Monday, November 30, 2015

"A Problem For Every Solution"

Some of the pastors and the MELTI team in Cairo
Since beginning my work in Egypt, I have heard several Egyptians say that Egyptian pastors have "a problem for every solution."  I certainly know that there are people in the world who are like that - glass half empty people, as they are sometimes called - but I wondered whether this was more a statement of frustration than actuality.

I can't say that I've come up with an answer for the veracity of this comment.  Two visits to Egypt can't reveal that type of information.  But I have made an observation of some of the differences of pastors that I have encountered in Egypt, versus Kenya, Ghana, or North America.  The message of Discipling Marketplace Leaders was not received in the same way in Egypt as in these other places.  Egyptian pastors seemed to react defensively and stated that their relationship with their business people was very healthy, despite the very verbal anger and frustration heard from Egyptian Christian business people toward the Church.  There seemed to be a lack of willingness toward self-reflection on the part of the pastors.

This could be explained by the fact that the Church in Egypt is 2000 years old, as compared to the relatively young Church of Sub-Saharan Africa. Age and precedent can make thinking "outside the box" more difficult.
The narrow streets of Cairo.

But there were also a number of "problems" that were brought up for every solution.  Some of those problems listed below are quotes from the pastors as they processed whether Discipling Marketplace Leaders was a ministry that could work in their church:
  • "If I start working with business people, people will think I'm just after their money - both the business people as well as other pastors."
  • "The business people in my church will not tell me anything, even if I visit them.  They will think I am only there for their money."
  • "Pastors are absolutely forbidden to get involved in business."
  • "Work is part of the curse."
  • "It takes too long to change the mindset of people."
  • "Business people have no time to meet with us."
You can see a challenge here.  Rather than viewing themselves as the leader of the Church, and the under-shepherd to the people, the pastors seem to present themselves as victims of the culture and victims of their members.   This may be a result of what has been describe to me as part of a "siege mentality," which is more of a position of "we are under attack" and therefore walled off.  A siege mentality may include a sense of not being able to think or plan too far ahead as the future is so uncertain.  A siege mentality can show itself in defensiveness and victimization.  Wikipedia describes a siege mentality as a "collective state of mind whereby a group of people believes themselves constantly attacked, oppressed, or isolated in the face of negative intentions of the rest of the world....the result is a state of being overly fearful of surrounding peoples, and an intractably defensive attitude."

An outdoor restaurant with a proud server.
I think we sensed that in Egypt.  By the end of our trainings we were left with a remnant of pastors who seemed to understand the need of Christian business people and be open to going to next steps. But the response was underwhelming compared to the overwhelming responses that we've seen in other places.

What does that mean for the work of Discipling Marketplace Leaders?  That is something I have been processing for the past week.  I think it means a couple of things.  First of all, the Church in Egypt needs our prayers.  Working in a Muslim majority, having undergone several revolutions, with threats around from Muslim extremists is challenging enough.  But some of the hidden threats come from within - a deep seated fear that has paralyzed church leaders, or positioned them in such a stance of defensiveness that they are unable to hear truth, even when presented it by their own members.

Secondly, I think it means that the need is even more present in Egypt than in the areas that are so readily willing and able to run with this ministry.  Sure, it's easier to work with those who "get it" immediately.  Sure, it's easy to say that we should "shake the dust off our feet" if not experiencing a great welcome.  But that is surely not what we are called to do as Christians when it comes to building the Church.  We are called to preach, to teach, to equip.  We are called to pursue, just as we have been pursued by Christ.  It is for us to be obedient and leave the results up to God.

While I was on my last visit, I learned that only 3% of the land in Egypt is used.  The rest is deemed "wasteland."  The picture shows the dry land just outside of Cairo where one of conference centers was located.  It is incredible to me that only 3% of one million square kilometers is used by 82 million people.  As we traveled from Cairo to Minya, you could see the miles of desert stretching for miles.  This is not a land where people have historically had a "problem for every solution."  This is a land where people have historically found a solution for every problem. 

After snapping the picture above, I turned and snapped another one.  This one caught the sun rising, along with a bird.  I didn't try to catch those - I just got lucky.  But it reminded me of life and work and ministry - like the dry land, it can seem challenging and even hopeless - full of problems and lacking solutions.  But the tenacity of people, the inherent beauty of the earth, along with the gifts provided from God that are surprising, can make it beautiful.  We lift our eyes and keep going.  We keep trying.  And we trust God to bring the joy, restoration, and beauty.

