The Critically Important Task of Losing Well

The Brits are a funny people.

Yes, they are humorous:  Monty Python is proof of that.  And I could tell you stories about a couple of my British friends who make me laugh.

But I’m thinking of a different kind of funny.  I mean funny as in a bit strange.  And I could tell you stories about a couple of my British friends who…well, no, let’s not go there.

Instead, let’s go here:  the British are funny because their government actually pays the leader of the party that loses the national election.  They give her or him a post in government with a salary equivalent to a cabinet member.  This person gets a car and a paid staff.  The loser.

It is both “funny ha-ha” and “funny strange.”

And yet…..it is crucially important for the successful operation of their democracy.

Jeremy Corbyn: Labour Party leader and the current Important Loser -- OK, Her Majesty's Official Opposition --in Great Britain right now

The Right Honorable Jeremy Corbyn: Labour Party leader and the current Important Loser — OK, Her Majesty’s Official Opposition –in Great Britain right now

The official title for this person is “Her Majesty’s Official Opposition.”  That title encompasses an idea, “loyal opposition,” that is not used in the U.S. very much.  That is why it may seem funny to Americans.

But there is something very important here.  Back in 1992, when I found myself observing the political strife around me in Kenya, I heard the U.S. ambassador to Kenya give a speech in which he said that a problem Kenya was dealing with was that they did not have a tradition of a “loyal opposition.”

That phrase has stuck with me ever since.  What is it?

The concept of the “loyal opposition” actually encompasses many things.  Among them lies the thinking that disagreement is legitimate, that dissent is a healthy part of democracy, and that political opponents should not be treated as enemies to society.  In 1937, Great Britain went so far as to officially create this position, to protect dissent in their parliamentary system.

Putting up with dissent is not easy, though.  In fact, because of our sinfulness as humans, I would argue our default mode is to try to ignore, silence, or even eliminate those who disagree with us. People in power don’t want to have to listen to those who criticize them.

This is one thing that makes building a democracy so difficult.  When Kenya got its independence in 1963, it had to build a nation from more than thirty different ethnic groups.  Fearing division and fragmentation, the leaders created one political party, KANU, that was supposed to encompass all people.  They effectively outlawed all other parties.  The result was that Kenya did not develop healthy practices of dissent and disagreement in politics.  Political opponents, journalists and protesters were jailed if they got too critical.  Some were killed in mysterious circumstances.  Those in power solidified their grip on the system.  After thirty years, the nation had a grand total of two presidents and the first, Jomo Kenyatta, only vacated his post because he died.  During the 1992 elections, a time when I was wondering if my family would have to be evacuated, political strife ran deeply because opponents were pushing for an alternative party.  The ruling party, KANU, saw these dissenters not only as a threat to their power, but as enemies to the nation.

Unlike those funny Brits, the United States does not officially have a position of loyal opposition built into its system  It does, however, have many of the principles embedded in other ways.  Checks and balances ensure that one branch of government will be able to disagree and even block another branch.  The federalist system of dividing power between the national government and state governments is another way of doing that.  The Bill of Rights guarantees rights of assembly, speech, religion and press, thereby implicitly promoting dissent.

But it was not easy to establish practices of loyal opposition.

The clearest example of this were the Sedition Acts.  In 1798 — after the Constitution had been in effect for more than a decade — the Federalist faction in Congress passed laws that leveled fines and imprisonment for anyone writing anything “false, scandalous, and malicious against the government.”  President John Adams, a Federalist, signed it into law.

A newspaper editor, Thomas Callendar then wrote “the reign of Mr. Adams has, hitherto, been one continued tempest of malignant passions.  As president, he has never opened his lips or lifted his pen without threatening and scolding.  The grand object of his administration has been to exasperate the rage of contending parties, to calumniate and destroy every man who differs from his opinions.”  He was fined $200 and jailed for nine months.

Another newspaper editor, Luther Baldwin, wrote that he wished that a cannonball that had been fired in honor of Adams’ birthday had landed instead in the seat of his pants.  Baldwin was fined $100.

Some politicians thought Adams’ opponents really were enemies to the nation and threats to democracy.  And they tried to silence them.

When you think about it, these are the kinds of shenanigans that we think about happening in many African or Latin American nations.  Or Russia.  Or Egypt. Or Turkey. Or Myanmar (if you think about Myanmar, that is).

Fortunately, the United States worked through it, for the most part.

