Monday, January 27, 2014

A word from Michael

As you know if you follow this blog, Michael Thomson arrived in Kenya last Sunday.  While he travels a lot for his work throughout the US and in Europe, this is his first trip to Africa.   He has lived along with my Kenyan experience via Skype for the past eleven months, but it has been good for him to see firsthand the various things that have been described to him over that period of time.  I believe that seeing it firsthand has eased some anxiety, especially surrounding my competency as a driver on difficult roads, although the dangers of driving here has not escaped him.  So after a week of visiting, I thought it would be nice to hear some reflections from a fist time visitor and he agreed to share some thoughts.

It's been lovely to fly to Kenya to meet my beloved Renita. Having never been in Africa before I was not sure what the experience would be like. Though lost in the joy of being reunited, I still had time to take in some of the sights and here are some inter-cultural first impressions.

Kenya has some of the most amazing wild-life on the planet. God's creative impulse seems unrestrained in this land. On my birthday no less I had the opportunity to see up close the largest feline predator on the planet, the stately lion along with playful cubs; the largest land mammal, the wise and majestic elephant; the tallest land mammal, the graceful  giraffe, and the surprisingly enchanting rhinoceros. Many other creatures that God saw fit to imagine were also in
full splendor. The saddest comment I heard in relation to this was that the amazingly beautiful rhinoceros that used to number in the thousands in the very park we were visiting were down to 2 specimen and these had four full time guards there to protect them and their precious horns.

Kenya appears to be a land of contrasts. There are places that seem not to have moved from the dawn of time. Small communities of mud-huts with either thatched or tin roofs eking out an existence abut more middle class and even very nice homes. One nomadic group, the Masai, still roam and move livestock over the plains. However in a particular modern twist, amid shanty dwellings one finds a rather posh western style  home for the chief surrounded by smaller homes for his wives, and out from there the more basic stick or mud homes for others in the tribe. Kenya is a land where glue boys walk the streets of the city, where farmers work hard to feed and clothe their families, where endless traffic of cars, boda bodas (motorcycle taxis), cows, goats, pedestrians, make driving on their compact and sometimes very bumpy gravel or red dusty roads a virtual obstacle course. 
The Kenyan people seem to be warm and generous of spirit. One fellow named John who managed a large flower farm gave us a tour. It was clear that he knew the business inside out, whether the horticultural or the economic issues, or even international markets. Had he the capital to start his own large flower farm, he could be running his own place instead of working for someone else (in this case, a white Kenyan). Still, he took a good 40 minutes of his time to answer questions and explain things. He was courteous, professional, and genuinely considerate of we the visitors. Just yesterday, when we got Renita's car washed I was impressed with the extreme attention to detail on the part of the garage hand who worked dust out of every imaginable nook and cranny on that small car...not before making sure we both found chairs and were comfortable as we waited for him to be done. At every turn the Kenyan people have shown themselves professional, considerate, and a pleasure to get to know and to meet.

Kenya is a land where the blossoming of a real middle class is at hand. We have seen several small and developing  businesses...and yet, it is a Chinese corporation that got the contract to turn Kenya's rough and ready roads into first class speedways. The effects of globalization is a double edged sword that may bring opportunity but also conceivably outsource the country's infrastructure and key industries.

With that in mind, I was proud to witness Renita teach Business as Mission to receptive and  eager groups of business people in several communities. 

It will be a sad moment to board a plane and leave Kenya behind, and to leave Renita as well.

John, in one of the greenhouses, showing one of the new varieties of roses that he helped to create for the flower markets in Amsterdam. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Departures, Arrivals, and Feedback (a day early)

Notice Hannah and Noah messing with each other behind my head.
My dear children left Kenya on Saturday morning.  It was truly a wonderful month with them.  The first two weeks were touristy stuff; the second two weeks were more quiet, on the serene campus of the Africa Theological Seminary, where they took a class in basic counseling skills.  With no jobs or other friends around, we got to spend a lot of time together and had many great conversations.  Both Hannah and Noah read a lot of books, Hannah soaked up some sun, and both got to sleep earlier than they had in a long time.  I loved having them in my world and I loved the fact that they grew to love it here as well.  I miss them already!

