the external issues taking the form of opportunities or threats.  That is where Advocacy comes in, the fourth activity that we do with businesses.  Often times businesses feel very much like the little fishes in these pictures, without much hope to come against the big system and make any changes.  Kenya ranks at 129/185 countries for the ease of doing business, according to the World Bank annual report (Doing Business 2014).  There are many threats to doing business, especially as it relates to the strength of the legal systems in a country as well as the cost and efficiency to business processes.

However, what advocacy does is help these "small fishes" figure out how to organize themselves to look like a big fish and exert a bit more power on the system.  I was first exposed to this idea when I worked with an organization called the Michigan Organizing Project and carried it over to my work with Partners Worldwide.  This visual image resonates with small business owners who often feel overwhelmed by the system and powerless as to their role in it.  The businesses in Kenya are doing a great job of seeing the potential of this and they have organized themselves into three centers, with three different cooperatives based on their geographical area.  Within these cooperatives, they are forming a number of subcooperatives as it relates to agriculture (both crops and animals), retail, services, manufacturing, and energy production.  Together, they have decided that the Discipling Marketplace Leaders office needs to form a National Forum under which they can all come together to address national issues.  We have formed a committee for this and are well on our way with these plans.

So now, back to the story with Pastor Moffat.  On the Friday before I left Kenya, we were to have an Advocacy committee meeting.  As I waited for people to arrive, the idea occurred to me (or can I say the Holy Spirit planted an idea?) that we should get involved with Pastor Moffat’s situation.  Here was a man who paid insurance and had a security firm who is insured for looting and both had denied him.  There was injustice here.  A secondary motivation for me was the knowledge that when it is difficult for people to believe in working together, it is necessary to have a “win” to help business members recognize the importance of standing together and uniting. 

During the meeting I brought up the idea that we should pursue this case with Discipling Marketplace Leaders, have a meeting with Pastor Moffat and the insurance company and security company, and remind them that we are advocating for our businesses to take insurance but if they won’t pay, what is the point?  We also talked about picketing the place with our businesses if we needed to.

I left Kitale on the Monday following this meeting and asked Pastor Alfred Kibairu to take the lead on this.  Kibairu met with Moffat, who had already admitted defeat and didn’t want to go back to them.  But Kibairu persuaded him to set up a meeting, and Kibairu accompanied him.  And it’s amazing how quickly a business can see sense when faced with a bit of pressure, backed by the power of numbers!   After a couple of meetings, the security firm closed shop and fled town. But the insurance agency agreed to pay!  Pastor Moffat had to round up his receipts and turn them in.  He lost about 850,000 KSH worth of goods (about $10,000 US) but was only insured for 650,000 KSH ($7600 US) and that is what he will receive.  He is thrilled!  Plus it’s a good lesson for him to increase his insurance and keep it for next time, this time including a policy for looting! 

We will now invite this insurance agency to speak to our businesses about the importance of insurance and (hopefully) offer them good deals, continuing to develop a relationship with DML that will be good all the way around!  We will tell this story to our businesses and encourage them to work together!

This week we will be going through loan applications from all three centers, totaling over $100,000 US in requests.  We have only $40,000 to loan out, given by several investors in the US who have loaned us the money for these businesses, so we have some tough decisions to make.  Pastor Moffat will be one of the ones receiving a loan, but please pray with us for discernment and wisdom for the rest!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Reflections on 2014

This is the first blog entry for 2015.  2014 was quite a year for me personally with my marriage to Michael and the blending of our two families.  We spent the week of Christmas merging our two houses to finally be under one roof.  2014 was a year of great joy and great changes.

Professionally it was also quite a year, with the work of Church-based Business as Mission growing by leaps and bounds, with the development of a plan to develop suitable materials to be rolled out to more countries in this coming year - starting in Ghana and Egypt.  This also includes a number of changes for me.

My children continue to change and grow:  Hannah turned 21 in 2014 and Noah will turn 20 in just a few weeks.  Hannah is a senior at Calvin; Noah is a junior.  Both continue to face life challenges and develop into the adults that God is calling them to be.  It is exciting yet scary to watch.

But most significant in this past year was what continues to happen around the world.
  • Ebola swept through West Africa reaping devastation and loss of life.  Countries that have experienced so devastation because of civil war and poverty were hit again with this terrible and terrifying disease. 
  • Boko Haram continued to wreak havoc in Nigeria.
  • Al Shabab continued to kill and terrorize in Kenya and Somalia.
  • The rise of IS and terrorist attacks in other parts of the Middle East drive fear into the hearts of many.
These are just a few of the things that remind us of how tenuous peace is and how fragile life is.  We are reminded of how far we are from being the creation that God intended.  Yet through the darkness we hear stories of grace and mercy, of perseverance and God's light shining through. 

