Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Youth Sunday

There is a designated ‘Youth Sunday’ In the Presbyterian Church in Congo, The youth preach, lead worship, fill as ushers and deacons, and do all of the roles that make the church service happen. It is always a joyful day full of energy as they highlight their work and role in the church. This past Sunday we enjoyed worshipping with the youth of the Kananga 1 congregation. They had decorated the church with paper chains, and most of them were wearing matching ‘uniforms’ just for this special occasion (a significant expense for these families!). They typically spend all night at the church the night before, worshipping and preparing for the service.


The youth had a combined choir this Sunday,
and encouraged everyone with their songs.


One of the youth preaches from Acts 2: 11-12
about the importance of unity in the church.


All of the leaders of the youth ministry at the Kananga 1 congregation are introduced.
The youth ministry is led completely by the youth themselves, although people are
considered ‘youth’ well into their 30’s in Congo. They have an overall president and
‘cabinet’, including leaders in the areas of evangelism, intercession, and
community development projects.


This short video is the offertory song, led by the youth. Everyone gets into it!

After the service, EVERYONE (all 300+people) got a meal of bidia, greens, fish, beans, and rice. That was a feat, feeding everyone! They had some help from the ‘mamas’ in cooking all the food.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Partnership

The Presbyterian Mission Agency does mission in partnership. Recently we wrestled with some of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of what this means for us in Congo. We had been struggling for more than a year with frustration about a colleague who’s actions were hindering the work of Christian Education. We wondered why he was not disciplined for his irresponsible actions, or even removed from his position. We wondered how exactly we were to respond and what role we were to play. We shared our concerns with a couple of church leaders, and one wisely told us “this is a process”; that is, there are many steps involved in disciplining someone and it often takes a long time.

As we prayed, talked, and waited, we thought about the cultural differences. This is a generalization, but Americans tend to value truth, justice, and transparency, and Congolese tend to value harmony. Americans (the “cool” culture) also value productivity, results, and effectiveness, while Congolese (the “warm” culture) tend to place more importance on loyalty, honor (hierarchy), and trust. We realized that this colleague we were frustrated with was a relative of one of the top church leaders in his region – if other church leaders pushed hard for his removal, there could be negative repercussions for them in other areas as a result.

We wondered what approach to take. In this case, he had taken some money sent for a specific project and used it for another purpose. Part of the accountability that PC(USA) provides is that they require that funds that are sent be used for the intended purpose, and that they get reported on before more funds are sent. Since a valid report was not able to be submitted, more funds for ministry in Christian Education were blocked from coming. As ‘bridge people’ working with both PC(USA) and CPC, we were tempted to say “because of the ways this colleague has disregarded the correct procedures of the use of funds, we refuse to work with Christian Education or raise more money for projects unless he is removed from his position”. However, we realized that would be rather ‘heavy handed’ and impose our values on our partner, the CPC. Yet, the other approach, of sitting back and saying “we respect the leadership of CPC and whatever decisions they take” while continuing to watch this struggle drag on also seemed irresponsible. This is the crux – where is the balance in partnership? Each side has things to give, goals to work towards, and requirements to abide by.

We decided to write a letter, expressing our concerns and outlining what we saw as the serious mistakes our colleague had done that was hindering the work. We wrote the letter in February. Then we let it be, continuing to think, pray and discuss. In April, we showed the letter to two church leaders who we work with – we said to them “We wrote this letter, but before we officially send it, we want to know your thoughts and advice about it. Is it a good idea to send this letter?” Both of them affirmed us for expressing our concerns, and the highest leader encouraged us to send it to the Department of Evangelism. So, in May we sent it, and waited rather nervously to see how it would be received.

The board meeting for Evangelism was in May. Our letter was read out loud in the meeting (with the colleague concerned present), and then everyone was invited to discuss and ask questions for clarification. It was a good, open discussion, and people expressed appreciation that we were willing to share this concern rather than just holding it in. The board made a decision to issue a written warning and give him a fixed time period to repay the funds that had been taken (so that they could then be used for the intended purpose). We felt that it was as good a result as we could have hoped. At least it was stressed to him in the context of other leaders the importance of respecting the structure that their partner, PC(USA), has put in place for the use of funds. Now, we wait to see how things pan out. Either way, we have to be willing to work with this colleague, forgive him, and continue in relationship with him. We have to respect how the CPC seeks to handle the problem. But, it doesn’t mean that we have to pretend to be blind to mistakes or that we can’t work together for resolution. There is a proverb in Tshiluba that goes “Tshikuyi, batshikulula misenga; muntu wa tshilema bamubelela mu bantu.” Literally, “They scrape the bark of the black tshikuyi tree and find white powder; a person who has erred is counseled in the midst of other people.” Figuratively, the point is that wise counselors can give needed correction to someone who has made mistakes, and help them back on the right path.