John Adams made a grave error by signing the Sedition Acts into law, but he later did something that was crucial for American democracy:  he lost.  More importantly, he lost well.  In the 1800 presidential election, he was defeated by Thomas Jefferson, who was supported by a different faction, the Democratic-Republicans.

And what did John Adams do?  He left Washington DC and went back home to Massachusetts.

To those of us steeped in stable democracies, this is such a typical, “normal” thing for a politician to do, it doesn’t even seem notable.  (Our lack of surprise is one of those Good Things that we don’t realize about ourselves.)

Consider this, though:  it was the first significant peaceful transfer of power in modern times.  Adams did not try to take over the military.  He did not claim voter fraud.  He did not arrest his opponents.  He did not try to change the Constitution in ways to keep him in power.  Those are all things that politicians facing electoral defeat have done in many places in the modern world.

John Adams: A Truly Great Loser

John Adams: A Truly Great Loser

Adams knew how to lose.  It was, in my estimation, his greatest moment.

Thomas Jefferson should get credit, as well.

In a rather famous inaugural address in 1801, he said, “we are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”  He meant that the loyalty to the democratic system should be greater, than loyalty to one’s party or political allies.  Meanwhile, dissent was critically important.  “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable,” Jefferson declared, “that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”

The Sedition Act had punished Jefferson’s allies.  But in 1801 he did not try to arrest his opponents as payback.  Jefferson did not try to pass a new set of Sedition Acts (which had expired) to silence the opposition.  He did not turn to the military to solidify his power.

Jefferson knew how to win in a manner that was healthy for the nation.  Believe it or not, I seriously think that this was his finest moment — maybe more so than that Declaration thing.

We need to keep the loyal opposition idea in mind.  In a rather crazy election year when passions and anger seem to be running more deeply than in the past, in an election when many are behaving badly, let us remember that there are principles that are higher than our particular candidate, our particular party and our particular political issues.

Those funny Brits are on to something, after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That moment when the Marines land in a helicopter to evacuate you….

One day about twenty-five years ago, my wife and I were eating lunch with our pre-school daughters. We were missionaries, teaching at Rift Valley Academy in Kijabe, Kenya.   As was so often true in this particularly glorious part of God’s creation, it was a beautiful, sunny day, with temperatures in the low 70s. RVA was on a break, so there weren’t many of students around.

Suddenly, we heard a car honking, incessantly: “Beep, Beeep, Beeeep, BEEP!   BEEEEEEP!”   A car came tearing up our driveway. I ran outside and a fellow missionary jumped out of the car and said, “A group of armed men came out of the forest up above the upper road. They attacked Kiambogo Primary School” (a Kenyan school about a mile away) “and shot a number of students. We’re gathering down at the chapel to decide what to do.”

He then jumped back in the car and took off.

Well, now.

Some context. Kenya had been experiencing political unrest. And political unrest in Kenya was serious business.

Also, Kenya’s infrastructure was not highly developed, which meant that there were not many police outside of urban areas. We had a police station in the area that housed two policemen. They did not have a vehicle, so if we needed them in an emergency, we had to drive down to get them. In other words, we had to take care of a lot of security ourselves.

But roaming mobs of men with guns?

Suffice it to say, to this point in my life I had not experienced anything that was much like this situation. It was…..a tad unsettling, shall we say.

I scurried off to the chapel, where other teachers and staff were gathering. There was a lot of nervous discussion, of course. We were informed that many of the Kenyans who had jobs at RVA had run home to see if their children were safe.

After a short time, one missionary arrived who asked: “How do we know if these reports are true?”

Ah.

That was a good question. We stopped and considered that one.

This man explained that he had lived in Uganda during a particularly unstable period and he knew rumors could spread and really put people on edge. Once, in his car with his family, he had been stopped at a roadblock and a soldier interrogated him with a loaded machine gun pointed at his face.  He was allowed to move on, and things calmed down.

About fifteen minutes or so after this, we found out that his suspicions were correct. The stories were false. No soldiers had come out of the forest. The Kiambogo primary school was fine. In fact, we read in the national newspaper the next day that this same rumor had been spread in dozens of places throughout the central region of Kenya, (all with the feature that a primary school near that area had been attacked) causing quite a bit of panic. The analysis was that the rumors were politically-motivated.

But I’d like us to consider two questions here.

Question #1: Was it actually plausible that something like this could happen?