Overall there continues to be a spirit of optimism in Africa that things are changing for the better and that Africa is indeed rising.  What will 2015 bring?  What entries will be made in this blog over the next 52 weeks?  What turmoil, grace, and creativity will the world see?

To help me find my center, I go back again to the book Guerrillas of Grace by Ted Loder, and to the prayer, "Help Me to Believe in Beginnings":

God of history and of my heart, so much has happened to me during these whirlwind days:
I've known death and birth; 
I've been brave and scared;
I've hurt, I've helped;
I've been honest, I've lied;
I've destroyed, I've created;
I've been with people, I've been lonely;
I've been loyal, I've betrayed;
I've decided, I've waffled;
I've laughed and I've cried.
You know my frail heart and my frayed history - and now another day begins.

O God, help me to believe in beginnings and in my beginning again,
no matter how often I've failed before.

Help me to make beginnings:
            To begin going out of my weary mind into fresh dreams,
                        Daring to make my own bold tracks in the land of now;
            To begin forgiving that I may experience mercy;
            To begin questioning the unquestionable that I may know truth;
            To begin discipling that I may create beauty;
            To begin sacrificing that I may accomplish justice;
            To begin risking that I may make peace
            To begin loving that I may realize joy.

Help me to be a beginning for others,
            To be a singer to the songless,
                        A storyteller to the aimless,
A befriender of the friendless;
To become a beginning of hope for the despairing,
Of assurance for the doubting,
Of reconciliation for the divided;
To become a beginning of freedom for the oppressed,
Of comfort for the sorrowing,
Of friendship for the forgotten;
To become a beginning of beauty for the forlorn,
Of sweetness for the soured
Of gentleness for the angry,
Of wholeness for the broken,
Of peace for the frightened and violent of the earth.

Help me to believe in beginnings,
            To make a beginning,
To be a beginning,
So that I may not just grow old,
But grow new
Each day of this wild, amazing life
You call me to live
                        With the passion of Jesus Christ.

I can't control much of anything in the world.  I can control very little within my own circle of family and loved ones.  I have difficulty even controlling myself.  But if I can live into even a portion of these words in 2015, this year will be a success.  I wish you the passion of Jesus Christ and the belief in beginnings as well in 2015.

Monday, December 22, 2014

"I've got you..."

This blog may make some of you uncomfortable, as I will be talking about the healing power of touch.  If that does make you uncomfortable, please stop now and know that next week's topic will be different!

For those of you still here, I want to share something that has become an important realization to me in the last six months, as it has been such a surprise. It is intimate and personal, yet I think important.  It has to do with sleeping with someone - not sex - but actually sleeping.

You see, Bob and I shared a bed for nineteen and a half years.  Very early in our marriage we somehow decided that it was too hot and disruptive to hold each other during the night and still get a good night's sleep.  And so we slept side by side but without touch.  And to be honest, over the years when I saw people sleeping and holding each other on TV or in movies, I was 99% certain that they just did that for the cameras.  After all, I believed that people can't actually get good sleep that way!

Imagine my surprise after marrying Michael six months ago when he immediately wanted to hold me all through the night.  I thought, "well, we can try it but I can't imagine that we will get much sleep."  For the first few nights, I didn't sleep much as I'm a light sleeper.  But then I got used to it.  And I have grown to absolutely love it.  Suddenly, the bed is a haven, a safe place where being held is so healing and powerful.  It is private and intimate, and no-one enters in that sacred place.  To enjoy that for seven hours a night is an amazing thing!  It makes you feel that you can face any troubles in the daytime, knowing that there will be healing again that night.  If you have experienced this type of touch and affection for your entire married life, then you are indeed blessed.  I wish I could turn back the hands of time and do it differently with Bob as I think it would have made our marriage even stronger and healthier.

Not only is being held a delight, but whenever Michael stirs during the night, he usually whispers some words of love to me for a second (almost unconsciously) and then falls right back to sleep.  On one of the first nights when he stirred, with his arms around me, he said reassuringly "I've got you."  I remember smiling and thinking to myself, "Really?  You've got me?  Hmmm...not sure I need that.  After all, I'm this tough missionary lady who has survived rogues, arrests, a husband's death, and being alone in Africa.  I think I've proven that I am not the type of woman who needs a man." 

Yet, over the months, I have learned something additionally important.  I do need someone to hold me and tell me that they've "got me".  I have learned that I'm not so tough.  I have learned that in many ways, this is how I was made to be at this time in my life - in relationship, in communion, both a helpmate to and a helpmate of another person.  God has used Michael to slowly break down that wall of independence.  The thing I love about Michael is that he has always seen me as Renita the person, and not Renita the missionary or Renita the widow or any other role.  And so when he says he's "got me," he is telling me that NOT because I am needy or weak or need reassurance, but simply because he loves me.  And that lesson has pointed me back to the realization of my dependence on God as well.  I want to feel the embrace of God and know that He's "got me" but too often I don't want to bother Him, or I think I need to solve my issues for myself, or even worse, for Him.  But God's desire for me, like Michael's, is one of pure love and acceptance, and He has proven over and over again to me that He's "got me."

