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.
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.
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.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written. I’ve been busy with work, busy with teaching, busy with a lot of things. Well, it’s time to redirect, because I leave for Ethiopia in a little over two weeks. It’s been a year since I was last in Africa (too long really) and it’s snuck up on me a bit. Every time I go to Africa, I understand a little more, and realize how little I knew before. This also frustrates me when I talk to people who have never traveled, and who have never done missions. I have to look back at myself five or ten years ago, realize how little I knew then, how much I still have to learn, and let that grace then pass on to other people.
I had one of those situations happen this past week. Inevitably when I am going to Africa, someone comes up to me who has been storing away used or new clothing, shoes, flip-flops, glasses, etc, and asks if I can take them over with me to Africa and hand them out. I understand that people are trying to help, and sometimes some of these things can be helpful, but let me be clear. Africa does not need your used flip-flops. The person who came up to me this past week went even further and asked that I take pictures of people wearing the clothes they wanted to send over, after telling me how much they’d spent on various items. I refused.
There is a point where giving becomes selfish. If this makes no sense, let me explain a little. It can be noble to try to donate clothing and supplies to people that may need them. It might be noble, but it is also likely ineffective. The point where it becomes selfish is when you insist on the satisfaction of knowing that someone in Africa is wearing your unsolicited donated clothing. At that point it goes from being a donation made out of a well-meaning heart to being all about you, and at that point I find my grace tested.
I understand why people want to send clothing and things with me. In the West, people with means usually think of poverty in terms of lack of resources. But if you go to the poor and ask them what poverty is, they might mention lack, but they’re also going to talk about things like powerlessness, despair, lack of hope, fear, sickness, and isolation. Poverty is much more a state of mind than it is a lack of “stuff”. As the great western savior comes over and starts handing out free things, it does a number of things. First, it reinforces the idea that Westerners are the haves, and that they are the have-nots. If it is obvious that a lot of materials are being handed out, it makes people a target to those who did not receive. This is a problem we came across in Kibera slum in Kenya, but it applies almost universally. It also undercuts people who are selling those same things in the community when someone comes in and starts handing out things for free, thus stifling business in already poor communities. So I’ll say it again; Africa doesn’t need your flip-flops, your old dancing shoes, your worn out pants, or your bags of disposable diapers and water bottles that add to the garbage problem that plague communities all over the developing world. But if I stopped here, I would be remiss and would be doing nothing but complaining.
The inevitable question after reading what I’ve already said is, “what does Africa need then?” Or perhaps, “if donating stuff isn’t the thing to do, then how can I help?”
The idiom goes, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” I would go one step further and say, “Find people who already know how to fish and equip them to teach others.” Identify those people and resources that already exist, and leverage them to help other people in the community around them. Wherever possible, it needs to be Africans helping Africans, and not just people coming from overseas to fix their problems. Africa is full of talented and intelligent people. Often they just need someone to stand behind them and give help when needed to spread that talent and knowledge around. Did you notice I said stand BEHIND? Your presence should be seen as little as possible.
I know it’s harder to give of yourself than to just donate things you have lying around, and some people are not equipped to do that. The more effective alternative though, if you can’t go or do, is to simply give money to organizations that focus on long-term development rather than sticking band aids on problems.
Sometimes someone will ask for donations of clothing and such, like someone who might be running an orphanage, for example. In this case it’s ok. But we need to be mindful of the fact that helping, really helping, often requires more of us than just going through our closet. Often the things that help the most are the things that take a long time and don’t offer us the instant gratification many of us would rather have.
When I was a small child, I remember my grandfather, who was born in 1910, telling me stories he’s heard over the course of his life. They were always riveting for me to listen to, because they were like nothing I heard elsewhere. I always assumed as a child that they were stories he’d made up, until as an adult I was able to find them on the internet. Many times they were old folk tales going back centuries. One of these was the story of the old woman and her little pig. This is how it goes.
ONCE there was an old woman found a sixpence while she was sweeping, and she took it to the village and bought a little pig with it.
She got part way home, and she came to a stile, and the pig wouldn’t go over the stile.
So she told her little dog to bite the pig, and he wouldn’t.