Answer #1: Yes.

Here are some things I did experience in Kenya: at one point, crowds of Kikuyu people were stopping cars on the upper road, pulling out individuals from the rival Luo group and beating them up. One man was killed. The main highway into Nairobi had been effectively shut down. We felt isolated.

During teachers’ meetings before the school term began, one of the things we did was go over emergency procedures. We were told how, in a national emergency, we would gather faculty, staff and students together in a dormitory, while we waited for U.S. marine helicopters to arrive to evacuate us out of the country.

Now, this is what a truly terrible political situation looks like.

Now, this is what a truly terrible political situation looks like.

It had happened elsewhere. In the year before the Kenyan election, we had talked with missionaries who had to be evacuated from Liberia and (what was then) Zaire. Those two nations had fallen into civil war, where the social and political order had pretty much collapsed. Kenya bordered Somalia and Sudan, which were experiencing devastating civil wars.  Imagine the “law” of the land consisting of young men and teenage boys driving around in pickup trucks with machine guns. That happens.

Fortunately, it never came to this in Kenya. In fact, most years, Kenya has been secure and stable. And some nations in Africa that we don’t hear about, like Botswana and Senegal, have been extremely stable democracies for decades.  In Kenya, there have been a few moments, during election season, when stability was a real concern. This happened to be one of those moments.

So, during those months in Kenya, I struggled with this anxiety: Could the entire social and political order in this place I am living collapse?

It struck me that I had never felt that way in the United States. And I haven’t felt it since. Of course, there have been other kinds of anxieties about security in American society. But nothing like this.

After that, I began to ask myself a question that I have occasionally revisited in the years since then.

So here is Question #2: Why are some nations occasionally in danger of political and social collapse? Why are other nations more stable? What holds the social and political order of a nation together? (OK, that is more than one question, but you get the idea).

Answer #2: I don’t know, exactly.

However, I think that some things, like paying careful attention to history, particularly how cultures and institutions develop, can help us better understand these issues. I’m going to post a few blogs exploring these issues.

And I think it may be helpful for us in the United States to remember during this crazy election year, in which all sorts of fears, anxieties and unsettling things have arisen, that the social and political order is not going to collapse, no matter who gets elected. It is true we have some unhealthy components to our system. We need to take those seriously.  But we actually still have a solid foundation to our political order.

In other words, in the United States we don’t fear that the marines will have to evacuate us to some other place, while things fall apart around us. I know what that fear is like.

Boxing Day, The Wizard of Oz, Kikuyu Bibles, That Sort of Thing…..

And now, for a holiday that Americans don’t spend any money on….because it is British.

Many years ago, when I was teaching at Rift Valley Academy in Kenya, I took part in an old English tradition on Boxing Day.  As I found out, Boxing Day has nothing to do with that dubious athletic goal of punching another person senseless, (sorry for sounding like an elitist snob here, but why do we consider boxing to be a “sport?”)  Boxing Day, rather, stemmed from a 19th century tradition when people would box up food and other items on December 26 to take out to the neighborhood poor.

As a former British colony, Kenyans still celebrated Boxing Day.  Like the British, though, few Kenyans actually boxed up food for the local poor any more.   In fact, most Kenyans, like Americans, may not even know what this holiday was all about.  The Brits themselves may be a bit fuzzy themselves.  From what I can tell from my English friend and colleague, Malcolm Gold, when he was growing up the English primarily celebrated Boxing Day by watching “The Wizard of Oz” on the telly.  Because, you know, munchkins and flying monkeys.

A time-honored holiday tradition!  For some people, I guess.

A time-honored holiday tradition! For some people, I guess.

At any rate, one year when I was in Kenya, the chaplain of our school for missionary kids had decided that it would be good to resurrect the old English custom since there were a lot of poor in our area.   He had collected money from the students during the previous term and then purchased goods to take out to the community on Boxing Day.  I went along to help because it sounded like a good thing to do.  And I didn’t have TV reception to get “The Wizard of Oz.”

Our chaplain had worked with the Kikuyu elders of the local church to identify about a dozen of the poorest households in the community.  In Kenya this means those who are what economists would call “desperately poor” rather than just “poor.”   These people had far fewer resources than those in poverty in the US — we’re talking about people who make something like $200 to $600 a year, with no soup kitchens, welfare or rescue missions around.  They were, of course, quite grateful to be getting a box full of food.  These people knew what it was like to have days when you did not have much, if anything, to eat.  And that is why I was rather surprised to see that a number of them got even more excited (as did a few neighbors who had gathered around) to find that our chaplain had included a Kikuyu Bible in the box.

