on Christianity and mission work

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I consider myself Christian – I attend church on Sundays, have taught Sunday School and assisted with youth groups, traveled on youth mission trips. I also question many of the tenants of mainstream Christianity and try to work within my faith community for change. During my trips to  the developing world, I have participated in Baptist, Methodist and Catholic church services. The hospital we serve in Haiti started as a Baptist mission outpost. I have worked alongside atheists, evangelicals and Muslims.  All of this is to say that I have seen both the up and down sides of Christianity abroad.

As American Christians, we are often drawn to stories that purport to show the changes that teams of missionaries can make in impoverished nations and how the populace of the developing world welcomes these individuals with welcoming arms.

Now consider the following scenario. A devoutly Christian couple in Western Africa consider themselves very fortunate – they are healthy and have good jobs, are able to afford to send their three children to good schools and have a strong religious community. Recently they have become concerned about stories that they have heard about America – broken families resulting in children growing up in poverty, senseless gun deaths due to young men’s lack of connection to their communities, lack of medical care in sparsely populated areas. Both of the Africans are trained in medicine – a doctor and a nurse. With the financial and prayer support of their religious community, they uproot their family and move to a remote community in the western US. The family finds many of the foods and traditions of this new land to be foreign and write about them in a blog that they share with the community in Africa. Efforts are directed to building a school so that area children don’t have to travel so far for school and so that they can “save” the souls of the children by teaching them African Christianity. Future plans are to add a medical clinic to serve the needs of adults while spreading the African gospel. Youth mission teams are being formed in their home church so that youth can travel to this remote, foreign area of American to help with summer camps. All of these endeavors are meant to bring the community in America closer to the African way of life, thus solving all of their problems.

Does this story sound too familiar? It might be extreme to grab your attention, but is it so far from the truth? Following are just three examples of similar examples that I witnessed on my recent trip to Haiti.

  1. I was asked by a Haitian Catholic priest to vouch for his work as he was applying for a grant thru the Koch foundation. I have worked with him closely in our microfinance program and he is an extraordinary person that has been very responsible with finances. I contacted the Koch foundation and was informed that I was not able to testify to this man’s extraordinary work as I was not a person of the Catholic faith.
  2. The hospital in Haiti where we work is in desperate need of new operating room tables. I contacted a mission organization that acts as a clearinghouse for medical equipment. In order to be a member of their on-line community, I was asked to sign a form declaring my faith and stating that I believed that Jesus was the one true and only savior.
  3. One of the surgical members of our recent trip was familiar with a mission hospital in Africa that was in need of surgeons to teach local physicians. I checked out the website and found lovely pictures of the surrounding countryside, medical facilities and new solar panels. But other parts of this mission project were disturbing to me. The hospital was intentionally established in a part of the country that was “99.99% Muslim”. Christianity was taught to post-op patients and a separate building housed those Africans who had converted to Christianity and were ostracized from their Muslim families. I had the option to purchase a book that had recently been written about establishing missions to convert natives from the Islamic faith to Christianity.

Thankfully, I have witnessed far more examples of Christianity done right. Many of the American volunteers that I have worked with in Haiti are called to do good thru their Christian faith – and that is what they do when serving, regardless of the faith of those who they serve. If it were not for Baptist mission work abroad, Dr Hodges would never have traveled to Haiti after WWII and established Hospital Bon Samaritian, currently the main employer in Limbe (population 75,000) and source of clean water for the town. Fr Charles, in a remote mountain village, is working to build a hospital, has opened 6 schools and brings the outside world to illiterate citizens each Sunday.

It is complicated. I have more questions than answers after 10 years of working in Haiti. But maybe questioning is the first step in getting the answer right.

 

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Teaching cervical cancer screening in Kenya

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I am tired of talking and reading about racism, so ….

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The airways, newspaper and social media are littered with articles about racism. Phrases such as white privilege, black lives matter, communities of color and generational poverty are liberally used. Letters to the Editor are sprinkled with readers solutions, both liberal and conservative. Individuals on both sides point fingers at each other and speak polarizing languages. In the past, there was not enough talk about racism and now I think we have had enough talk and we need to somehow move beyond to solutions. As an individual, we cannot solve an entire  nation’s problems, but, like Rosa Parks refusing to take a seat at the back of the bus, each of us can make small changes towards equality that together may help to change other’s attitudes.

Thirty-five youth from our church, including 3 of my children, traveled to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota last week. They organized a Kid’s Club, helped to rehab a home and cut wood that will be used to heat homes during the winter. Generational poverty, loss of culture and alcoholism were more than words in a history book. It was their reality for a week.

Messiah Visits Wanblee, SD (short video of their work)

Not all of us would be comfortable participating in one of these trips. Opportunities abound closer to home if you only look for them. Stereotypes of others can be changed when you know someone personally. The sea change in attitudes regarding homosexuality over the past 10 years is an excellent example of this phenomena. Following is just a partial list of ideas.

1. Volunteer in a low-income school or preschool/daycare. Many of the parents are busy working minimum wage jobs and unable to provide volunteer hours. My experience this past year was fabulous as I spent an hour each week with one on one reading for a first grade class.

2. If you are not familiar with a new immigrant community, read a book about their struggles and why they choose to come to this country. Move beyond the Clint Eastwood character in Gran Torino (but still a wonderful movie!).