We welcome you to share with us your thoughts and experiences on the challenges of cross-cultural partnership. And we welcome your prayers too, that we would be faithful partners for the good of God’s Kingdom.

Monday, June 8, 2015

June two


Last Tuesday, June 2nd, marks my 20th anniversary of following Jesus Christ as Lord of my life.  One might call it a “spiritual birthday.”  On that special and memorable day I met a man named Stan Wagner at the former Crossroads Mall in Boulder, CO.  One might call Stan a “street evangelist.”  Despite that unappealing label, Stan’s kind demeanor and earnest appeal gained my attention.  After spending the afternoon with Stan, I dedicated my life to Jesus Christ.  Below you will find a poem written to honor Stan, to thank God, and to remember that special day.  Here also is a link that briefly tells my story of coming to faith in Jesus.   

June two
I love you
Twenty years now
Still remember how…

Stan came
News to tell
Uncertain,
I stood.

Sower of seeds
His story
What to make
An allegory.

Twenty years now
Making some sense
Good Farmer sows
Soils no fence.

Life not lived
Me number one
A gift shared
With everyone.

Stan and You
Oh Good Farmer
Waiting for me
Sad no longer.

June two
Blessed be you
To You I turned
Thank you, thank You!

Friday, June 5, 2015

Learning together

Last week, I was in Togo with my colleague, Victorine Manga, attending a training on creating and supporting savings groups. It was Victorine’s first time outside of Congo, her first time to see the ocean, and her first time at an international training like this. Other participants came from several Francophone West African countries, including Senegal, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, and of course Togo. Everyone was actively working for some development organization, empowering people who were economically vulnerable to support themselves and their families. As people shared experiences, advice, and wisdom throughout the training, I felt like my hope for this great continent of Africa was buoyed up again. I was so encouraged by the desire and effort put into approaching a problem and seeking to create a long term solution that was really in the interest of the poor and vulnerable in our communities.

A small group simulation of a savings group meeting during our training

Poverty, of course, is multi-faceted, and has many more ramifications than just lack of food or possessions. It affects physical health, education, social status, relationships, and can even impact (or be caused by) a person’s view of God and their eternal destiny. They often feel like they don’t have any options, or any future; they are locked into a life of suffering. Here in Congo sometimes people who are economically poor feel helpless to improve their lives – they are waiting for someone to come and give them the assets or opportunities that they think they need, like a job, or a house, or an education.

In Togo, on the second day of our training, we went on a field visit. We sat in an outdoor shelter in a rural village and watched a group of 24 women conduct their savings group meeting. In a very organized fashion, each woman contributed her savings for the week of about $3. The appointed money-counters spread out the money on a mat and counted it out in a very transparent way. They had a total of 1,300,000 CFA (about $2,000!). A few women then paid reimbursements to loans they had taken from the group, and others were given loans. Several of the women are illiterate, so they would sign for their loans using a fingerprint. The group also uses a system of memorizing the total amount of the savings fund and the loan amount each person has taken – so that those who are illiterate still feel ownership and an awareness of how the group is doing, rather than relying only on those few with access to the record book. At the end of the meeting, they prayed together, acknowledging God as the source of all gifts and the authority over all things, and asking God to protect their work.

The members of the savings group that we visited on our field visit

AVEC group boisson localeThis group member makes a local drink from sorghum and
sells it for her business. She treated all of us to a glass of it.

I watched these women effectively and efficiently facilitate their meeting and count out their savings.I realized that one of the biggest benefits that a savings group like this gives to people who are poor is the sense of empowerment as they are trained to manage their funds together, run meetings, and operate in a transparent way that gives value and voice to each person. At the end of the cycle, they receive their savings back with interest – a rare opportunity here. And the lump sum that they have then is often enough to buy goods, buy land, pay for their children’s education, or other significant ventures that were not possible for them before. And all of it is their own funds that they have contributed – you can imagine that the sense of accomplishment and celebration at the end makes for a great party!