Think of this:  you are poor, you sometimes don’t have enough food to eat, you receive a box of food, but you get most excited about a Bible in the box?

I could end the post right here with a nice evangelical moral about how valuable the Bible is.  I won’t do that though, for two reasons.  First of all, it is a little too simple.  It sounds a little too much like the sappy moralistic stories that Victorian Christians used to tell their children in Sunday School to get them to be good.  Therefore it would come off sounding shallower than what it really was.  (I ought to point out, though, that those same sappy Victorian Christians did think they ought to personally get up and try to do something to help others, which is much more commendable than sitting at home watching Judy Garland and Toto cavort with a scarecrow.   Though, you know, that would be fun).

Today you can get the Kikuyu Bible online for free...if you have enough economic resources to have internet access.

Today you can get the Kikuyu Bible online for free…if you have enough economic resources to have internet access.

The second and primary reason I don’t end the story here is because there are important theological and cultural dynamics at play here.  These were Bibles that had been translated into Kikuyu.  At that time, for reasons that I don’t understand, there had been publishing problems in Kenya.  Kikuyu Bibles were in short supply.  But not other Bibles.  There were plenty of English and Swahili Bibles to be found.  Most of the Africans in our community spoke Kikuyu, English and Swahili.  So, if they could get Bibles that they could read, what was so special about a Bible in Kikuyu?

The answer lies in understanding how language works and what that has to do with the Christian faith.  A friend of mine who is an anthropologist and a missionary talks about the importance of the “heart language.”  For those of us who grew up in the United States and really only know one language, this is kind of hard to grasp.  But for those who know several languages, there is often something special about the “mother tongue” or language that one learned first, as a child.  Great truths take on far more power, meaning and significance when they are communicated in the first language one learned.   It might be something like the mix of passions and emotions that can arise within you when you hear a favorite old hymn or song.  For those who grew up speaking Kikuyu before learning Swahili or English, a Kikuyu Bible will have far more meaning and power.

The “heart language.”  There is a lot to this — important theological, cultural and historical implications to this relationship between language and culture.  And it is important for the church today.  My plan is to explore these in the next couple of posts.

 

Mother’s Day, Termites, Advertising and Kikuyu Men. That Sort of Thing.

Mother’s Day is fast approaching, and that means we Americans are all busy spending money, just like we do with every holiday.  The latest estimates show Americans will spend $20 billion on Mother’s Day items this year, surpassing both Halloween and Easter.

I am sure you sense a critique coming, but before I launch into it, I have to confess that I am not a very good gift-giver.  What is worse, I haven’t always been as appreciative to my mother or my wife as I should be (on Mother’s Day or at other times).  So the questions about consumerism and holidays that I raise do not stem from my own virtue and righteousness.  Let me draw from some others.

First, it is worth noting that we Americans tend to turn every holiday into a spending spree.  I once met a fellow scholar from England who was visiting the United States over Memorial Day weekend.  He found the idea of “Memorial Day sales” to be very curious.  In Britain, Memorial Day (or Remembrance Day, as the Brits call it) is a somber event where one is supposed to honor and remember the many who have died in war.  It is serious business.  Why, my British acquaintance more or less asked, do we Americans think we should use the day to sell mattresses at half price?  Good question.

That raises the question of what consumerism does to the meaning, habits and practices of holidays.  Admittedly, as far as our holidays go, there is probably less self-indulgence in Mother’s Day as others.  It is more other-oriented than many.  Still, the economics of the thing has a way of shaping the meaning of the holiday.  Critics have argued that Mother’s Day is primarily an opportunity for florists, greeting card companies, restaurants and other companies to make a buck.

But has anyone ever been as ticked off about Mother’s Day as Anna Jarvis?  Angered by the “greedy” businessmen who dominated the holiday, she called them “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites.”

I like the “other termites” part.  It’s a nice touch.

Why was Anna Jarvis so mad?  Well, she pretty much invented the holiday.  Then she watched American consumerism kick in and take it places she did not want it to go.

Clever Title, don't you think?

Clever Title, don’t you think?

