On 03 December, 2014, our family of five flew from Minneapolis, MN (in the United States) to our new home in Kampala, Uganda (in East Africa). Now, after 13 months, we want to share a few reflections on what we’ve experienced as a family called to serve in cross-cultural theological education. We work at Africa Renewal University, an accredited Christian University whose mission is “To equip Christian leaders for the transformation of society.” We teach theology and English, and we have three daughters, all under 8 years old.
Hours after stepping off the plane, we were confronted with a stark reality: short-term and longterm ministry are not the same. We don’t have any definite plans for a departure date, and only vague notions of a furlough after 2 or 3 years or so.
So now, as committed, long-term missionaries who are trying to dig deep into life here, and find the best solutions, we see the problems begin to intensify rapidly. There are so many more issues in front of us than we ever could have imagined, though we had already been here three times in the last few years. But now we can’t just go home in 11 days and let the other people solve the problems. And much to our surprise, the problems are not merely cultural.
What do you do with all the stuff you see day after day as you drive through town to the grocery store? With the child who bangs on your car window and asks you to buy bananas? With the man who is limping down the street and has no crutches or shoes? With the American proselytizer who is trying to coax a local into some crazy ministry pyramid scheme that will “make them rich quick.” It can be overwhelming and daunting at times. It can be frustrating and painful, or even numbing.
How do we process this all? There are the personal implications: Are we wise? Foolish? Deceived? Calloused? Compassionate? Aware? Ignorant? Are we good stewards? Wasteful? Idealistic?
Then there are the philosophical dimensions: from where do these problems stem? Government? Economics? Social issues? Cultural realities? Educational challenges? Environmental turmoil? Ecclesiological structures? Spiritual darkness? Or maybe from other missionaries?
Coming from our culture in North America that values convenience, efficiency, and a high return on investment, the temptation is to jump in quickly and create positive results instantly (whatever that is, and whoever decides what that looks like).
But the truth is, there are already many groups out there trying to solve the shoe problem, or working with street kids, or giving out free clothes and digging wells. And don’t get me wrong, there are many good things about these projects. Many people have been blessed and helped by these good endeavors. Needy people are everywhere; of course people benefit from a well to get clean water, and a child without shoes will definitely be better off with some. We must commend the heart of a person that says, “The needs are so great; let’s do something to help!”
Nevertheless, sometimes this urge to help falls short because the strategy and cultural understandings are flawed, at least from a long-term vantage point. We sometimes wonder, when suchand-such missionary or NGO suddenly leaves the country (a frequent occurrence), how many more organizations will feel the urge to come and fix the three new problems that were unintentionally, (or haphazardly,) left behind? And if what remains requires three new organizations to address the problems, what happens in the next five years when this second wave of NGOs or missionaries closes up shop and leaves the country?
So, we come back to this challenging question again and again: “What can we do to help?” Maybe you are beginning to sense, with us, that it’s actually a difficult question to answer.
Broadly speaking, we know that people need to be made right with God, and then live a life that knows and shares the love of God. The book of Acts actually describes preaching the gospel and church planting as “help.” (Acts 16:9–10).
Having started with the gospel, what is next? Or, lest we think that there is something better, above, or beyond the gospel, we ask the question, “What does it mean to live faithfully in the gospel at this place, in this time, among these people?” If love of neighbor is essentially the way of life for all Christians everywhere, how is it done best here?
Learning how to love people well inevitably requires cultural sensitivity. For example, we’ve found that sometimes it can be a challenge to get a clear answer when the cultural assumption is that it is impolite to say “No.” Even a smile can mean many different things. Is it a smile of happiness or discontentment? Understanding or confusion? Embarrassment or pride? Agreement or disagreement? What was this person communicating to me when he smiled?
Right there is the rub—we are learning that it takes some time to figure out what is in the mind, heart, symbols and norms of this culture into which we have immersed ourselves. How do they work, play, and rest? How do they talk, gesture, shrug, and glance? How are they born? How do they grow up? How do they marry? And how do they die? Then what happens?
Over and again, we have had to flip a switch off from what we’ve always thought was normal, natural, good and right. Then, we have to take some time—a long time—just to listen. It’s difficult to listen deeply and carefully without judging and evaluating their world based on the background and culture that we are most familiar with. What we see and hear is not equal to what it meant in our previous culture. And there’s no consistent conversion scale. It could be directly opposed to what we once knew; it could be generally the same; or it could have no conceivable analogy.
This doesn’t mean that evaluation and seeking to bring about changes will never come. It’s only that we are challenged to spend sufficient time listening—even to the point where it begins to feel uncomfortable. After all, if attempts to bring about change come pre-maturely, before we’ve actually listened carefully, deeply, and patiently, those attempts at change will fail to reach the real heart of the people, and they may end up worse off for our hastiness.
Patient cultural listening does not mean that we approve of everything (or anything!). It just means that when we attempt to bring about change, it will be after we have made our best attempt to come to terms with what is really there. What is really there is different than what we see with our eyes at first, and cannot be seen through our original culture’s lenses. It will only begin to emerge after we have discovered some new “terms” that will most likely differ from those in our previous culture.
One of our hearts’ deepest desires is to see people transformed though the Gospel of Jesus. We have come to the steady conviction that real change cannot happen without real listening. We live each day between the tension of urgent needs and misdiagnosed problems. The urgent needs are many and extreme—sometimes they are a life or death matter. And yet the misdiagnosed problems may be just as urgent. The implications of “solving a problem” with a harmful set of assumptions and strategies may take decades to reverse. They can be just as fatal.
We often go back to this old proverb: “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime." We came here to teach because we saw the value of giving Ugandans tools to use within their own context. We frequently remember a statement made by one of the founders who came before us: “If you can train a pastor, then you can change a church; and if you change a church, you can change a community; and if you can change a community, you change a nation.” And after being here one year, we think it’s true.
One of the greatest joys for us is to teach a group of students who were pastored by one of the first students of the University. It’s a beautiful picture of what the founder described. This pastor’s training allowed him to go back to his community and teach others what he had been taught. It was his passion and love for the gospel that transformed the lives of twenty-six students so that they now have dreams and hopes and gospel-centered training for transforming the world. They want to be pastors and business owners, teachers, mothers and fathers, entrepreneurs and advocates for those with disabilities. And imagine if twenty-six more people came from each one of these students—maybe it would start a sustainable model that could reverse the harmful trend of organizations that create more problems than solutions.
Conclusions can be hard to come by at this stage of the journey, but we’ve learned that there are a few firm convictions that we can now stand behind. First of all, we have come to see that a big part of our role is to take the longer view of things for the best long-term impact. While short-term strategies have their place, we have mainly experienced heartache resulting from such solutions, and want to avoid ending up in the NGO graveyard of reinvented wheels. Secondly, in spite of these negative realities, we are striving to maintain a good attitude and grow more in grace and less in bitterness. This challenging set of circumstances does not give us an exemption from the commandments to maintain our spiritual fervor and believe that, in it all, God is working these things together for our good and the good of the Ugandans who are called according to his purposes.
Thirdly, we want to build sustainable, long-term solutions that avoid perpetuating dependency at every level. If we can establish patterns of interdependence, then the people we help can find ways to truly help others.
In the end, what we perceive as inadequate attempts at help present us with a choice: will we have a response characterized by impatience and annoyance? Or will we see the problems as an opportunity to dig deeper into the lives of people, and present a more robust understanding of the transforming power of the gospel?