Tag Archives: humanitarianism

A Week in Kibera.

Recently I got back from spending a week in Kenya, most of it in the Kibera slum of Nairobi. It had been 3 1/2 years since I’d been to Kenya, and I was eager to see how our friends were doing. Though we’d been in contact with many of them, it’s much better to be able to physically see how people are doing than to just be told. Plus it’s the unspoken things that really tell the stories.

Some things had changed. More of the roads in Kibera are now paved, keeping down a bit of the mud and dust, but the trash problem has not gotten any better. Many of the children in the daycare are new, but that’s to be expected, as children get older and start going to school and are replaced by younger ones.

What didn’t change was the absolute beauty of the people in Kibera. As I came from a nation where material things are so important to people, but unhappiness and loss of purpose is rampant, I am reminded that there is as much blessing in not having what you don’t need as there is in having what you do need. The words of Proverbs 30 are brought to mind.

“Two things I ask of You—

do not refuse me before I die:

Keep falsehood and deceitful words far from me.

Give me neither poverty nor riches;

feed me with the bread that is my portion.

Otherwise, I may have too much

and deny You, saying, “Who is the LORD?”

Or I may become poor and steal,

profaning the name of my God.”

Before we think we have it better, look at the joy on the faces of the people of Kibera and remind ourselves that joy doesn’t come from what is outside.

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The gods of the Western World

I’ve been back from Kibera for a week now. Though I was able to formulate a lot of my thoughts while still there, how to put them down was another matter.

I think I’m going to start with the premise that the largest deficit and therefore the largest detriment to missions coming from the Western world is a lack of humility. Without getting into too much detail, this is what we saw when we went into Kibera.

In Hebrews 1, we find that “God…has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power,”

In reading this we find that Jesus upholds all things. Yes, I know there is still sin in the world, and that is why God’s Kingdom is both here and coming at the same time. But when we realize this fact, what we discover is that no matter where we go, God is already there working. Frequently as missionaries it is not so much our job to come in with a new plan, but rather to walk into a place prayerfully with our eyes and ears wide open to discover what it is that God is already doing. It takes an awful lot of hubris to think that God isn’t there until you show up.

If we don’t do this, we find what we unfortunately did when we went into Kibera, and is summed up in the book, “When Helping Hurts”, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. It reads, ““The god-complexes of the materially non-poor are also a direct extension of the modern worldview. In a universe without God, the heroes are those who are best able to use their reason to master the material world. In other words, the materially non-poor are the victors in the modern worldview, the gods who have mastered the universe and who can use their superior intelligence and the material possessions they have produced to save mere mortals, namely the materially poor.”

When we go into a poor community thinking we know it all, we are ultimately going to do damage. Western missionaries had come in and put a plan together without consulting the indigenous leadership, then pulled the funding they had been giving when they didn’t go along with it. Their plan was to pull everyone out of Kibera to a place where they felt they could more easily sustain themselves. Though this sounds like a good plan on the surface, it did not take into account the vision and mission that the people living there already had; that being to reach the community around them. They were being asked to abandon their own countrymen who needed them. Imagine what Africa would look like if Western missionaries came into every community and removed the leadership. If you want to see REAL poverty and suffering, that’s the way to do it in short order.

Summing up, we need to be very careful when we come into indigenous communities with our grand plans. Often they are just that…. ours.

Back to Kibera.

In just a couple of weeks, I head back to Kibera, Kenya. A group of four men will be going to minister in the largest urban slum in Africa. We’ll be going back to catch up with some good friends we haven’t seen in a long time.

It occurred to me today that I used to post a lot more pictures than I have been lately. I am a professional photographer, after all. So for those following my journey, here are some pictures from previous trips to see Pastor Obedi and His wife Helen in Kibera.

Kibera and Paul’s Fifth Missionary Journey

In less than three weeks I leave for Kenya. This will be my first trip to Kenya in about three and a half years. There will be a team of four of us going, two of which have never been to Kenya before. It’s hard to convey to people who have not been there not only what it will be like, but also what we’ll be doing there. It’s the second part, the what we will be doing, that I’d like to talk about today.

I think the best way to start explaining what we are going for is to use the Apostle Paul’s fifth missionary journey as a template. You say you haven’t heard of Paul’s fifth journey? Well, it’s not nearly as well known as his first four. It’s the one where Paul took a group of people to Tarshish, and they painted the walls of a church that didn’t need painting. After that they did some street preaching in a language no one understood, and then handed out flip flops and used shoes. After that, on the last day they went shopping and snorkeling.