3. Volunteer at an adult ESL program in your school district.

4. Attend a mosque or minority church.

5. Food is an important part of many cultures. Eat at an ethnic restaurant that is frequented by natives.

 

We will never be completely rid of racism. Our brains like to put individuals into groups of the same that share the same characteristics. When I was in Kenya, my Kenyan friends always asked a new acquaintance what tribe they were from. The tribe defined their personality characteristics.  I informed them that they were more racist in Kenya than most Americans in the US. I was informed that in Africa, it is termed tribalism, not racism. A variation of the same behavior.

Acceptance of differences is the direction in which we need to move as a country. Judge a person based on how they behave as a human, not on their skin color, sexual orientation, church affiliation or ethnicity. Work together as a community to create a level playing field so that everyone has basic opportunities to succeed. Move beyond talking and reading…. AND DO!

A new way to look at charity in the developing world

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This book was waiting at the library for me when I returned from Africa.  It had been recommended based on my previous reads on Goodreads (like movies on Netflix are recommended based on what you have previously watched). The timing couldn’t have been better as I still had images of Kenya and the people I met there fresh in my mind.  The first part of the book is autobiographical and describes the author’s journey over 20 years working in the developing world – both the mistakes she made and the hard-won successes.  The second part of the book, which I found more interesting, describes how she has used those experiences to invest venture capital into a fund that subsidizes new ideas and entrepreneurs.  There are multiple examples where the poor are seen not as charity, but as customers for new business ventures. Coated bed nets that prevent malaria are everywhere in Africa – over hospital beds, in hotel rooms, in mud huts.  Giving them for free to every household is impossible, especially since they need to be replaced every 3-5 years. However, a large supply of nets were initially given for free to homes with small children, as they are the most susceptible to death from malaria.  Once Africans saw the benefit of the free bed nets, they were much more willing to spend their hard earned money on nets for other members of their family.  Businesses invested in them to give to their workers, as it reduced the number of sick days for employees. Many of the bed nets are now produced in African factories, which provide jobs to minimally skilled workers. If the initial capital hadn’t been invested in the manufacture and distribution of free nets, none of the subsequent sustainable enterprises would have evolved.

 

My bed net for 2 nights in a malaria endemic region of Kenya

My bed net for 2 nights in a malaria endemic region of Kenya

What does this mean for how we should view charitable activities closer to home?  Shouldn’t we use the same model here in the United States to involve the recipients of charity to be part of the solution and not just the receiver of charity?  Instead of preparing a meal for the homeless and then cleaning the kitchen, why not involve them in the process of choosing the menu, preparing the food and helping to clean.  We could sit with them at the meal and  share our stories. We would still need to use outside funds to procure the food, but much less outside involvement to prepare and serve the food.  A “hand-up” rather than a “hand-out” solution. Certainly the way that much of charitable giving is currently performed leaves the receiver in a dependency mode, waiting for the next action from the giver. Breaking this cycle involves asking difficult questions of both sides.  Are we ready for the answers?

Mothering from a world away

On my recent trip to Kenya, I was away from my family for 17 days. I missed my son’s final cross country ski meet, his first ACT test, my daughter’s game winning soccer goal. I made infrequent contact with my family via text and even more infrequent phone calls due to the constraints of long work days in Africa and the time change. I didn’t have a chance to buy chocolate or cards for Valentine’s Day before I left. Overall, I was feeling the mother guilt big time in my first week away. It hadn’t helped that many of my friends and co-workers had congratulated me on my upcoming trip in the weeks before I left, quickly followed by “I could never leave my kids/husband/boyfriend for that long” statement. And then I met Joyce near the end of my first week . After hearing her story, the remainder of my stay was much less guilt ridden and I was able to appreciate my time away from home to recharge my mission focus.

Joyce (on left) and newly cooked mandazi

Joyce (on left) and newly cooked mandazi

Joyce is a professor of community development at a university in Nairobi. On weekends and holidays, she returns to western Kenya (a 7 hour drive) to help her husband operate a bed and breakfast. We were able to share their company one night as we visited a local hospital that is being considered for a future cervical cancer screening program. After preparing our dinner, she was gracious enough to share her family story with us. She had married in her early 20’s and graduated from college in Nairobi. She was working in community development for the government when she was offered the opportunity to study in Canada and receive her Master’s degree, which would allow her to teach at the college level when she returned. A wonderful opportunity with one major drawback – her husband and 2 young daughters (ages 3 and 5) would not be allowed to accompany her. Her husband was very supportive and urged her to take advantage of the opportunity. He had a good job and household help in Africa is plentiful and inexpensive. She would be gone for 3 years and only able to return home twice. This was before the internet age and cell phones, so communication was a brief phone call once a week. She changed her mind daily, but in the end decided that the future life of her family would benefit from her improved job status. Her daughters are now in their late 20’s and she has a great relationship with both of them. After returning to Kenya, she had 2 more children. She continues to teach at the university, traveling frequently thruout Africa to work on community development projects in other countries. She loves her work and feels that the additional education offered her many opportunities that she wouldn’t have been considered for otherwise.

Many of the immigrant patients from Africa that I see in my office have often had to leave behind immediate family, in order to take advantage of the opportunity to move to America. It is not infrequent that these woman are pregnant with a new baby, while their older children remain in Africa with an older relative, waiting for the funds and paperwork to be able to be reunited with their parent. Other African woman move to America, secure a good job that is able to support their immediate family here while sending funds back to Africa to support nieces/nephews. This is often an expected obligation, not a choice, from their families who remain in Africa.

In the end, my family functioned just fine while I was gone and I felt more guilt than they felt loss. Could I leave for 3 months or a year? I am grateful that I do not need to make this decision because I don’t know the answer.