But they both took comfort in the fact that they weren't leaving me alone in Kenya for long, for as they left Kenya, Michael Thomson was preparing to fly to Kenya.  In fact, Michael, Hannah, and Noah were all at the Amsterdam airport at the same time and they were able to
connect as the picture shows!  Michael will be in Kenya for two weeks and I am looking forward to showing him a bit of my world; he will be able to see my work firsthand.  As a number of you know, it is one thing to read or see pictures about Africa, but it is very different to experience it yourself.

Last week's blog definitely drew a good bit of reaction, and although I posted a (first) feedback blog just two weeks ago, I feel that I should follow last week's blog up with some of your feedback again. There was a great mix of challenge and support and I was amazed by the thoughtful responses sent to me!  What really challenged me in the responses was to re-examine the issue of motivation in ministry again.  I remember when my former mentor and colleague Earl James said to me, "Most of the ministry that most people do is to work out our own salvation."  I remember thinking that was cynical at the time, but also true.  All of the quotes below were used with permission.

The first is from Mwaya Kitavi, the Director of Africa Ministries for the Christian Reformed World Missions:
Amen Renita.  You are a courageous woman.  You say things that no one dare say.  For such a time as this, your voice is needed.  I pray that this blog will stir the heart of many and rethink their approach to doing missions in Africa.
I am sitting in a class with 20 pastors and are discussing about unhealthy dependency and the issue of missionaries is at the center of our discussions.
Keep talking Renita.  My prayers are with you.
I think it's important that we hear African voices weigh in on this matter.  I had a number of discussions last week with Kenyans about this and there was definitely a feeling of assent.  One quote regarding this subject caught me though when talking about people coming who are insensitive to the culture and even condescending and patronizing.  He said, "Africans know how to spit out the bones when they eat fish."  In other words, able to keep the good and spit out the bad.  I appreciated that!

[In fact, let me share the reason for the fish bone comment as it may help you understand where I am coming from and why I feel strongly on the subject.  The comment was made following a conversation reacting to a group of women who came from the US to Kenya and did a chapel service at the seminary for about 40 pastors, who ranged in age from 25-50+ years of age.  The goal of the women was to teach Kenyans about hygiene and first aid.  They taught the pastors how to wash their hands while singing the "ABC" song.  And then they made the pastors get up, do it, and sing along.  Yes.  The ABC song.  This to Kenyans who are fastidious about washing their hands.  In fact, you have to wash your hands before you drink a cup of chai here or drink a soft drink!  I was mortified.  It was probably the most embarrassing moment I have experienced in Africa on behalf of Americans.  When you see things like that, you do have an inner urge to protect a people who have been colonized, exploited, and now patronized and insulted.] 

The next is an excerpt from Marv Wittenburg, who works for Marketplace Chaplains USA:
And we know that in the area of motives for service, things can become muddled too.  In most instances there is gratification and a warmed heart for the faithful servant while the one who is being served literally receives the love and grace of God as well as the benefits from the deeds of kindness.  But what is amazing is that even when the message of Christ is proclaimed with out-of-balance motives, Paul says, "The important think is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached.  And because of this, I rejoice.  Yes, and I will continue to rejoice."  (Phil. 1:18)
I think we must always be a faithful witness to the truth spoken in love (and you've done that).  And it is also always important to seriously examine our methods (within our limitations).  God give you grace and leadership by His Holy Spirit to continue to do that.  As a trainer that is probably the area where I would focus, e.g. could I do a piece of training that could make this better.
And another from Harvey Kiekover, former missionary in Nigeria:
How much of our service "in the Lord's name" really is in his name?  Even our best selves have less than unsoiled motives.  And yet the Lord uses us.  That is humbling and gratifying.
Maybe you are right, Renita, in saying that the Lord doesn't need you.  But I question that.  If the Lord needed a donkey for his trip to Jerusalem, I suspect he has some "need" for you and a donkey (I was going to say "jackass") like e.  You are a coworker with Christ in your work. We see it and appreciate it, Renita.
And lastly, an excerpt from Denny Hoekstra, a long-term volunteer with Partners Worldwide who has been working in Kenya for many, many years.  His email was long and thorough as he has thought through this issue many times.  If interested, let me know and I can email it to you.  I like his summary of the issue and thoughts on what to do about this.
In summary, my view is not to be too judgmental of the persons doing such short-term "airmail from God" evangelism and to simply good naturally brush off their attempts to improve my spiritual commitment by "forcing" me to imitate them.  I think the most serious shortcomings are the dependency enhancing consequence and the comparatively wasteful use of God-given resources over which we have responsibility and control.  Therefore my thoughts are to focus on these two areas as most helpful.
Good stuff.  Good discussion.  Thanks for being on this journey with me!