This of course did not happen. And I realize that my sarcasm is biting. But I also know that when people read something that is true, the initial reaction is to be angry, but then to think about it. There is nothing wrong with going somewhere to do projects that need to be done, and there’s nothing wrong with having some fun on the last day you’re there. What I find distasteful is that short term missions has gone from an opportunity to build unity within the body of Christ, and to both be a witness to the lost and encourage and strengthen our indigenous brothers and sisters to do the same, and instead has become wholly about us. What is the project? What are we going to paint? What are we going to build? What are we going to do TO or FOR these poor people? The moment we ask these questions we put ourselves on a higher plane in our own minds than those we are going to minister to. There’s a song with the phrase, “the notion that we’re better than them; the ultimate delusional chant.”

Instead, we ought to ask things like, How can we work together so that we can all grow in better community with each other and with God? How can we learn from each other so we will not continue to walk in our own brokenness? When we ask these questions, it suddenly becomes less about projects, and it becomes a lot more about people.

So going back to what we’ll be doing in Kibera, I think it would be best to start with a description of what Kibera is.

Kibera is the largest urban slum in Africa. It’s population is unknown, though estimates range between 250,000 and a million people. The average family lives in a 12 foot by 12 foot shack. There is no trash pick up, and there are no sewers, so sewage runs down every gully and low point of ground. The average wage is $1 a day. Crime and violence are rampant.

In light of this, going in and painting something or doing some kind of project, or even feeding the poor would be the equivalent of putting a bandage on a dead beached whale. The truth is, a large number of the people there are either unemployed or sporadically employed. So if I go in with a team and start working on something that needs to be “improved”, all I’m doing is depriving someone of a paying job.

So what can we do? This is where the “working with” as opposed to the “doing for” is so important. You find the indigenous resources and skills that are already there and figure out how they can be developed with the help of the people who live there every day. You identify community leaders, like pastors, who already have the respect of the people. You find out what their own goals and vision for their community are and do what you can to achieve that. When there is a specific deficit, and only when there is a specific deficit that can’t be filled from within the community do you bring in foreign money and talent.

This doesn’t sound nearly as romantic as saying, “we went to Kenya and fed 1000 poor children”. And this is the reason that I decided to write this blog. One of our new people lamented that when he told people what we were doing, he had a hard time raising support. The response was, “So basically you’re going to Kenya to have a bunch of meetings with people?”

The answer was essentially yes. But we have to go and do what’s ultimately right, and not what makes people feel good about giving. After all, it really isn’t about us.

Maybe It’s Time To Serve Someone.

I remember back in the early 1980’s, there was a boy known as “The bubble boy” who had to permanently live in a plastic bubble. He had a compromised immune system, and any exposure to the outside world could cause him to get sick and die. As I prayed this morning, the Lord brought that analogy to my mind as I thought about missions and service. You see, many of us are living our lives trying to avoid the world. While the boy in the bubble was safe from the world around him, he was relegated to a life of ineffectiveness.

The book of James says, “true religion is this, to look after widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unpolluted by the world.”

We spend an awful lot of time on the second part while often ignoring the first part. I think we are often afraid of what will happen if we take the world on for God’s Kingdom. But there is no reason for fear. Hebrews 13 20-21 says, “Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ.” That’s right, we have access to the same power that raised Jesus from the dead and we walk in that victory as more than conquerors.

Jesus showed us the example we should live by in that he was the perfect imitator of The Father. How did he show that? By being a servant.

Are you feeling ineffective? Serve someone.

Feeling beaten down? Serve someone.

Are you feeling like you don’t know your place in the church? Serve someone.

Do you feel called to missions but don’t know how? Serve someone.

Feel like you are still working on you? Serve someone.

The more we take the focus off of ourselves and place it on God, the more he can do with us. And God will take faithfulness with little and give you larger things to be faithful with.

Borana and The Southern Nations

I am back in the land of the internet. I’ve spent the last few days in the Borana region of southern Ethiopia. The Petros Network was invited here just in the last couple years to partner with a largely forgotten people, and I can say that the transformation that I’ve seen happening is truly incredible. Whole villages are changing for the good in tangible ways through the power of the gospel. We look at the people there, and they are so young that your initial thought is that they aren’t capable of changing the world, but thank God, we are being proven wrong again and again.

I will have stories to tell later as I go through the pictures and interviews from this past couple weeks, but for now I have pictures from both Arba Minch and the Borana region. Usually I have a few photos that I know are going to be some of my all time favorites, but this time there are just so many I’m happy with that it’s going to take me a while. Enjoy these for now, and soon I’ll have more.

Repairing The Old Ripped Nets.