Victorine expressed her amazement at what these women had accomplished, and her hope for women in Kasai to find that same hope and capacity for change. In Psalm 139 David expresses “Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!” and “how precious are your thoughts about me, O God!”, and “You chart the path ahead of me, and tell me where to stop and rest.” (NLT, Ps. 139:14,17,3). One significant component of fighting poverty is helping people realize that they are loved by God, and just as valuable and capable as all of God’s children to fight against the struggles in their lives. When they are able to see that, they have hope, and are empowered to love others in a more healthy way, to learn from each other, and to work together to find solutions to problems in their communities.  The women we visited in Togo all wore matching t-shirts (bought and printed with their own money!) with the name of their group – “Assile-Assime” – hand in hand. We look forward to seeing what women can accomplish together in Congo! Please pray for the process of starting, as we mobilize and train groups and communities in the next few months.

The participants of the savings group training with our certificates on the final day

Saturday, May 30, 2015

From Action to Passion

One of the realities we live with in this world is conflict.  Conflict can be good and bring about change.  However being in the midst of conflict, one often does not experience much that feels positive.  Since Kristi and I returned to Congo early last year, church conflict has been a major theme.  The reason?  There are many:  an earnest desire for change, a desire for power and position, tribalism, and protection from the unknown.  Early on Kristi and I discerned clearly that our role is to be a neutral voice.  We have worked hard to listen to and love members on each side of the divide.  As you can imagine, this has not been easy.  As I write this blog post, a dear friend has been falsely charged of libel.  How do you remain neutral when your friend is unjustly suffering?  

Living and breathing conflict for 18 months has caused me to reflect on the nature of conflict.  The message I have preached most frequently of late is our Christian call and vocation to be women and men of peace, seeking unity within the Body of Christ.  I have also been challenged recently in reflecting on the life of Christ.  During Lent this year Kristi and I stumbled upon a wonderful little book called Bread and Wine.*  It is a collection of essays written by well-known Christian theologians and faithful servants of Christ over the last two millennium.  Kristi and I would pick up this book everyday and read various entries.  One entry by Henri Nouwen stands out to me.  Nouwen writes of the “Action and Passion” of Christ.  In reflecting with a friend who is immobilized after a lifetime of service, the two recognize that Christ’s life can be divided into two parts:  action (or ministry), and passion.  Regarding action, this theme is replete across the gospel accounts.  Jesus prayed.  Jesus healed.  Jesus called.  Jesus commanded.  Jesus is the active agent:  he prays, he wills, and he acts.  However, all this agency and activity comes  to an abrupt halt in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Here in the Garden the mob comes.  They lay hands on Jesus and arrest him.  They take Jesus.  They condemn him.  They bind him.  They lead him.  They hand him over.  They crucify him.  Jesus goes from one with agency to one acted upon.

Who wants to be acted upon?  Very few.  Yet, in reflecting on this theme I feel that making the shift from action to passion is necessary in following Christ.  Having agency is the easy part.  We feel called to do something and we do it.  Like Jesus, we will and we act.  Conversely, giving control of our lives and our very bodies into the hands of someone else?  Therein lies the rub.  Yet, Jesus willingly allowed himself to be handed over.  A close read of the gospel accounts reveals that Jesus lived a life in conflict.  His interlocutors, the Pharisees and others, did not welcome his message. Jesus threatened the very foundations of their religiosity.  They sought to discredit Jesus and kill him.  Jesus shrewdly responded and evaded them for three years.  Yet, rather than letting this power struggle wage on indefinitely, Jesus gave himself over to his accusers.  He allowed himself to be handed over.  

Herein lies the challenge we all face.  We do not want to yield.  It is like two boxers in the 15th round, battling it out until one is left standing.  Yet, Jesus threw in the towel.  He gave himself up.  It was the defining act of trust.  He trusted that God had his best in mind.  He trusted that God would vindicate him.  And guess what?  God did.  The Resurrection is God’s ultimate vindication of God’s goodness in the face of humanity’s evil.  Friend, will you pray with me that those of us who boldly take on the Name of Jesus Christ can trust God, giving ourselves over in sacrificial love to others?  Pray with me for our sisters and brothers in Congo who need God’s grace to act in such manner.  From action to passion.  That is the radical call of Jesus. 


* Bread and Wine:  Readings for Lent and Easter (2003)