In this time of Thanksgiving, I am thankful for each of you who continue to pray for this work.   Please continue to pray with me to be people who see solutions to problems, rather than problems to every solution.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

"Don't be afraid."

It was 9 pm and I was sitting in the office of an engineer/contractor in a small city in Egypt. The office was on the fourth floor of a building he had designed and built some years ago.  For me, it had been a busy day of travel, teaching, and meeting pastors and business persons.  For Aheb, it had been another long but normal day of work, overseeing his three businesses.  Aheb had just shared his story of the challenges of doing business as a Christian minority in Egypt, challenges that include things that Westerners could hardly imagine.  I asked him with whom he shared these challenges – who encourages him, who mentored him, where he gets his support?  His answer, sadly, was the same that I heard from each business person with whom we met.  “No-one. There is no-one I can trust to discuss my business, not even my family.  The church does not care.  There has been no one to mentor me.”  After a moment of silence, I said, “It must be both a lonely and frustrating path for you to walk.”  He quickly responded, “I am not lonely or frustrated.  I love what I do.  God has made me in a way that I am able to keep moving forward.”
The beautiful river Nile and streets of Minya

After more discussion, I wrapped up with a final question.  “Aheb, if a younger version of you walked through the door, ready to start his work as an engineer in the construction field, knowing what you know now, what advice would you give him?”  Aheb thought for a moment and then quietly said, “I would tell him, 'Don't be afraid.'”  He paused, then added, “The future is a mystery.  Fear is an obstacle.” As soon as those words left his mouth, I saw tears well up in his eyes and he struggled to maintain his composure.  

I quickly felt very aware that a nerve had been touched. I was also unsure of the Egyptian culture, as it relates to the appropriateness for an Egyptian man to show this type of emotion in public.  I decided to not push the question further.  This was a man who had shown, through his story, that he was not afraid to take risks.  He was running several businesses, doing a ministry of church leadership development in Chad, raising three beautiful daughters, survived two revolutions in Egypt, survived his office being burned, faced oppression and persecution as part of being a Christian business person in a religious minority, and had, moments before, boasted of his love for Egypt. While many Christians are fleeing the country, he has never even been tempted to leave.  So what did those tears mean?

I’m not sure.  But if I were to guess, he caught a glimpse of his younger self coming through the door. He flashed back on the many moments of struggle and pain over his 18 years of business experience. The same pain that he chooses to fight through each and every day, and for a brief moment allowed himself to feel the weight of the struggle.

Farms outside of El Minya
The next day we visited another business person who gave us the same answer of having no one to support encourage, mentor or trust as it relates to his business.  He then shared that we are the first to EVER ask him about the role that the church plays in his business.  He said this sadly, yet with some frustration.  He said, “The church doesn’t care at all what I do during the week, as long as I come with my family on Sunday and give when they need funds.”  Then he leaned forward and asked, “What do the pastors say when you ask them the same question?”  He knew that we were teaching pastors and church leaders about Church-based business as mission.  We squirmed in our seats as we had just spent four hours the day before with pastors who insisted that all is well with their relationship with business people. The pastors believe that they are affirming and supporting their business people. 

Dr. Walker teaching the pastors.
This same businessman then shared that he has taken fifty-five (!!)  loans in his eight years of business, with five loans going concurrently as we talked.  I didn’t want to tell him that he probably wins the first prize out of the thousands of businesses that I have interviewed for the highest number of loans.  My fear for this man is that he is in a vicious circle of robbing Peter to pay Paul. But he never really faces the music as his book-keeping system is simple, at best, and not giving him the feedback he needs to make good financial decisions.  He said that he is working fourteen hour days and never sees his family – he has a three year old son and a forty day old son.  He is unsure when this will ever change.

We returned to the training with the pastors that afternoon, and shared with them some of what we had heard.  Dr. Walker encouraged the pastors to think of what would happen if they never visited or inquired about the lives of their grown children – in many ways, those children would feel like orphans.  He then said, “I am here to tell you that you have many orphans in your church.  They need you to care about what they do.  They want you and the church to affirm, encourage, and disciple them in how to be the Church from Monday-Friday.”  It was a somber moment.
At the end of this training, all eight churches from this town decided to forsake denominationalism and work together to bring Discipling Marketplace Ministers to their town, and reclaim the redeemed Marketplace.