I’d like to start this post a little differently than usual. I’d like to start by just listing some recent observations I’ve made. They may seem disjointed at first, but hopefully I can bring them all together.

Yesterday I was in the gym. As I looked around the room, everyone in my line of sight was staring at their phones.

Sunday was the Superbowl. Today someone declared to me “We did it!”

A friend of mine from my childhood was furious yesterday because Donald Trump bragged about the great economy but was silent when the market did badly. He proceeded to verbally abuse someone about it on Facebook.

These observations might seem like they have little or nothing to do with each other, but I would argue that they do. I love the line from the movie, The Princess Bride. You don’t even have to know the context to understand it. “Come now, we are men of action. Lies do not become us.”

The very first thing that God tells Adam in the garden is to subdue the earth. Subduing the earth is a really big job, a job for men of action. All throughout history, God has been looking for men of action. “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” “Be not only hearers of the word, but doers.” “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” There are so many examples that I could not list them all. But at some point, we decided to discontinue being men of action and go with the lie. Which lie was that? That security and living life vicariously through the doers was preferable to taking a risk and being the doer firsthand.

What are people looking at on their phones? They’re seeing what kind of exciting lives people on Instagram are living. They’re seeing what celebrities are doing. They’re checking the sports scores. They’re watching people who are doing or are making the appearance of doing what they wish they were doing.

To the man who watched football and declared, “We did it!” I’m sorry, but you didn’t do anything. You weren’t on the field.

To the man who was so upset about the president bragging about something; why on earth should that bother you? If you’re looking to control something, start with self and don’t abuse other people because you’re upset about what someone you’ve never met is doing.

People are frustrated and fearful because they’ve given up significance. There is no significance in staring at your phone, or any social media. There is no significance in living life as if we’re somehow immortal in our current body if we can just avoid risk. We are supposed to be influencers and subduers. But if we don’t subdue the earth, the earth will subdue us. That’s just the way it works. The decision not to make a decision is still a decision. We are more than conquerors through Christ, unless we just give up. And that is what I fear we have done and just given up.

Jesus told Peter and James, and by transitive property, us, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At some point, we left the nets on the beach. They became weathered and dry rotted and ripped. It’s time to go back and pull those nets back out of the mud. It’s time to repair them, and fix the holes, and start catching men again. Don’t be fooled. You are an influence. It’s just a question of what type of influence you decide to be.

I’d like to finish with a parable out of Matthew. Matthew 5:13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.

You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

The Difference Between Liberation And Eviction.

The past week or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about the harder aspects of some of the things I’ve seen over the past several years. I’ve been thinking about things like poverty and setting the captives free. I’ve been particularly thinking about why some people and some cultures have been successful at dealing with theses things and why some have gone down tragic roads, when from the outside it looked like many of them had similar origins.

These are particularly hard subjects to understand for the western mind, because we live in a culture where we get most of our information about poverty and oppression from movies and a media that sees these subjects as sufficiently distant from personal experience to understand them in the kind of visceral way that people in South Sudan or the Congo would.

We believe in a number of things that, though possibly politically correct, when tested turn out to be factually false. We believe things like; poverty is mostly a problem of lack of resources, or that all oppressed people are naturally angelic, or that if people could just have oppression removed they would thrive. We believe these things because they are the subject of so many feel good stories. I would like to believe them to, but my experiences in parts of Africa have taught me that even though these things can happen, life is usually far more complicated and usually much messier than this.

My time in South Sudan was a huge eye opener for me. The South Sudanese were oppressed horribly by the Northern Sudanese for decades, in ways that for brevity I’m not going to get into. I first went to South Sudan in 2010, right before they achieved independence from the North. I saw the hope and the excitement on people’s faces as they prepared for the vote that would free them from their oppressors. Surely this was the Hollywood story everyone wanted and expected to see. Not quite.

Over the next three years, I went back three more times, and got to personally see the situation devolve into chaos. The South Sudanese went from fighting against the Northern oppressors to fighting against each other. If you’d like to read more about that, you can go back into some of my blog posts from 2013 and 2014 particularly. So what happened?

To say I can explain all of the aspects of this in a single blog post would be naive and foolish, because it’s an incredibly complex subject, and entire books could be written about it. So I’m going to focus on just a small part.

I want to start by drawing some parallels between the situation in South Sudan and the written account we have of another oppressed culture that was freed from its captors around 3400 years ago. I’m speaking of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt as written in the book of Exodus. There are many things written that can give us insight into the kind of things that happen when an enslaved culture is freed, particularly if you know what you’re looking for. The great thing about Exodus is that is quite comprehensive, and conveys a complete timeline.