That is one of the gifts of Christmas time - the message that He's "got us" whether we are married or single, old or young, wise or naive. The message is that it doesn't matter what we have or have not done, said or not said, thought or not thought; He loves us and He desires to be intimate with us and hold us in His safe, reliable, and ever-loving arms. And likewise, I think the message for us is that we need each other to be the hands and feet of Jesus, to hug and encourage, to "have" each other when we need each other and even when we don't.

Since getting married, Michael and I have heard independently from countless people, in many places, how much better we look, how much healthier, more rested, more youthful, and more lovely we look.  [In fact, it has happened so often that I shudder to think of how terrible I must have looked before - and that it was obvious to so many people!]  I believe that this change is a reflection of the healing power of touch, of safety, and of the joys of marriage.

As we enter this week of Christmas, my prayer for all of you, dear friends, is that you experience the loving arms of God and know that through the birth of Christ we can be assured that, indeed, He's got us.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Changes, Changes...

This is my last day in Kenya as a resident.  I leave Kenya this afternoon and will return at the end of February.  But when I return, I will return as a guest.

I have lived in Africa since 2005 and this is the first time since then that I am adjusting myself to become a resident of Michigan again.  The times that I have been home since 2005 were either for transition time to a new country or to work from the US while my kids were home in the summer.

So there is some identity shifting that is happening again and most of it is good.  It is right that this happen at this time.  If Church-based Business as Mission is to become a global ministry, the work must be developed in a way that is more global than African.  And at the rate of demand that we are seeing from multiple countries, it is no longer efficient for me to live in a country for two-three years to implement.

But change is always stressful and usually a bit painful.  It is bittersweet.  While I am looking forward to living with my husband and being closer to my children, it means I need to say goodbye to life here.  While I am excited about starting this work in Egypt and Ghana in 2015, I feel like I was just getting to know Kenya.  Relationships are beginning to blossom and that growth will be interrupted.  And the work feels like it is exploding now, with calls and emails from people wanting to know more and have us come to their area.

And so leaving is a bit painful.

But I am sure that leaving is the right thing to do at this time.  It has helped that I have left twice before and have seen the work continue even stronger in my absence, in both Liberia and Ghana.  It helps to know that there are very strong Kenyan men and women who can take this work and carry it further with greater vision and passion than what I bring.  In fact, I had a most amazing meeting on Friday with the Advocacy sub-committee as they argued with passion about keeping this work Church-based, and not focused on growth and numbers.  I actually teared up to hear them make arguments about something I am so passionate about, and to hear them argue with more wisdom than I have!

Two weeks ago we began to do the final surveys for the pilot project, which will be in progress until the end of March.  I also posted two new positions to start April 1st as we transition from a pilot project to a permanent department of the Africa Theological Seminary.  I pray for good leaders to come forward and apply.  And I have to trust that He who began this work before I even conceived of it will be faithful to complete it and carry it on.  I have no doubt that He is in this and will do this.

But I have to admit as well that I leave with some sense of fear. Africa keeps me grounded and keeps me real.  When I live in the US, I tend to forget about real life struggles.  My vision starts to narrow.  For example, this past week I witnessed three accidents.  That alone keeps me praying for traveling mercies every day for myself and loved ones.  And I am so aware of God's protection over me in nine years to not have had an accident (other than bumping a person in Liberia with my side-view mirror which nearly resulted in a riot).  Another example:  This past week, the car I used was being used for surveys, and so I had to go by motorcycle taxi in the rain to a meeting.  As I rode and grumbled in my heart because I was cold and wet, that grumble lasted just an instant before I realized that many more people were walking in the rain because they couldn't afford the motorcycle taxi.  Additionally, daily here we hear news about people being killed because of their faith or dying due to medical issues in which "it becomes too expensive to save" the person (as a pastor wrote me this week about one of our business members who died at a young age).  The US news seems obsessive in what I would call trite stories of celebrities or stories of "national interest."

I will miss that immediate, in-your-face, perspective.

I live so simply here and I fear entering a consumerist society and falling into the trap of what I "need."  For example, for the past couple of months I have only had a toaster oven in my room on which to cook.  I could have gone to buy a hot plate and propane tank but I decided to be content with it and figure out how to cook with a toaster oven (it's actually quite a useful appliance!).  I would never had made that decision if I lived in the US.