We know that this is just a first step.  But we are thankful for that first step, as difficult as it was to get there.  We will start this training at the end of February.   Each pastor will preach a sermon series on business as mission, meet and pray for and with the business members in their church, and choose 5-10 of their members to join the training.  Please pray with us for this group of eight churches. Pray also for these business people who seem so eager to share, so thirsty for support, so hungry for companionship.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Word from Hannah, in France

This post is from my daughter, Hannah, now 22 years old, who is studying French for one semester in France.  She is living in Grenoble, about 300 miles from Paris, and is safe after Friday night's attack. I was in a small town in Egypt with limited internet capability when the Paris attacks happened, so after checking in with her through texts, I was able to chat with her more on Sunday morning.  I expected that she might be a bit scared and a bit shaken up about what happened in Paris.  What I heard instead made me smile and think, "That's my girl!"  Her blog is below.  She has had an international life and that is coming through.  I wonder what God has planned for her in her future?

Hi everyone, Hannah here.  This blog was originally going to be about my amazing adventures here in France and, believe me, it has been amazing.  I’ve been paragliding, climbed mountains, visited some of the most historic places and seen some of the most amazing things that this world has to offer, from the Mona Lisa to the mountains and valleys throughout France.  And could, and would love to, go on and on about these things.  But there is something more important I would like to talk about.

Paris has been in the news a lot in the last couple days.  Two and a half weeks ago, I was in Paris, loving and appreciating the sights and sounds of the city.  The attacks in Paris on Friday, the 13th of November, struck a powerful cord with me in part because of that recent visit and in part because of my residence in France at the moment.  Saturday morning, I woke up to messages from friends and family checking in, making sure I was safe and okay, and reading posts from people around the world as they thought and prayed about France and Paris, those affected, those wounded, and the families of those who died.  It was touching to see people reach out in care and love to a wounded city and nation.  

However, it didn’t take long for my sadness to be joined by feelings of anger and frustration.  As profile pictures started being changed to show the French flag, and as posts continued to pour through with prayers for France, I was struck by a sense of déjà vu; we have been through this before, as a global community, where we band together in face of a tragedy, giving our unwavering support in a beautiful moment of unity, love, and grief.  However, I don’t think we experience that as often as it is called for, given the violence that exists in the world today.  

Did you know that a terrorist attack killed more than 40 people in Beirut on November 12th?  Or that on October 10, just over a month ago, 102 were killed and 508 were injured when suicide bombers bombed a peace rally in Turkey?  And how about that flight that crashed in Egypt around two weeks ago?  ISIL claimed responsibility for the 224 people who lost their lives there.  In fact, if you go to Wikipedia and look at the terrorist attacks committed in 2015, there is one almost every day.  Thankfully, few are as large as the attack on Paris, but there are people dying all around us.  And yet we do not see the posts of support, love, and unity show for some of these nations as we have seen for Paris and France this weekend.

The reason that I was frustrated Saturday morning is not at the overwhelming and amazing support shown by so many around the world for Paris.  It was because so many have died around the world who receive no recognition.  Why is it that the world begins rallying behind one nation within hours of the attack, where other nations who undergo serious attacks go almost unnoticed in the media?
We can’t spend all our time grieving, and if we paid as close attention to every terrorist attack as we did to the attacks in Paris, that is all we’d be doing.  Because even with our short attention spans, terrorist attacks happen so often that we’d be grieving all the time.  However, ignoring some countries and giving so much support to others saddens and frustrates me.  Have we become indifferent to terrorist attacks in some countries, like Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria because they happen so often?  Has the media decided for us that certain massacres are less interesting and less attention grabbing, and so are unimportant?  

