Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Observations of an outsider in a central African country

Waking up with wood smoke in your nostrils. Everyone cooks with wood. Sand everywhere you walk. Some is so fine you don’t get very far as you step. No point in wearing shoes as sand finds its way into everything.

Sounds of donkeys braying through the day and night. Stares of people because you’re the only white person they’ve seen in years. Feet that are stained filthy because of walking in sandals all day, taking them off at each person’s mat to sit for hours.

Sun that is so hot it will sunburn you quickly, and air that is so dry in the dry season you don’t notice you are becoming dehydrated. Sun stroke for the unprepared.

Multiple greetings are exchanged in the street as you walk by people. "Peace be upon you" I say. They respond with "And peace to you too". Other greetings continue back and forth, done without thought sometimes, but out of habit. Give eye contact and you need to greet usually. Don’t use left hand to greet. If unable to use right hand, use right forearm, or forearm of left arm if needed. On the mat, talk goes on for hours. Time is NOT money—people are. Hospitality is natural. The more food and drinks offered by the host during your visit, the more honor they are showing their guest.

Running water is a luxury. Delivery of water is often by donkey.

Traditional systems of governance are still present but increasingly in conflict with modern, western systems. Sultans, kings and chiefs normally have the last word on issues, and are highly respected within the community. Conflict has arisen between the modern federal government and traditional system limiting their authority, forcing them to pay for certain things when normally, for instance, it was the sultan’s decision to give land away or make decisions that were best for his region.

Fresh milk only in the morning. Camel or cow, no refrigeration, so use it that day. Camel milk is SALTY, yet very rich. Milk delivered by an Arab woman. Arab women drive the camel caravan when moving camp. Fancy shaded structure on top of camel. Men drive goats and other herds in front or behind caravan.

Everything transported by donkeys, the affordable transportation. Firewood, fencing, food, water.
Camels used by Arabs. 

Camel crossing.

Dried fish at the market

Though the only white person around, and everyone stares at you, knowing the proper greetings disarms people as they are almost obligated to respond in kind. However, with kids, a long look with a smile always works.

Above: Mealtime--using hands in a common plate. Or silverware for that which can’t be picked up with hands. Never use left hand during eating since you wipe #2 with it.

Speaking of the bathroom...

 Don't forget to wash your hand(s).

In the Xian church in town, surrounded by M’s, multiple languages being used during the same service: French sermon translated into Arabic. Each Sunday a different ethnic group sings a couple of songs in their own language. Worship primarily in French, but prayer in other languages depending on who’s praying. I was asked to do the prayer before sermon, did it in Portuguese instead of English so more might understand. For offering and tithes everyone makes a line and makes the round up to front of sanctuary then back to seats.

Men on the left side in church. 
Women on the right side in church.
Kids outside during service. 

At the end of service, everyone goes out one door and shakes hands, lining up at the end of the line so everyone shakes everyone’s hand at some point. No one is allowed out the back door they used to enter church.

Realizing I'd fit right in as an Arab. 

New friend from spending two weeks together learning about culture, language, and the local environmental challenges. Also a brother.


I recently returned from a trip to central Africa, from a place that is groaning, longing for the reconciliation that the cross brings...the death and decay, the suffering is evident, and only the gospel will really have a lasting impact to bring true transformation to the people and the land. One of the challenges is that due to decades of drought and famine, many IDP's, or Internally Displaced People move to other parts of the country where they think they'll be better off--be it for work, or simply for growing crops to survive. This video shows a drive by view of one of these villages of IDP's that pop up outside established cities/towns.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Breaking (...or enabling?) the Cycle of Poverty

I’m in Guatemala City today, beginning a 10 day trip in which I’m observing, asking questions, and just listening. I’m here scouting for creation care opportunities, or, what you might call “environmental missions”. Poverty and the decay of creation often go hand in hand, but that doesn’t mean wealthier peoples or cultures are excluded from poverty that takes on other forms, nor from the decay of creation. In fact, wealthier nations often cause much of the decay of creation that the poorer ones suffer from, or at least exacerbate it. But I digress...back to today.

Guatemala City is a very unique place—having suffered civil war for more than 30 years, as well as an earthquake in 1976, the city has not had the chance to do much “city planning”, so that shanty towns and other communities of squatters developed wherever they could build a shelter after the earthquake, and have remained there since. As a result, all of the garbage that the city produces, goes to the city dump. This is located right in the middle of the city. On a windy day, the scent can be smelled quite a ways away. A putrid, rotting smell. It is such a humanitarian disaster it is hard to describe. The National cemetery is at the edge of the dump, and as the rains erode the hillside, graves fall down to the trash, with bones and bodies decomposing along with the trash. It is a hygienic nightmare. What is more, there is an entire economic system developed around the dump, which includes politics (as usual), money, real estate, NGO’s, and so much more. Every year politicians say they will change things, they will close off the dump, they will move it to another location. But it just doesn’t happen.