One of the things that many Westerners don’t have a grasp of is the mental, emotional, cultural, and spiritual damage that is caused by institutionalized oppression, particularly slavery. This can manifest in people as hopelessness, a feeling of powerlessness, depression, and sometimes even paranoia. The end result is that when an opportunity comes for people to be free, they often don’t take it. Oppressed people often choose the miserable security of keeping your head down and staying alive than taking a chance at freedom. This is evident in Exodus 6:9. Moses is interceding on behalf of his people, and he goes to give them instruction. Their response is in Exodus 6:9. “So Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel; but they did not heed Moses, because of anguish of spirit and cruel bondage.”

Later on there are a series of events that happen that as I read them, made me initially think about these parallels. The Israelites have been set free and are crossing the desert when it dawns on the Egyptians that they’ve lost their free labor. The Egyptians send out their army to retake the Israelites. As the cloud of dust rises on the horizon from the Egyptian army, there is a record of what the Israelites say, and it is surprisingly fatalistic and even has a hint of longing for the land in which they were enslaved.

Exodus 14:11 Then they said to Moses, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt?

Exodus 14:12 Is this not the word that we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness.”

And in another situation, later on, Exodus 16:3, And the children of Israel said to them, “Oh, that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Their response is puzzling until you realize one thing, and this is the key. Moses interceded on the Israelites behalf because it was God’s will that they should be freed. For many of the Israelites, they were content with the security of the situation, miserable as it was. After God sent the plagues, the Israelites became a stench in the nostrils of Pharaoh, and there was no longer a choice to stay. This is why it’s so important when we’re working with oppressed people to allow them ways to empower themselves. Many of the Israelites were not so much liberated as evicted from Egypt, and it’s when we realize this that their responses suddenly make sense. The Israelites continue to act like slaves even though they are physically free people for the next forty years. Moses was able to take the Israelites out of slavery, but he was unable to remove the slave from the Israelites. In fact, it is not until the next generation grew up, a generation that never knew what it was like to be a slave, that they are able to enter the promised land, because you can not build a nation with people that are still slaves in their heart.

This is what I found in South Sudan. A nation that knew nothing but oppression and slavery and warfare, and doing what each person needs to do to survive on a daily basis, has walked into freedom with the same attitude. Whereas the common enemy used to be the North, now the common enemy is every man’s neighbor. No one has a plan for the future, because people are still living to survive the current moment. I understand that it is hard to change an entire way of thinking and living, but I hope and pray that the South Sudanese don’t have to wander in the desert for forty years until a generation is raised up that know how to live in freedom.

Let Us Not Grow Weary In Doing Good.

I’ve now been home from Ethiopia for almost three weeks. I went straight back into normal life. I shot a wedding with a case of jet lag. Then went on to edit the one I shot right before I left. I’ve had jobs to do just as if I’d never been gone. On top of that, I also had the pictures from Ethiopia to edit, and I’m just getting to some of the ones I shot in September as well. Needless to say, I’m tired. Which is why I have not written until now. It’s certainly not because I lack content. A lot happened on this trip, most of which I hope to write about once I figure out how to convey my thoughts properly.

Though I don’t yet feel completely ready to start writing about the experiences I had on this trip, it’s been long enough, and I need to just start writing.

The first thing I’d like to write about is something that happened the first day of the medical clinic. Medical clinics are always hard, particularly on the first day. That’s the day when the most desperate people show up; the ones who know something is seriously wrong but don’t have the money to go to a doctor. You see a lot of tuberculosis, a lot of cataracts, HIV, thyroid problems, even leprosy.

But one lady just wrecked me. She was dropped off on a donkey by two men, who promptly left. She was elderly, bend over at a 90 degree angle, she was blind from cataracts, and she was extremely agitated. She said she was sixty years old, but if you told me she was ninety, I would not have thought twice about it by looking at her. Even before anyone was able to help her, she was saying if she didn’t get help she was going to kill herself. She said she had no home and no family, and had nowhere to turn.

Looking through the lens gives me a little bit of separation from what’s happening in front of me. Even still, after I was done shooting what was going on in front of me, I had to go find a quiet corner and just cry. After that, I had to compose myself and get back to the tasks at hand. I saw this happening to other people as well. There are plenty of tragic human stories you see in Ethiopia, but the ones where you see no hope in people’s eyes are truly the ones that hurt.

The woman got in to see the doctors, though I don’t think there’s really much they were able to do for her. We didn’t work on cataracts, and I don’t think there was anything they could do for her posture. We didn’t know who had dropped her off, so we also didn’t know what to do with her. Consequently she spent a lot of time in the medical clinic being tended by various people of different backgrounds that day, medical or not. I was also able to keep track of her since I saw so much of her.