The story of the relationship between consumerism and Mother’s Day (and Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day) is told by Leigh Erich Schmidt in Consumer Rites:  The Buying and Selling of American Holidays.  (I received this book as a gift at Christmas one year — the ironies there make me happy).

Jarvis created the Mother’s Day International Association and convinced politicians, newspaper editors and church leaders to recognize the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day in 1908.  A dedicated evangelical who grew up as a Methodist in West Virginia, Jarvis intended the day to be grounded in the church, where mothers would be celebrated not only for their domestic duties, (which, of course, is primarily how middle-class Americans thought of mothers in 1908) but to encourage others in their piety and roles in developing spiritual qualities in children.

And then, unintended consequences.  The very success of her movement ended up bringing her frustrations. Florists latched onto the day very quickly.  Jarvis had suggested that people wear white carnations to honor their mothers, a simple recommendation that sent prices for the flower skyrocketing each May.  By 1910, the floral industry began suggesting to customers that flowers also should be given to mothers as gifts.  And then, well, what the heck, why not decorate churches, homes, Sunday schools and cemeteries with flowers on the holiday as well?  Floral trade organizations encouraged aggressive marketing campaigns, while simultaneously advising their businesses that “the commercial aspect is at all times to be kept concealed.”  Americans, of course, are suckers for good advertising.  The catchy phrase, “Say it With Flowers” convinced many that spending money was the best way to express one’s affection for one’s mother.   By 1920, the holiday had been so deeply entrenched in the world of consumerism, that Jarvis despaired that the meaning of the holiday had been hijacked by commercial interests.  Hence the “other termites” thing.

Say what with flowers?  Do we know?

Say what with flowers? Do we know?

I can understand Jarvis’ frustration.  You may have noticed that consumerism bothers me somewhat.  That is fallout from living in Kenya for six years and coming back to the United States with new eyes.  Ever since then, I’ve been trying to figure out the implications of this system that envelops us.  I have been a bit suspicious that Mother’s Day is often more of a Hallmark-driven holiday than a grounded appreciation for important people in our lives.

You can imagine, then, that I was a bit nonplussed a few years ago when a Kenyan friend of mine told me about an African pastor he knew who had introduced Mother’s Day into his church.  This pastor had spent a number of years at a seminary in the United States and returned to Kenya with this idea.  Inwardly, I groaned a little, worried that it would end up simply embedding consumerism and materialism into this African church.

I should have known, though, that institutions that get transplanted in the soil of a different culture don’t grow into the same kind of plant.  Here is the situation:  traditional Kikuyu men were socialized into ordering around their wives (and other women) to do tasks. Like many traditional cultures, the Kikuyu have a fair amount of patriarchy embedded in the way they did things. One expression of this patriarchy was that husbands would not show any appreciation to their wives.  And that has all sorts of implications for how men and women related to one another, as well as how gender relations were structured.

We caught glimpses of this when we lived in Kenya.  There were times in public places when African men — strangers — would approach my wife and tell her how she should be parenting our young children.   And then expected her to act on those instructions.  Right there.

It takes a village to raise a child and it also takes a village to get women to act as the men want them to.

But the Kikuyu pastor, as my friend explained, introduced Mother’s Day as a way to instruct the men in his congregation that they were not only to do something nice for their wives, they were to recognize that women were important and valuable.  They were to tell their wives this and thank them for something they did.   These actions were quite different for the Kikuyu men in that church.  This pastor had not simply picked up the idea that Mother’s Day was about men buying flowers for mothers and wives.  He saw that the Christian faith had implications for gender relations — at the very least, men should not lord themselves over women.  There are far more implications for gender in the Christian faith than that, of course, but I find this a significant development for this church.

Whatever her flaws, (and she had them), Anna Jarvis would have been pleased, I think, with this Kenyan pastor.  She understood that the way we related to one another mattered.  Jarvis said that “any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter, than any fancy greeting card,” and she is probably right.  A card can prevent people from actually thinking about and articulating what is important in a relationship.

I’m not anti-gift (nor was Jarvis).  For many mothers, receiving gifts may be a meaningful way to accept the love of others.  But there are other ideas out there besides those we get in our advertisements.  Maybe we should think more deeply about whether gifts are the best way to express gratitude and honor those we love.  A phone call, a note, time together, making meals…I don’t know.  It probably depends.  I’m not very good at this, which means I need to think about it more.

I’d be interested to hear about any non-consumeristic ways you have of handling Mother’s Day.