Then she went along a little way, and she came to a stick that was lying by the side of the road. And she said, “Stick, stick, beat dog, dog won’t bite pig, piggy won’t jump over the stile; I see by the moonlight ’tis half-past midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”
But the stick wouldn’t.
Then she went along a little way, and she came to a fire that was burning by the side of the road. And she said, “Fire, fire, burn stick, stick won’t beat dog, dog won’t bite pig, piggy won’t jump over the stile; I see by the moonlight ’tis half-past midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”
But the fire wouldn’t.
Then she went along a little way, and she came to a puddle of water in the road. And she said, “Water, water, quench fire, fire won’t burn stick, stick won’t beat dog, dog won’t bite pig, piggy won’t jump over the stile; I see by the moonlight ’tis half-past midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”
But the water wouldn’t.
Then she went along a little way, and she saw an ox standing in a field. And she said, “Ox, ox, drink water, water won’t quench fire, fire won’t burn stick, stick won’t beat dog, dog won’t bite pig, piggy won’t jump over the stile; I see by the moonlight ’tis half-past midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”
But the ox wouldn’t.
Then she went along a little way, and she came to a butcher standing in the door of his shop. And she said, “Butcher, butcher, kill ox, ox won’t drink water, water won’t quench fire, fire won’t burn stick, stick won’t beat dog, dog won’t bite pig, piggy won’t jump over the stile; I see by the moonlight ’tis half-past midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”
But the butcher wouldn’t.
Then she went along a little way, and she saw a rope tied to the limb of a tree. And she said, “Rope, rope, hang butcher, butcher won’t kill ox, ox won’t drink water, water won’t quench fire, fire won’t burn stick, stick won’t beat dog, dog won’t bite pig, piggy won’t jump over the stile; I see by the moonlight ’tis half-past midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”
But the rope wouldn’t.
Then she went along a little way, and she saw a rat. And she said, “Rat, rat, gnaw rope, rope won’t hang butcher, butcher won’t kill ox, ox won’t drink water, water won’t quench fire, fire won’t burn stick, stick won’t beat dog, dog won’t bite pig, piggy won’t jump over the stile; I see by the moonlight, ’tis half-past midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”
The rat said, “I will if you give me a piece of cheese.”
And the little old woman gave the rat a piece of cheese.
So the rat began to gnaw the rope, and the rope began to hang the butcher, and the butcher began to kill the ox, and the ox began to drink the water, and the water began to quench the fire, and the fire began to burn the stick, and the stick began to beat the dog, and the dog began to bite the pig, and the pig began to jump over the stile, and the little old woman got home that night.
It’s a fun story, but what does it have to do with Africa or missions? Frankly, a lot. The preceding story is a lot like trying to get things done in Africa. You try to get something done, but there’s always someone waiting for someone else to do something first, who in turn is waiting for someone to do something else, and by the time you get to the end of the line, whatever it is you are trying to do never gets done. This finally gets to the rat, who had to be paid a bribe to do what rats normally do anyway, but that’s a subject for another blog post.
There are certain cultural things that need to be understood before we rush to judgement about why this is the way it is. Africans value family and time building relationships far more than cracking the whip and getting things done. There is nothing wrong with this, up to a point. We on the other hand, especially in New York where I’m from, value getting things done more than family or relationships, and many times are willing to sacrifice the latter for the former. This is not ok.
The other thing to understand is that many times the things we think are important to get done are not important to them. Just because westerners thought of it doesn’t make it better, and many times they see problems with what we’re trying to do that we don’t see. That’s why we go to Africa to learn as much as we go to teach. We help each other through our respective brokenness.
There are times, though, when we’re asked for help on a specific issue, and things just need to get done. Often there are volunteers who have donated their time and resources on this end of things who are waiting for something from the receiving end so they can do what they’ve been asked to do. Often these volunteers don’t understand the way things are done in the non-western world. Both those asking for help and the volunteer’s time needs to be valued. This way mutual respect can be shown to all parties, and the things that really need to get done can be finished.
The thing I’d like to see come out of the relationships we’ve built in Africa, and I say this with the utmost respect for all parties, is for many of the Africans to learn to be stewards with resources, and for the westerners to be better stewards with people and relationships. This way we can all grow.