It was because of all of this time spent with her that her story began to crack. It turned out she was not alone. She had children, including a son, who had been watching from a distance. She also was not homeless, and apparently also had plenty of food, judging from the amount she kept pulling out of her blouse. (Yes, the story keeps getting stranger.) I heard people say (and honestly felt myself) that it had been foolish to feel such angst over this woman, because she lied to us. But should I have?

I’d like first to say that dealing with the poor and the marginalized is often and usually messy. Sometimes they lie to you. Sometimes they have habits that cause them to be in the situation they are in. Frequently, it can take an emotional toll on you to the point where you begin to look for the emotional “out” if you will. It was for times like this that Paul wrote in Galations, “And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.” People were feeling foolish for having compassion because she had lied to us, but the fact was that her story was still tragic. She was still blind, still crippled. The desperation she had on her face when she arrived and the tears she shed were real. She lied because she wanted someone to show compassion to her and spend time with her, which is exactly what happened.

Should God feel foolish for having compassion for us when we prayed that, “Lord if you only get me out of this, I’ll do (fill in the blank)?” Of course not. In the same manner that God showed grace to us, we need to show the same grace to others. That is why our creation in the image of God is so profound. In the same manner that God shows grace to us, we should act in grace toward the others around us who are also made in God’s image. This is summed up well in Romans 5. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.  For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.”

Though there was little we could do for her physically, she met people that day that cared about her. She met people who were willing to listen to her, and people who would sit down and pray for her. She met people who were willing to be the hands and feet and voice of Christ on Earth. She met people that showed the same grace to her as Christ showed to us on the day that “while we were still enemies of God, Christ died for us.”

The New Wallpaper.

A widow looks past the new wallpaper towards the window in Ethiopia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The widow was ready for our arrival. She smiled warmly as she greeted us with “Akum Nagoma”. Her simple mud walled house had been cleaned and was in order. She was dressed in her best. New magazine pages had been plastered to the walls, as is the custom to beautify homes in this part of Ethiopia. A television sat under a plastic cover in the main room. She seemed to be doing well…if you chose not to really look.

The rows of dots tattooed on her shrunken neck were too close together; in fact she looked skeletal. When we complimented her on the new wallpaper, she said, “oh, that’s old,” even though we could see that it had just been put up. The television sat there conspicuously, but what good is a television when you don’t have electricity?

We knew something was up. The house had been beautified for our arrival. The wallpaper was obviously new. The television and many of the items in the home were likely borrowed from friends or neighbors. Though she tried to look happy, she was obviously either sick or starving or both. As we asked her questions about how she was doing, her smile and warmness changed. She at first said that she wasn’t able to express how she is doing, and finally broke into tears. It was likely that she knew we were there to help, but the thing about poverty that most people who are not financially poor don’t understand is that Poverty and its ugly siblings Shame and Isolation usually walk hand in hand. Though she knew she needed help, she also didn’t want anyone to know that she needed help, particularly not these strange foreigners coming into her home. She didn’t want anyone judging her ability to take care of her children or herself. Being poor is bad, but everyone knowing you’re poor is so much worse.

This situation cuts to the core of why Christ calls us not only into relationship with Him, but also into relationship with those around us, who are made in Christ’s image. The scriptures are numerous in this area, but I’ll just highlight one. Galatians 6:2 says, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  It is because of this principal that the enemy seeks so much to divide us. If we remain in relationship with each other, we are less likely to fall into sin, less likely to fall into not only financial poverty, but poverty of spirit. Studies show that married people live longer than single people. It’s nothing magical, it’s just that it’s not good for people to be alone. Its why the writer of the book of Hebrews thought it important enough to write, “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” The enemy knows that we are stronger together, that is why one of the most worn out tools in his box is Shame. How many times has someone disappeared from church when trouble hits? “Iron sharpens iron” is the saying, but we can’t sharpen each other if we isolate ourselves.

There is no shame if we realize that we are all broken people. We are all broken in different ways, but when we gather together as one body in Christ, my strength helps you in your weakness, and your strength helps me in my weakness. But we have to go in with the humility of knowing that “while we were yet enemies of God, Christ died for us.”

The great thing about having indigenous staff in Ethiopia is that there are people who can check on this widow and see how she is doing. It’s also why short-term missions is so hard. It’s hard to build relationships from afar, but if you have people on the ground it’s that much easier. Hopefully this widow will realize that no one is there to judge her, only help. Starting is the hardest part, but if she goes the path of many of the other widows in this community, she will soon be sustainably feeding her own family and herself. In so doing, she will lift the community as a whole.