Monday, August 18, 2014

Wait! Before you snap!

I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with taking pictures in Africa over the years.  I have observed more than a few altercations with Africans objecting to their picture being taken by North Americans.  I encourage guests to get permission before snapping photos.  Yet, I feel I need to put photos up every week on this blog; every quarter I try to include pictures in my prayer letter; and every time I do a presentations in North America, I want to use pictures, which convey "more than a thousand words." 

The problem comes through the idea that people want to see (or perhaps more viscerally respond to) pictures that connote need, heartache, hunger, disease, or poverty. 

I'm taking a class now on culture and global change, and it described pictures of African babies with swollen bellies and flies hovering around them as "pornographic."  Really, I thought?  That is a very strong word.  But looking up the dictionary definitions, pornography is "obscene pictures with little artistic merit;" obscene is defined as "offensive to morality or decency."  The author of the book goes on to say this:
Photography combines voyeurism and control because visual images are taken by the powerful of the powerless; the subjects of the photograph are transformed into objects by virtue of being 'shot.' So photography can produce the colonized and the powerless as fixed realities:  entirely knowable and visible, but equally 'other,' irreconcilably different:  the objects of desire and derision. (Young 1990: 143).
These pictures are negative images which often lead to the wrong type of development, focused on charity, stripping of dignity, and development of dependency.  And wrong development has been pushed by many for many years   Development that objectifies and paints a helpless, hopeless picture.  Development that expresses need without expressing innate capacity.  Development that damages rather than restores - often by well intentioned people who wanted to help but do so with a short term perspective and maybe even self-serving in making ourselves feel good about what we are doing.

Contrast these pictures to this advertisement below by Christian Aid, where a young woman is on a bike, a national doing something positive in her community.  This is a positive image in which there is a name given to the person, she is working, there is mobility, a sense of community, and the need for health care which is universal.  This is a great picture of a glowing empowered subject: independent, competent, and self-determined,  instead of an object of development who is hopeless and despairing.
(BTW, "Third World" is no longer politically correct.  "Developing countries" or "Majority World" or "Two-thirds World" is better.)
So what to do with this dilemma?  I want people to see a positive, hopeful Africa.  But I also need to raise funds.  I want people's hearts to be moved by the positive, sustainable change that we see in the work that we do.  Yet pictures of classes or pictures of businesses are not as evocative as pictures of orphans or orphanages.  The challenge to myself is not to objectify people and justify my behavior by trying to raise funds for a good ministry. [Michael reminded me of the Benny Hinn story where he took a sad-looking boy, stood in front of a dilapidated building, with a makeshift orphanage sign, and raised a bunch of money. I wish I could say that I haven't experienced similar stories across Africa.  Ask me sometime to share what I think about orphanages in Africa because of these experiences.]  And my challenge to all of us is to be careful how quickly our emotions are moved by a picture - make sure that the brain has a chance to keep pace with the emotions; and if there is an opportunity to travel internationally, be careful in how those pictures are taken or presented. And feel free to hold me accountable if you catch me drifting toward bad development!

Monday, August 11, 2014

So....What's next?

"You're married now...your time in Kenya is wrapping up...the pilot project is coming to a close...what's next, Renita?"

That is the main question I have been getting of late; an answer that I'm happy to report that God has been slowing revealing as He had prepared it for me way in advance!  I continue to love Him and trust Him with all the twists and turns that my life takes.

I went into this summer knowing that those questions would need to get some serious answers.  Some of those answers already began to show themselves last year when Dr. Phil Walker, the Founder and President of International Christian Ministries, challenged me to do an eighteen month pilot project on Church based Business as Mission, and then to write a report on the research to see whether this work could translate globally.