The people that live in the area surrounding the dump, work in the dump. They are scavengers, the poorest of the poor. Socioeconomically at the bottom of the caste system. Throughout the day, the trucks that bring garbage to the dump first pass through the surrounding neighborhoods, where street after street, different people sort through the trash to find “valuables”. This may be clothing items which they collect to fix up, or to sell. It may be mattresses and box springs in which every piece of material or fabric is removed, since it can be used for something else, until only the wood and metal frames or springs are left. Those may be sold for scrap. All around the dump, the streets are littered with trash, and more specifically, the large bags found on the trucks taking the trash to the dump which are piled up on sidewalks, in the streets... Why? Because each and every item removed from the trash trucks has a certain value, can be used to make a living.

Finally, the trash makes it to the dump. Once dumped out onto the other rotting garbage, there are people picking through what’s left of it for food or items that will help them make it through another day. Google “Guatemala City Dump” and you’ll see things you can’t imagine.

But here’s the thing: we see the poverty, and altruistically, we want to do something about it. We think we can fix the we send short-term missionary teams down, we pay for clean water, we provide all that we think the people need, we start NGO’s to do “good work” (and it IS good work). But there are so many things wrong with how we do this. If you lived here, you’d see how it really is an intricately developed economic system. It’s nothing like what we think of as an “economy” in our North American perspetive.
Two examples:
Example #1: There is trash everywhere, so we think we should introduce recycling as a solution to the problem. We fund the project, get it going, and hire a few people to run the business. "Wonderful", we think.
Example #2: The communities around the dump either have little to no water, or have no clean, safe drinking water. They have to buy water that has been filtered from a local person who has paid for a filtration system himself in order to sell clean water to his neighbors. Like a “mom and pop shop”. What do the well-meaning people from churches from North America do? Pay for a water filtration system for one of the clinics so that they can give water out freely. Problem solved. Right?

What just happened in each of these two cases?
Example #1: Though it may not look like it, there is a massive recycling program that goes on throughout Guatemala. Before trash is taken to the landfill, items are picked through by people in the streets as the trucks make stops for all their friends who have a friend, who want to sort through the "stuff". Everyone takes what will help them make a living--it's their own way of recycling. If we go into this situation thinking we could solve the problem by creating a few jobs for a few people with a "north american recycling program", we'll do more harm than good. We'll take the resources away from those who depended on them to make a living.
Example #2: If we create a water filtration system and give pure water away for free, we're subsidizing the clinic's free water, whereas the poor mom and pop shop next door can't make a living anymore because they can't give water away for free. We help some, but we hurt others in the process.

This is why it's so important to understand the culture and context in a country before we come up with solutions to the problems. We think OUR way is the best way. That's very ethnocentric of us, and unfortunately, it's an all too common problem of our churches in the West. What we need to do it take the time to ask the questions to the locals, to trustworthy people who know the situation, and ask how we can truly help, how we can truly serve the needy, instead of offering a "quick fix" solution that "feels good", and "looks good" on instagram as we advertise our "good works". God is more interested in the long-term walk of deeper relationships than the short-term buzz we often seek through a mission trip.

Monday, April 01, 2019

The Spiritual Dangers of Disconnecting from Creation

Read this really great article that talks about how important it is we spend time out in God's creation, and the consequences of NOT doing that on our spiritual walk with God. The benefits far outweigh the negatives... Take a look!

Monday, January 14, 2019

Finding your place in the Kingdom

While most people were enjoying some time off work or being with family between Christmas and New Year's, I joined over 11,000 students at URBANA, a large triennial missions conference put on by Intervarsity Christian Fellowship in St. Louis, Missouri. Five of TEAM's coaches (missions mobilizers), myself, and two other TEAM missionaries interacted personally with over 200 individuals that came to our booth to learn about TEAM.
Our group at URBANA

At the end of one seminar on creation care put on by some colleagues, I was able to share about how students can use their gifts and interests and environmental degrees for missions. In fact, one young woman, Emily, sat next to me and said she went to a Bible college but grew up on an organic farm her family owns in western PA. She has a love for the lost, and a passion to work the land, but just didn't know how she could use her non-science degree to help with environmental stewardship and reaching the lost. I couldn't keep from smiling when she mentioned this!

Another young woman came to our booth curious about creation care and missions. She's finishing up her Environmental Science degree in California, but wants to somehow use it in missions to reach the lost. She thought she would have to go back to school to get a Bible degree.

These young ladies are one reason why God has me in the place I am today with TEAM--helping people like them realize they can use their skills as well as environmental degrees for missions.

My response to both of these young ladies was to encourage them with their God-given interests/skills, and to give them specific opportunities to serve with TEAM in environmental missions, or creation care.

Two trips that are going to happen as a result of our conversations are what I call "scouting trips". Their purpose is to research and discover areas of critical environmental degradation that need to be addressed by followers of Jesus. Those who go on these trips will understand the role the church has to play in caring for creation and will develop initial plans to address those issues in appropriate ways that help TEAM accomplish its vision of starting churches. One is planned for the last two weeks of June, 2019 in Guatemala, and one in North Africa in January 2020. If you or someone you know is interested in one of these trips, please let me know. Here are the links to descriptions of the trips: Guatemala, and North Africa.

What a privilege to serve the Lord and His Kingdom here on earth right now, and to make a difference in real communities suffering from real problems.