And so I worry and fear.  And I feel sadness and grief.  I love Africa.  I love the people, the culture, the roads (yes, the roads!  I love driving in the mud and dodging potholes and donkeys and cows and people and motorcycles!), the animals, the environment.  I will miss monkeys trying to break into the office or my room and the sound of their feet running on the roof.  [I will NOT miss noisy banded crows that I would love to take out with a slingshot.]  I will miss the beautiful nature of this country.  I will miss worship in Swahili.  I will miss how open and accessible life is here.  I love so much and have learned so much.  Africa has truly changed me and I know that I will always be a "third culture" person, not really fitting in either Africa or the US.

But I trust God's leading and guiding.  He has not failed me yet (even though I have disagreed with Him about some paths and have been surprised by Him on other paths) and I believe He has a plan going forward that will not only be good for Discipling Marketplace Leaders, but also good for Renita Reed-Thomson, His American-Kenyan-Ghanaian-Liberian-Canadian daughter.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

An Opportunity to Pray...and to Give....

Last week's picture with Moffat Weru in the center.
I don't think I write posts like this very often.  I usually try to stay away from requesting donations in my blog, keeping the blog more purely a journal.  But I feel compelled about this one.

Moffat Weru, the pastor that I wrote about just last week, suffered a great loss this week.  As I mentioned last week, Pastor Weru is a student at the Africa Theological Seminary and is the pastor of the Faith Tabernacle International Ministries in Kitale.  He is passionate about Church-based Business as Mission and hopes to start a class in his church soon in cooperation with several other churches.  He and his wife own a motorcycle parts shop in Kitale.  It is his business that allows him to go to school at ATS, put food on his table, and (as is the case with most pastors here who are bi-vocational) allows him to be a pastor. 

On Wednesday evening, at 10 pm, he received a call that the two "hotels" very close to his business had caught fire ("hotels" in this case refer to small cookshops).  Apparently one of them had left something burning in the coal pot, which then started the fire.  As he rushed to his business, he found hundreds and hundreds of motorcycle taxis (boda-bodas) jamming the street in front of the fire.  He heard them calling their friends to come to where the fire was.

The two hotels burned to the ground.
He fought his way through the crowd to get to his business.  Upon arriving, he found the iron door had been broken down and the contents of his shop had been moved into the middle of the big crowd.  The large glass cabinet, which held about $5000 worth of small parts had been moved into the middle of the big crowd with the glass had been broken and contents gone, and the large shipment that had not yet been unpacked, was gone.  The people watching this fire said they broke in to help save the contents.  Yet they skipped the other two businesses that were closer to the fire.  Why is that you might ask?  Well, it seems they wanted the parts and saw an opportunity.  As they "helped" to "save" his supplies, they also helped themselves.  As Moffat went to the back of the building, he found that they had also broken into that side of the building to help themselves to the stock in his storeroom.

Pastor Weru's shop is the one in the corner.
But thankfully, Moffat had done everything right.  He had fire and theft insurance AND the businesses there together had hired a security firm (who is covered by their insurance if there is theft on their watch). BUT Moffat's insurance and the security insurance ruled that because of the large crowd and the nature of them breaking in to "save" his things, that this was "terrorism and political violence" and therefore he was not covered.  When he pushed them on this, that the cause of this was the fire, they said that he should not have removed the items from the store (which he didn't).  He should have left it to burn and then they would cover it.  The total loss of goods totaled about $10,000 US - a large amount for any person anywhere to lose, but particularly devastating in Kitale, Kenya.  I didn't ask Moffat if he had taken the new goods on loan, which is typical - I think I was afraid to hear the answer.
Pastor Weru, his wife, and two daughters.

What makes me angry here is that he had done everything right.  He was a hard worker. He had insurance.  He had security.  He was using his business to bless Kitale, not only in the business but also by allowing it to allow him to pastor a church.  He was pursuing his theological education.  He is passionate about business being a good and holy calling.  And the week after being commissioned as a Marketplace Minister, this happens.  And yet, as you can see by the picture of Moffat, his wife, and two beautiful girls, the smile on his face has not left.  He believes that God can bring good from this and will continue to put one foot in front of another.  He will revive his shop and sell to those who stole from him.

If you are interested in helping Moffat recover from this by making a donation, please go to www.icmusa.org and select my name.  In the comment section, please note:  "20065M - Pastor Weru" and I will make sure it gets to him.  Or maybe you would like to pay for his next class at ATS, which is $200; if so, write "20065M - Pastor Weru scholarship."  If instead you would like to give Moffat a loan to help him rebuild his shop, please email me at renitar@icmusa.org.  We offer 5% interest to those who would like to invest money in businesses for a year, so if you invested $1000, at the end of the year we would return your $1000 investment with interest.  Either a gift or a loan would bless him. 

Please pray for him, his family, and his church.  I am thankful for the body of Christ around the world!