Short-term Missions, Learning, and an American Evangelical Weakness

I have a quiz for you.

It’s the same quiz that I gave to my students toward the end of our trip in Kenya.

I told them that I had observed another group of evangelical Americans in a short-term mission situation where they were speaking to very poor people, most of whom did not have jobs and some of whom were homeless.  I told them about a mini-sermon one of the Americans had given and asked them what made this sermon less effective than it could have been.  Here is how it went:  one of the Americans got up with an old bicycle.  He explained that when you get on a bike, you choose where you go.  You decide what path to take.  You decide if you are going to go to work, or to school, or to a friend’s house.  And that is how it is in life, he explained.  We make choices about how we are going to live.  We decide what job we are going to take and what we are going to do with our life….

At this point, several of my students groaned and several others rolled their eyes.

They passed the quiz.  How did you do?

My students groaned because (as they explained to me) the poor women and homeless street boys in places like Maai Mahiu simply don’t have the choices that Americans have.  They can’t choose what job to take, for instance, because in a poor town in a nation with about 40% unemployment and another 30% underemployment, jobs are desperately hard to find.  Yes, poor Kenyans do have choices – moral and spiritual choices, especially — but their choices in so many areas of life are extremely limited.

Would you tell people from the slums of Kibera that they can “be anything they want to be, if they just work hard enough?”

My students were right.  These Kenyans don’t believe that they “can be anything they want to be, if they just work hard enough” (another phrase I heard from an American in that group).  These Kenyans know that this phrase is simply false.  And so, there was a real disconnect between this American way of thinking and the reality of life for these people.

I then asked my students why they knew this and this other team from America did not.  My students had to reflect on this for a few moments.  Someone finally concluded that they listened to the people they met at Maai Mahiu.  My students knew that they should try to understand the situation that these people were in.

But why did these students listen?  Why did they know that they should work to understand the people of Maai Mahiu?  I told them to think about their education.  Excluding the specific class they were taking for this trip to Kenya, where had they learned to listen and understand people who were different from them?  They then discussed a range of classes that they had taken at Malone where they did these sorts of things.  Seven different classes were named specifically.

Why does this matter?  It matters because far too many American evangelicals embark on short term missions trip without a deep sense that, even though they may go to serve, they also need to be learners.  They need to be ready and willing to deepen their understanding of the people they serve.  Far too many evangelicals take the attitude that since they have Christ in their lives, they do not need to learn anything about the people they visit.  They just need to “love on” others and everything will be fine.

But it is not fine.  It is true that God’s grace still works, despite our faults.  It is true that love conquers a multitude of sins.  It is true that this group that I used as an example did some wonderful things.  But it is also true that our efforts can be limited or distorted because of our sins.  It is true that the sin of pride, in assuming we know all we need to know, is a sin that we don’t have to commit.  Many cross-cultural sins can be taken care of through a servant attitude toward learning.  But without a humble attitude toward learning, well-intentioned short-term missions end up with limited effectiveness.  I talked with several Kenyan Christian leaders who, while welcoming and supportive of Americans coming to participate in their ministries, indicated that some groups do not have a good sense of these things.  As my friend Esther said, (in a phrase I find simultaneously telling and painful), she has seen many Americans arrive in Kenya with an attitude that “the Savior has landed!”

These American evangelicals probably would be surprised to find a good number of African Christians whose spiritual maturity is much deeper than their own.

Of course, there are American evangelical leaders who understand these things.  For instance, I know of a famous Baptist preacher who said, in a speech in a missions convention, that we must carry out “our ideas as being ourselves learners.”

But wait.  That Baptist guy was Francis Wayland who was born in 1796.  He gave the speech in 1854.

1854!

I mention this because as a historian of these kinds of things, I can find evangelical missionaries saying roughly the same thing to their American audiences in about every decade since the 1850s.  Many evangelicals don’t get it.  They don’t listen.  And they don’t learn.  The result?  We keep on sending people out into cross-cultural situations who do not draw upon the insights from the past.  As a result, every generation has to reinvent the wheel.  It is still happening today, folks.

Here is one small suggestion:  if you belong to a church that sends out short-term missions, see what you can do to help your church prepare for these trips.  I would recommend a book by David Livermore called Serving with Eyes Wide Open:  Doing Short-term Missions with Cultural Intelligence.  It is very thoughtful, accessible, and written with ordinary evangelicals in mind.

Buy this book!