After many conversations, prayer time, and reflection, this looks to be the path ahead, knowing that our sight is often limited by our humanity, and wanting to remain open to His direction.
  • I leave for Kenya on September 2.
  • I hope to return for a ten day trip in late October for the Partners Worldwide International Conference with four Kenyans who have been implementing this work in Kenya, and will have opportunities to share about this ministry on their church and denomination. 
  • I will then move back to Grand Rapids toward the end of December, with the pilot project mostly under completion.  Some of the final interviews (which must be done by someone other than me) will take place in January.
  • Beginning in January, I will start looking at the results of our work and begin writing an extensive report on the work and on our findings.  We are beginning to think that what may come out of this is a church program for Church based Business as Mission that can be applied across many contexts, denominations, and cultures.  The development of that work will take priority for me in the first half of 2015.
  •  I will be back in Kenya for the month of March to teach at the seminary as well as follow up on the work there.  I will also be working hard to finish my MBA in Sustainable Development in the first half of 2015.
  • Beginning the second half of 2015, assuming that the research results look as we suspect and I am able to write comprehensively on the subject, I will begin to roll this work out globally, starting with two countries.  It is too soon to tell, but the countries that we keep talking about are Egypt, Nigeria, or Ghana.  We would like to try this work in a country that is not "Christian" which is why we are thinking of Egypt (plus ICM and Christian Reformed World Missions have partners there already), and also under consideration are Nigeria and Ghana as they have some excellent foundations already which could be built on.  So I plan on spending some time in each of the two countries selected in the second half of 2015.
  • I will travel back to Kenya at least once or twice more in 2015 (for a total of 2-3 months)
That's the plan as we see it at this time.  Lord willing, we will continue to take a step forward each day and trust Him to direct our paths in this work and its development. Please continue to pray for this work and that God's will is done in it!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Remembering Bob...

41st birthday (with Noah six months old)
This Saturday would have been Bob's sixtieth birthday.  Sixty years.  Wow.  Hard to believe.  We were fourteen years apart and I think as we grew older that gap would have made itself a bit more obvious.  I'm sure he would be rolling his eyes at the fact that I am even writing this.  Not just because of the number but also because I'm drawing attention to his birthday.

Bob was not a big fan of birthdays...AT ALL!  When I threw him a surprise party for his 50th birthday, he made it very clear to me that he was not one of those types who says not to make a big deal of it but secretly want the attention.  He did NOT want the attention.
40th birthday (with Hannah at 15 months)

But as August 9 approaches, I can help but remember and celebrate the gift of his life.  I remember the countless apple pies or rhubarb pies that I made for his birthdays.  We had a tradition of picking our favorite meals to cook for birthdays.  For Bob, it was often ribs.

Bob continues to live on in our hearts and memories.  Not a day goes by where the kids or Michael and I have some brief comment or memory of him.  (It is such a gift that Michael knew Bob as well and can share in our memories and even contribute!)  In part, the daily memories is because much of our language is peppered with "Bob-isms."  He was constantly quoting lines from movies or songs.

As many of you loved "Yers Trooly" as well, I thought it appropriate to share this birthday with you.

We love you and miss you, Robert Allen Reed!  We thank God for your life and the gift that you have been to so many!  I still have people come up to me whom you counseled who tell me that your words continue to have an impact on their life!  We celebrate the day that you received life 60 years ago!

Celebrating his birthday with my family.  My parents anniversary is August 10 (this year is 57 years!) so the celebrations often were side by side.
This picture was actually taken when I was about to drive to Toronto with Hannah as a baby and he was worried....asking me to drive safely.  But this plaintive look is one I would get in terms of not doing anything for his birthday as well.  He had such an expressive face!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Transforming an Ugly Character

Depending on the circles you are in, missionaries are viewed as either very good or very bad.  When I am in the US, I tend to be introduced as a "missionary" and I am listed as a "missionary" by the churches who support me.  However, when in Africa and I have to fill out "occupation" on the customs and immigration cards, I never say "missionary" nor do I identify myself as such in any introductions or conversations.   

Recently, I was given an article recently by my friend and brother in ministry, David Graf.  It was from Christianity Today, entitled "The World the Missionaries Made."  It addressed the stereotype of missionaries as closely connected to colonialism, with great cultural insensitivity, paternalism, racism, self-centeredness, and exploitation.  This is the description I hear the most of in Africa; it is the image portrayed in the well-known book, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.  Instead of this stereotype, this article addressed research done by a dean at Fuller Theological Seminary, Robert Woodberry, who studied the statistical link between democracy and Protestantism.  Could it be that missionaries did some things right?