I am in grief and shock for Paris, a place that is now much closer to my heart than before, but I am also in deep grief for the world.  I am saddened by those who will look at this attack and use it to fuel irrational hatred towards all Muslims.  I am saddened by the refugees fleeing from countries constantly under these types of attacks, only to be turned away or suspected of committing the same attacks from which they are fleeing.  I am saddened by a world that can ignore the loss of lives in one context, only to be up in arms over the loss of lives in another.  I’m saddened by a media that seeks to entertain and boost ratings, instead of a media that reports on everything equally.  I grieve for those who lose their lives in massacres that are ignored, whose deaths are marked insignificant because death is so normal in their part of the world or because their part of the world is not attention-grabbing enough to be reported on.   
Please continue praying for Paris- this is a nation still reeling in shock and grief that needs prayers, love and support.  Please continue to pray even once our profile pictures go back to normal and the news media moves on.  But please do not forget to pay attention and pray for other people in other nations who have lost their lives or who experience attacks like this far too often.  Don’t forget to send love and support to forgotten nations that suffer in relative isolation.  Keep the rest of the world in your prayers even once it stops being the trendy thing to do.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Global Poverty Industry

[I leave for Egypt tomorrow, Tuesday, November 11.  A number of my loved ones are concerned because of the recent plane crash in Egypt, possibly linked to terrorism, but I have often felt that the best time to travel to a troubled region is just after such an incident, as security tends to go way up.  Feel free to pray as you feel led, but also pray for the Russian families who lost loved ones, as well as tourism industry in Egypt which has gone down 95% since the revolutions started in 2011.  One in nine Egyptians work in the tourism industry so many families are suffering and this recent crash will not help matters!]

This last week, I heard the phrase "the global poverty industry."  That phrase immediately caught my attention and made me think.  An industry designed for the purpose of the production of poverty.  Hmmm.  Could people really be so crass as to have the objective and purpose of perpetuating poverty?

I think, for the most part, the answer is no.  But I also think, for the most part, that our actions do exactly that, despite our intentions to do the opposite.

What do I mean?

Let me give you an example relating to orphanages and child sponsorship programs, which are pet peeves of mine.  Many of you may support these (and of course I know that adoption is necessary in certain contexts), so I'm not meaning to offend, but having spent so much time in Africa, I have seen how much money gets poured into orphanages and child sponsorship programs in ways that are not healthy and actually seem to perpetuate a "global poverty industry." 

This past week, I heard a statistic from the director of a documentary called Poverty Inc., that 80% of orphans in Haiti have one living parent.  I also heard that 22 out of 26 children in orphanages have one living parent.  I saw proof of this myself in Liberia, Ghana, and Kenya.  An American Christian couple told the story of going to adopt a child, and were asked by the director of the orphanage if they wanted to meet the mother.  They were surprised to learn that the child had a mother, but agreed to meet her.  They learned that this mother visits her child every two weeks and tries to bring him something in each visit.  When they asked her why she wanted to give up her son for adoption, she said, "I don't want to.  But I can't afford to keep him."  This couple was about to spend $20,000 on an adoption. They had reflected on James 1:27 which says, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."  They wondered whether a lot of the care for the orphans was creating economic incentives for parents to give up children - to make their children orphans - rather than helping parents keep their children.

The advertisement that I have posted here from a large non-profit child sponsorship program makes me very uncomfortable.  To say, "Her tomorrow depends on what you decide today," implies that her future is not in her own hands but rather in a stranger's hands - who might not know or understand her context, culture, or condition.  It is giving way too much responsibility for a small gift of $38/month.

 And of course for me, in the work that I do with Discipling Marketplace Leaders, the answer seems so obvious.  What if we focused on ministries that created jobs that allowed people to keep their children?  If we help people get jobs...if we help people to do business be job creators...poverty can be alleviated for the long term, rather than giving to something that potentially perpetuates poverty.  And if we disciple people to do business to the glory of God, not only can poverty be alleviated, but the church can be built,  and the will of God can be done "on earth as it is in heaven."

People in the North America have very good and compassionate hearts toward the poor, and it doesn't take long to look around and see very creative ways that people find to raise money to help the poor.  We are problem solvers!  But we need to apply those skills and that passion to solve problems for the long-term and not the short term only.  We need to be sure that our efforts are not going toward supporting a poverty industry, but rather for long-term poverty alleviation.