Monday, January 13, 2014

God's Gift to Man

This may seem like an Epiphany reflection blog - and in some ways it is.  But not in a typical way.  This blog may cause some controversy.  But I think it is something I need to say.
The house I live in.

As you may know, I rent a room in a three bedroom house on the campus of the African Theological Seminary (ATS).  The other two bedrooms are often rented out to visiting guests -  not just guests of ATS but other ministries or non-profits can rent the rooms as well.  The price is about $8 US per night, so very affordable.  I have met many, many people over the last year as they come and go in Kitale, from all over; people involved in different ministries, each having their unique story for what brought them to Kenya.

Sadly, there is a growing discomfort in me whenever a new guest arrives.  I find that increasingly I have a desire to hide in my room and not engage these guests.  Recently I have been thinking through my apparent anti-social behavior. In time, I came to the heart of what the issue is for me.  Maybe I can best explain this with a recent example.  For two weeks in December, two guests shared the house with me.  They were two men from the East side of the US, one whose day job was maintenance and one who worked in Human Resources; the first one African American (mentioned only to dispel the myth that Caucasians are the only ones who come to do mission work) and the other one Caucasian; both were very sweet and kind, seeming to have gentle spirits.  For all intents and purposes, it seemed that both men appeared to love the Lord very much.  Both men desired to see people come to know Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.  They preached revival services in two different towns, at multiple churches, multiple services, day after day.  On a particular Monday they greeted me, thrilled to share that three people gave their lives to Christ the day before at the worship service; in fact, one of the three had been "a member of the church for twenty years!" they excitedly shared.  Both men were willing to spend their personal time and money to travel 7500 miles, to come to Kitale and preach the Word.

And there, in my humble and admittedly fallible opinion, lies the problem.  But what could possibly be wrong with that?  What could possibly be amiss in coming at the sense of divine prompting and offering one's talents to spread the gospel according to one's sense of calling?

Allow me to explain, and because what I am about to write may seem like a new idea to you, even one that is counter-intuitive, please be patient with me as you read.  I know what I am writing may appear cynical.  However, I think it is important for the Church to struggle with these questions.  Hopefully we can struggle together to discern the good and the true with such endeavors.

I have come to the view that many people who come to places like Kitale for a very brief period of time, come believing that they are God's gift to Africa.  Does that sound harsh?  They come, week by week, believing that it is their preaching ability, their God-given message, that will make a significant difference in Africa.  They set up meetings in churches, schools or orphanages, spend their own money or that of their supporters and preach for a number of days.  They then return to their contexts and declare that a certain number of people gave their lives to the Lord.  When they leave, armed with photos, videos, and testimonies, everyone who is a part of the effort winds up feeling very satisfied and fulfilled.

There are several problems with this form of mission.  First, there is the issue of self-delusion compounded by a lack of cultural understanding.  I dare to say that there has never been an unanswered altar call in Africa.  At face value, this statement is probably foolish to make and probably untrue.  However, if one takes the word "never" with a grain of salt, I think I am on solid ground to make it anyway.  It is true in most cases.  Working in three countries and having visited a number of other churches around the continent, I have never witnessed an unanswered altar call.  If some of these guests had taken the time to learn something about the host culture, they may have responded to the apparent movement of the Spirit at the altar with a little more humility.  Most Africans will answer an altar call if for no other reason than that they don't want to see the preacher embarrassed.  Someone must respond, maybe many someones, in order to help the preacher save face!  Kitale, Kenya, like many African cultures, is a warm cultures that places a much higher value on community than on the individual.  Now obviously people do respond to messages and revivals and people do come to Christ from these endeavors.  [Side point: did you know that less than 5% of those who give their lives to Christ in a revival remain in the church?]  The question that outsiders should humbly ask themselves is whether the Holy Spirit speaks more strongly through them than through the pastors who are already here?  There seems to be an unspoken arrogance under a veneer of good intentions in a lot of this western short term revival circuit preaching.

[In a recent discussion of this issue with a fellow American working in Africa, this American shared the following story:  He was new to Africa and was preaching at a church in Uganda.  He gave an altar call at the end of the sermon and over one hundred people responded!  He started thinking to himself that this is his calling!  That God has gifted him with evangelism!  After the service, he said casually to his host, "That went pretty well, didn't it?"  Expecting an affirmative and encouraging response, he was surprised to hear his host say, "Well, actually, less people responded than normal."]