Robert Woodberry studied why some nations developed stable representative democracies in which citizens enjoy the rights to vote, speak, and assemble freely, while neighboring countries suffer authoritarian rulers and internal conflict.   He also looked at public health and economic growth in countries that had seemingly similar geography, cultural background, and natural resources and created a statistical model to test the connection between missionary work and the health of nations.  He looked very carefully to be sure not to confuse correlation with causation.  For example, what if missionaries went to places predisposed to democracy?  Or what if the colonizing country was actually the catalyst for the move toward democracy?

What he found was that the impact of missions on global democracy was huge. This became his claim:  "Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women) and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations."

He had proof that missionaries had educated women and the poor; they had promoted widespread printing of tens of thousands of religious texts; led nationalist movements that empowered ordinary citizens; and mass education and mass literacy were very deliberate projects of missionaries as they wanted nationals to be able to read the Bible.   Literacy, of course, leads to democratic movements.

This research has since been picked up by the American Political Science movement and Woodberry has received awards for his work on the subject.  It is beginning to change the way scholars, aid workers, and economists think about democracy and development.

There is something here for the church to learn as well.  The ugly character of the missionary can be transformed and we can see a sign of God's greater purposes being worked out through the lives of imperfect but devoted people.

For me, it helps me not to cringe as much when I hear the word "missionary" ascribed to me.  It makes me feel affirmed in the work that I do in church based economic development, which I also hope leads to greater democracy, voice for the poor, and greater justice overall.

This past week we gave out a second round of loans, this time to four groups and four individuals, including several new church groups and including the city of Eldoret now.  Kitale started a new class with ten new churches in attendance again.  The three new associations formed through our work thus far are meeting and continuing to find their voice in their sector.  I always thought I was a different type of missionary, doing business development rather than church planting - but now I feel like I fit in more closely.  I still probably won't refer to myself as a missionary, but maybe I won't cringe as much when it happens.

For the full article from Christianity Today, go here.

Monday, July 21, 2014

"Want to Love your Job? The Church Can Help..."

Michael found this article from Christianity Today and even though I wasn't going to send out a blog this week, I thought this article is helpful in illustrating the work in which we are involved.  So here it is (website can be seen at here).  As the writer notes, the church has to emphasize faith-work intervention...and you have to show up.  I love that this is research based and US based.  The question I now struggle with as we move from pilot project to global implementation, how do help churches focus more on faith-work intervention?  Do we understand the benefits of Christians loving their job?

Want to Love Your Job? Church Can Help, Study Says

The catch: The church you attend has to emphasize faith-work integration—and you have to show up.
Want to Love Your Job? Church Can Help, Study Says

If they can be tempted away from their workplaces to worship, churches can make parishioners happier with their jobs, new research shows.

Regular attenders who frequent a church that teaches God is present at your workplace, work is a mission from God, or that faith can guide work decisions and practices is a good sign for your career, according to a recent study from Baylor University.

Those who often attend churches with that philosophy are more likely to be committed to their work, be satisfied with their work and look for ways to expand or grow the business.

The effect isn't huge, but it is statistically significant, said Baylor researcher Jerry Park. Park and his fellow researchers point out in the study that the small effect size might be meaningful in another way: As an indication that current survey questions and methods do a poor job of measuring the importance and influence of religion in respondents' lives.  (CT previously reported on the anomalous non-Christians who say they interpret the Bible literally, and The Atlantic pointed out the difficulty of asking survey respondents to decide if religion could answer all the world's problems or is old fashioned and out of date.)

"Being at a church identified as emphasizing faith-work integration was not sufficient to predict job satisfaction," Park said. "Similarly, just going to church, regardless of what is being taught, has little effect on job satisfaction. However, when one frequently attends a church that emphasizes faith-work integration, job satisfaction increases."

As Park points out, one challenge might be in getting to church in the first place: 24 percent of religiously affiliated Americans mention practical difficulties, including work conflicts, as a barrier to church attendance, according to a Pew Research Center study.