If your church group reads this book and takes it seriously, they will go out with greater cultural intelligence.  They are less likely to give off the impression that, now that they have arrived, the Savior has landed.

(And for those of you who are weak on your theology, let me mention that the Savior landed about, oh, two thousand years ago).

Why You Should Know That Child Sponsorship Works

You have probably seen ads for organizations, like Compassion International, whereby a person can donate money regularly to sponsor children who live in poor situations around the world.  Maybe you have sponsored a child.

But does it make a difference?

Consider the following little anecdote.  While our Malone group was in the Kenyan town of Maai Mahiu, my colleague David told me that a young teenage girl was asking about me.  The girl, Salome, had heard that one of us was a history professor and she wanted to talk to this guy because she liked history.

Now, I have to confess that I am always a bit surprised when anybody tells me they like history.  I tend to view history lovers like myself as rare and slightly strange creatures.  Like Rhinos.  Or Miami Marlin fans.

And I can’t recall anyone actually tracking me down to talk to me because they liked history.  (Does this type of thing only happen in Kenya, I am tempted to ask myself?)

Yet I found myself in this rough town in Kenya talking to this girl who was telling me she liked history.  (You’ll find us in the picture below).  Salome’s eyes lit up as she told me how she was interested in the history of economic development in Kenya– the shipping and railroads and growth of towns.  She explained that history helped her understand things better.  We had a wonderful conversation.

Two history buffs having a little chat.

Here is the problem:   at that moment — a Thursday morning, a school day — Salome was not in school studying history.   The nation of Kenya cannot afford to provide everyone in the country with a free education, so each student has to pay school fees.  Salome had dropped out of school because she did not have enough money to pay for her school fees.

This is serious business in Maai Mahiu.  Isaac and Esther Karanja Munji, who have been working with women through their church, Rift Valley Fellowship, understand that there is a connection between dropping out of school and prostitution.  They explained that teenage girls in this town who cannot go to school often end up in prostitution, simply as a means of survival.  Isaac and Esther know of instances in which mothers, who are prostitutes themselves and do not like the business, tell their girls that if they aren’t in school, they should at least be making money.

As they attempt to help women get out of prostitution, Isaac and Esther have realized that they need to do things to try to break the cycle.  So they have set up a sponsorship program where people can donate money to keep teenage girls in school.

It makes sense to me.  And it made sense to the Malone students, who decided that they wanted to give money to help some of these girls stay in school.  $300 will keep Salome in school for the year.

There are no guarantees that things will turn out well, of course.  Stuff happens.  But given Salome’s obvious academic desires (desires that I wish some of my American students displayed), I’m pretty confident that she will stick with it.  That should give her a fighting chance to avoid prostitution.  And that is something.

But do we have evidence, beyond the logic of individual anecdotes, that these kinds of programs have an impact, overall?

We do.  When I arrived back from Kenya I was excited to see an article addressing this very question in the most recent issue of Christianity Today.  The essence of the article:  a recent set of studies by economists have compared children who have been sponsored by organizations like Compassion with those in similar situations who were not sponsored.  They show that these programs have a substantial effect on helping children get out of poverty.  They work.

That should encourage any of you who have ever supported a child.  Maybe it will help you think about doing so if you have not done so already.  It takes an act of faith.  It takes initiative, effort and internal gumption to support children that you have not seen.  You may not ever travel to a place where you can meet these young people face-to-face.  It takes faith to believe that your money is making a difference when you cannot see the results.  And yet, that is part of how faith and the Kingdom of God works.

The people at Rift Valley Fellowship may also be encouraged, though they don’t tend to draw their hope from data derived from recent studies by social scientists.  Instead, they pray.  They pray earnestly and with remarkable confidence that God will deliver them.  That deliverance can take many forms.  One way it happens is if people like us, who have economic resources, will sponsor children.

 

The Face-to-Face Factor

I have just returned from Kenya, where David Dixon (a colleague of mine) and I took nine Malone students on a service-learning trip.  Since David grew up in Kenya and I lived there for six years, it was like going home for us, in some respects.

This wasn’t exactly like a short-term missions trip because it was tied it to a class on the History of Christianity in East Africa.  We emphasized learning more than most trips that churches sponsor.  But it was similar in several respects:  we visited a number of African ministries, we participated in service activities, and we were there for a limited time.