But I also know that it feels good to help one child - to receive a picture and a name of an orphan being sponsored. Helping a business develop does not pull the heart strings as much....or as Bob used to say, "is not as sexy" or attractive to people.  But James 1:27 says to help orphans in their distress - surely it is more stressful to lose the family home, parents, and culture, than staying there; surely it is in the best interest of a child to stay with their parents, and for their parents to financially provide for their own children rather than relying on the kindness of strangers.  And surely, the world will determine ways to "solve" these problems that help to keep those non-profits in business, with employees that are very well paid.  FYI - did you know that the majority of foreign aid stays in the donor countries and goes toward debt relief or the activities of poverty alleviation rather than to the countries themselves?  In Denmark, it is 70%!  I also read of a very large non-profit where only 2.5% of the money raised actually goes to the intended beneficiary!  We need to be informed through places like Charity Navigator, or actually looking at the IRS 990s that charities are required to put on their websites to see what the executives are being paid and make informed decisions about how our compassion is directed.

As you consider your year end gifts, I would encourage you to put your hard earned dollars to work in a way that will make a long term difference in this world, and not contribute to the "poverty industry."  My friend, Jeff Bloem, sent me a link to this video, "How to Feel Good about Poverty."  It's only a couple of minutes long but I encourage you to watch it.  It doesn't provide answers, but rather questions.  And as I wrote last week, we can find those answers within ourselves, if we ask the right questions.

Monday, November 2, 2015

"I am not the problem; I am the solution."

One of the things that I have enjoyed studying is population growth, it's impact on poverty, the varying factors that contribute to it, and the subsequent impact on ministry.  Here are some facts:
  • The population of the earth is increasing by 1,000,000 people every 4.8 days. 
  •  Since the 1960s, the population has doubled, but the world GDP has increased by ten times and life expectancy has increased by twenty years.  That means that there are "twice as many people on the planet, living about 40% longer and each person is consuming many times what the average person in the 1960s did."  (UNEP Global Environmental Alert Services, "One Planet, How many people?  A review of Earth's Carrying Capacity," June 2012).
  • Current projections are that the world population will top out at about 9 billion in 2050 and remain that way for the rest of the 21st century.

One statistic about population that does seem conclusive is that as a nation develops economically, it tends to move from high population growth to low population growth.  Birth rates, death rates, and growth rates systematically change through time as societies change relating to modernization, urbanization, and access to technology.  The number of countries that have a negative or zero growth rate as of 2013 are twenty-six, with an additional 62 countries below 1%.  The country with the highest birth rate is Oman, at 9.2%, with only 16 countries over 3%.  For the countries where Discipling Marketplace Leaders (DML) is working:  the US is at 0.7%, Canada is at 1.1%, Egypt is at 2.2%, Ghana is at 2.4%, and Kenya is at 2.6% (

The Poverty Cure, a video series made by the Acton Institute, does a great job of showing that people, made in the image of God, are solutions to poverty and not causes of poverty.  People are not just "mouths to feed" and "problems to deal with" but rather solutions to poverty.  The story of Bangladesh is told as a great example of how people are solutions:  Bangladesh was a food insecure country in the mid1970s, with a population of around 75 million. Twenty-five years later, the population of Bangladesh had doubled to just under 150 million and yet the country was now food secure. There was no increase in land (Bangladesh is about the size of Pennsylvania, which has a population of just under 13 million), just an increase in people; creative people, who looked creatively at how to solve problems, how to seek solutions, and how to use available resources. 

So how does this all relate to the ministry of Discipling Marketplace Leaders?  Most of the people who are solving these problems are business people - people who naturally seek solutions to demands and needs of people. Yet many people have not found their calling to do this work "as unto the Lord."  Many people have forgotten that we are made in the image of a creative God, and have been given the mandate to take the resources of this earth and "be fruitful and multiply."  Many people in the majority world have not had the encouragement, the equipping, the backing and the covering by the church to help ground them in doing their business as a mission.  People in the world typically revert back to "business as usual" quite quickly.  These people need discipling by the church to do this work, this calling, in a way that will create goods and services that will allow individuals and communities to flourish.

People are not the problem.  People are the solution.  But transformation is needed for the will of God to be done "on earth as it is in heaven." 

We can't transform others.  We can't even transform ourselves.  But we can be in the business of helping to create an environment in which transformation can take place.  The church can be the place that sets the environment in which people are transformed by the Holy Spirit and make a difference in the world. It's an exciting ministry to be involved in as we see people look inside themselves and begin to also state, "I am not the problem; with God's help, I am the solution."