Of church attenders—not just those who identify with a religion—more than a quarter say their work schedules make it difficult for them to regularly participate in congregational events, according to a 2008 Faith Communities Today survey. Church distractions associated with this "secularization of Sunday" also come from children's sports programs and school-related activities, that survey found. A 2013 study published in the Review of Religious Research confirmed the attraction of sports.
Despite our busy schedules, reports of U.S. church attendance have held fairly steady over the last decade. Pew found that 37 percent of Americans in 2013 say they attend worship services at least weekly (vs. 39 percent in 2003), and 29 percent of Americans today say they seldom or never attend worship services (vs. 25 percent in 2003).

CT profiles workers who integrate faith in their jobs, including Harrison Higgins, a woodworker whose theology informs his furniture making. CT tells his story here.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Perspective in Austria


Schonbrunn Castle with 1400 rooms.
Michael and I just returned from an eight day trip to Vienna, Austria.  Michael had to attend a conference there of the International Society of Biblical Literature, and I was able to tag along with him as a part vacation/part honeymoon/part writing-a-paper-for-my-Economics-class.  When Michael learned of this opportunity shortly after our engagement, he began to give plasma regularly to save up in order to buy my plane ticket.  It was a great gift of love he gave me in this trip.

Overview of Vienna
Vienna is an incredible city.  The architecture is beyond the ability to capture by camera.  The buildings are beautiful.  The landscaping is inviting, with benches everywhere beckoning people to relax and take in the sights.  The history and culture is rich and deep.  The food is very rich and the desserts are to die for.  Seriously.  A.MAZ.ING. I've never had desserts like this before.  We visited a church that is 1000 years old; we spent time in a castle and a museum the likes of which I've never seen before.

And this is where perspective begins to come in.  The week starts out with the conference, and Michael is introducing me to authors who are experts in their field as it relates to Biblical research, history, and worlds that are yet unknown to me.  When I talk about Business as Mission, there is some interest, but I'm reminded of how small a part of the world my passion fits in.  These people too are part of a very small crowd of people who deeply delve into aspects of the Bible that are unique and intense!

Inside St. Stephens Cathedral, built in 1100 AD.
Then as I tour this historically rich and ornate city, and visit museums with artifacts that date back to times before Christ, my perspective increased even more.  People were creating the most beautiful artifacts 2000-3000 years ago, with detail and talent that I could never muster.  Translations of the Bible or the Koran dating back hundreds and hundreds of years ago, captured on little scraps of papyrus, that require skills and dedication in both the translation and the preservation.  This world is so rich with creativity and talent; people made in the image of God over centuries, living out their purposes and their callings.  We often found ourselves shaking our heads as we walked through this city, having been reminded of an amazing perspective on this world and its people.
St. Stephen's Cathedral - damaged during WWII.

I admit that I struggled with being in such a rich place.  While I typically live amidst great poverty, I found myself both admiring these incredible works of art and rich cultural pieces, while knowing the financial cost that it takes for those to be made and preserved.  Additionally, I am acutely aware that most people I know and work with will never get to see such wealth and such beauty.  It raised up conflicting feelings during the course of the week. We wondered what things would be like in heaven - whether such great works of art and creativity would be replicated there as well.  We wondered what God's appreciation is for these types of pieces would be. 

It was a beautiful week, filled with learning about God's people.  Vienna boasts that it is home to Mozart, Freud, Johann Strauss, Einstein, Hayak, von Misis, and many, many others.  Praise God for His creation and His people!

Two things we noted about Vienna:  first, they love rich meat and desserts; they don't love vegetables.  Second, they walk and bike a lot, but they also smoke a lot - all ages, all the time!
The Parliament
City Hall, which also hosted a free film festival each night on the large screen pictured here.  We were able to watch a 1940 showing of a Romeo and Juliet ballet one night, under the stars, with hundreds of others.  It was beautiful.
Freud's apartment and office.
We were in the room where Mozart gave his first concert, at the age of 6, to the imperial family.
This beautiful cafe, Cafe Central, had the most amazing desserts. Yes, this beautiful building with intricate ceiling work is just a cafe.
The Museum of Art History - the building was as beautiful as its contents.  One could take a day just to explore the building, let alone the amazing artifacts found inside.
We were so thankful for this time and opportunity to see another piece of God's world, as well as to have this time with just the two of us!