I have seen many dimensions to the diverse nation that is Kenya, including the dimensions that include deep poverty.  So it wasn’t much of a stretch for me when, on our second full day, my Kikuyu friends, Isaac and Esther Munji, took our group down to visit a new church they had planted in a poor town called Maai Mahiu.   Twenty years ago the town consisted of a gas station, a half dozen shops, a few homes and an orphanage.  Today Maai Mahiu is like the Wild West.  Situated along the primary highway that runs through East Africa, the town is pretty much a huge truck stop.  5000 people live in a place that is full of, among others, eager shopkeepers, truckers, prostitutes, homeless streetboys, orphans —  in other words, a lot of people who have lost their ties to families and communities.  It is estimated that about 90% of the people in this town are HIV positive.

Maai Mahiu: The Wild West of Central Province, Kenya

If you have traveled to economically-deprived locations outside of the United States, you can probably imagine what our students faced:  dirt streets with fetid water trickling through them, children scampering about in ragged clothes, trash scattered here and there, and a rather powerful cocktail of not-altogether pleasant smells.

We arrived at the church, Rift Valley Fellowship, and met a small gathering of about a dozen women and teenage girls.  Isaac had everyone introduce themselves.  Then we split up into two groups to walk to the houses of these women and pray for them.  So I set off with a group and ended up with about ten of us crowded into a one-room home.

Again, this was not new to me.  I have visited some pretty poor dwellings in Kenya before.  I have prayed in homes with Kenyans.  I’ve walked through some poor neighborhoods.

So why did I find myself crying as we prayed?

It is the face-to-face factor.  The reality of a situation just has a way of hitting a person much deeper if it is witnessed face-to-face, as opposed to reading about it, or watching it on TV, or hearing somebody talk about it.  We can know things in our head, but most of the time they don’t move us to action like the face-to-face factor does.

Several realities of this face-to-face encounter hit me at once:  the difficult poverty of these women, the recognition that prostitution is one of the few options for generating income for women in this town, the personal dimension of meeting, talking to and learning names (Jane, Francis, Marcy) of people in this town, the thankfulness these women expressed that someone would care enough about them to come pray for them in their home, my recognition that our students were at that moment getting overwhelmed by all of this, and a deep sense of gratitude that our students still dove into this overwhelming cross-cultural situation, earnestly praying for these women.

The problem of describing this in a blog is that it is difficult to transfer the power of these

Jane, outside of her home.

realities to those who have not had the face-to-face experience.  I can give you a glimpse, but I cannot fully recapture the reality of that moment in this limited medium.  I have known this for many years.  There have been times during the past two decades that Elisa and I have joked that we just need to take certain people to Kenya so that they can understand things better.  And there are more numerous times when I have been in need being transported myself.

The face-to-face factor is something to ponder carefully.  It is one reason why I believe that the best online classes, though often helpful and necessary, will never be able to match the benefit of a good in-class experience.  It is why we need to spend time with our kids and cannot hope to raise them as effectively from afar or in snippets.  It is tied to the mystery of intimacy, as Philip Yancey points out, for human beings are the only species of animal that commonly has sex face to face.  The face-to-face factor is why we cannot be lone wolf Christians, but must worship, fellowship and pray with others in church.

And the face-to-face factor may serve as the biggest benefit derived from short-term missions trips.  There is a debate within some segments of the American evangelical community about the value of short term missions.  There are good questions to consider in this debate, which I may discuss later.  For now, let me say that I have talked to missionaries and local Christian leaders who say that the face-to-face impact of these trips is a major benefit, for it often spurs Americans to further action.  It connects people across cultural and national boundaries.  And it provokes deeper questions about Christ’s calling for our lives.

I don’t know of any systematic studies that have tried to gauge the impact of the face-to-face factor in short-term missions, though maybe they are out there.  I do know that a trip to Haiti in 1969 had a big impact on my parents.  (How many times did we view slides of Haiti in our living room with visiting friends and family?  About eleventy-bajillion, to my 2nd grade way of thinking).   A short-term trip to the Bahamas when I was in college played a major role in my life decisions.

The Bible speaks a number of times about face-to-face encounters.  Usually it refers to the bright hope of seeing God face to face some day.  I can’t begin to plumb the depths of meaning to this idea, but it does suggest that knowing and being known are more than simply mental processes.  Now we see through a mirror dimly, then we will see face to face.

For a glimpse into the impact of the face-to-face factor on our Malone students, you can check out their final Kenya blog here.