Let's press on to the second issue.  For argument's sake, if indeed the Holy Spirit does speak louder through these outsiders, then should these men and women leave so soon?  Is there not a corresponding responsibility to disciple those they believe their ministry has brought to Christ?  Are they building any capacity of discipleship as they move on or are they merely leaving this task to the apparently woebegone pastors who are left behind to carry on the work?
A 92 year old Kenyan pastor, attending a revival, and still taking notes!
[Note: the irony is not lost on me that we are living on a seminary campus, dedicated to training African men and women in sound, transformational theology.  Is that irony missed on these guests who come and go?]

The two men who visited in December are from a denomination that firmly believes in baptism by the Holy Spirit as a second and subsequent blessing in the life of faith.  Within moments of talking to me, they applied this theology to me and declared that I did not have the Holy Spirit and that I was in bondage.  They said I needed to be baptized in the Holy Spirit.  They gave me a number of scripture verses and told me I needed to study.  Hmmm. (And I wonder why I want to hide in my room.) Being a westerner and having been around the block a few times, I could hear their message and sift through its theological strengths and weaknesses and move on. However, it is this same approach of one way communication that these would-be missionaries bring to long established African churches as well. They come in without having taken time or humility to discern what God is already doing in the churches in Kitale or wherever else their circuit may take them. Charismatically they will parachute in, deliver their revivalist payload, be confirmed its in efficacy by the kindness of Africans at the altar, and leave with photos and stories to move donors and believers back home.

Having had their ministry thus confirmed, these two well meaning guests declare how excited they are about coming back next year for an encore. 

Now, I can hear the questions this response may well bring to you, the readers. Perhaps this is simply sour grapes. Perhaps I'm jealous because they get to leave and go back to their families. Perhaps I'm jealous that they get to leave after two weeks and feel so satisfied. I have been at this work for more than eight years and only rarely do I feel like we are making progress - true, measurable progress. What must it be like to swoop in for two weeks, do your thing, and then leave again declaring success. The appeal of such an approach is inescapable.   
I can imagine some readers struggling with this particular blog. I can hear some of your voices in my head: “But Renita, are you saying pastors shouldn't come and preach? Are you saying such  revival  meetings should not happen?” Some of you may press me a bit further. “Renita, are you not being a hypocrite in being critical of the work of others while thinking YOU have something to offer Africa?”  Good questions.  I think these questions and more need to be faced and agonized over by any would-be missionary believing they are bringing something of value to a foreign context. I'm not proposing a solution.  I'm identifying a problem that is widespread and increasingly disturbs me.  It would be great if such would-be missionaries and sending churches would wrestle with the tough questions of discernment, and honestly ask themselves: “What local capacity is being built here?  What is the long term plan? Who benefits more by a given effort?” 

Well-meaning, well-intentioned, God-fearing persons attempting to do good - but at the end of the day, I wonder who got more from it.  Sadly, I can’t escape the impression that it is often the guests who benefited rather than those in the churches where they ministered.  What most outsiders don't see is the plethora of people coming in to "do good."  They have followed their sense of call and imagine a unique moment in the history of missions. I look at the amount of money that is spent on such trips and wonder  how that money could have been used for scholarships to help the pastors already here get the education that they need to preach year round in their churches and provide ongoing discipleship for church members.  Sadly but truthfully, many a visitor will spend far more for a trip for themselves in the starring role before it would occur to them simply to give such amounts towards building indigenous capacity.

I cannot help but include myself in the circle of critical reflection traced above. In my worst moments, I know I thought that I was God's gift to the church or at least to the church in a given context.  Occasionally I still delude myself into thinking that God needs me.  Even though it’s not always pleasant, I have found that such thoughts are often rewarded by a quick dose of painful reality.

As we attempt to do good, as we attempt to spread the Word of God, and as we attempt to love our neighbor, questioning is healthy. There is no perfect answer to how to "do ministry."  Still, the church need struggle with its stewardship of money and people in our attempts.

And that's where this becomes a post-Christmas message.  At the end of the day, I am responsible to God for what I do with my gifts and talents, as are you. I am in need of a Savior and thankful for the reminder of that gift in this season.  God's gift to man is Jesus - full stop.