Today was a challenging, exciting, inspiring, overwhelming…and in the end, a hard day. My entire view of Africa and those who live here has been shaken to the core. I have to share something that may make some people sad…maybe even a little upset. But I’m sharing what I am starting to believe more and more while being here…and it’s something that I’ve now heard straight from the mouth of Americans who have lived in this area for almost 30 years. It’s hard to argue with that.
I have somewhat been subscribing to this idea of “I Need Africa More Than Africa Needs Me”. Some westerners (which used to include myself) may believe that although Africans may not have the material possessions that we have, they have the things that really matter – joy, peace, faith, selflessness, community. And we may start to think that in reality, we need the things that they have more than they need the things that we have. Today I learned that my perspective of what they “have” is not entirely accurate.
We have basically been bombarded with information today from the Mbale team. First of all, Matt, Amy, and I have been asked to do a bit of a research project ourselves about the Messiah Theological Institute here, and we will be giving a presentation to the Mbale team at the end of our time here. So we started working some on that project almost immediately upon our arrival to MTI this morning.
Later this afternoon I sat through a cultural orientation which Shawn Tyler and Philip Sharo gave us. Philip has been here 11 years and Shawn has been here 28 years…they know their stuff. It completely knocked my socks off. There is entirely too much information for me to include here, but the thing that has really altered my thinking about Africans as a whole is that when we look at them, we really only see their external actions. But behind every action is a value and behind every value is a truth. Many mission teams come in and simply try to change the actions but never change the core truths of a society. That’s why they say that in Africa, Christianity is a mile wide and an inch thick. There are many who claim to be Christians, but there is very little depth to their faith and their beliefs (…sound familiar?).
Anyway, to know the reasons behind the way people act, we must first determine what they value and eventually get down to what they believe is true. And the values and truths of Africans are very different than the values and truths of Americans, particularly American Christians. At their very core, we learned that the basic truth under which Africans operate is that life is cyclical. It’s way too long to explain here, but what it boils down to is that they believe that what happens on earth is determined by the spiritual powers of the “living dead”…or basically spirits of people who have died. This is why witchcraft is such a huge issue in Africa and it has a major impact on what they value and on how they live. It’s a long explanation as to how these connect, but because of this core truth, a couple of their major core values are respect and the “appearance” of relationship. They live by this idea of “give respect and get something back”. So their actions are driven by this idea…this is why you see such amazing hospitality, welcoming words, people kneeling, people appearing to live at peace with each other, people appearing to love and care for one another. To us Americans, it appears that they are living such godly, selfless lives (and of course some of them genuinely are), but it’s because we are looking at them through our grid of values and truth. For many Africans, these actions are driven by the belief that when you respect others, you will get something back or you will be blessed.
I asked if Philip and Shawn were basically saying that what we see is a façade and in reality, there are selfish motives behind these things that appear so good and godly from the outside. The sad answer to this question was “yes”. And there are two reasons why I tend to believe this is true:
1. This is coming from people who have been here for almost 30 years.
2. It has been hard for me to understand how Africans could truly be displaying the fruits of the spirit in such abundance when in actuality, many of these people don’t actually HAVE the Holy Spirit, don’t know anything about God, haven’t surrendered their lives to them, and don’t have any sort of personal relationship with Him.
So Philip made this very poignant statement: “How could you expect to come into a country where there is VERY little God but expect to see TRUE joy, peace, and selflessness? You cannot truly have those things apart from God. So what you see is the appearance of joy and peace and selflessness, but the reality is that often, it is only the APPEARANCE of these things, and in the end, they are marked by selfish motivations.”
It makes sense…I may struggle with having what appears to me is the joy and patience and selflessness of the people here. But the reality is that I know Jesus and I know the freedom and the LIFE that comes from being in relationship with Him. Many, MANY, people in this country do not have that. They are simply living in a culture that tells them to live at peace with people, respect people so that you can get something in return, and make sure that whatever you do, you protect the appearance of your relationship with others.
NOW I MUST CLARIFY SOMETHING HERE: I don’t want it to sound as if I’m saying all Africans are just selfish and none of their external actions are pure. Many of them have true joy and love that comes from the Spirit. Many of them have a deep and vibrant faith. And many of them are truly genuine people in love with the Lord. I’m just saying we can’t look at them from our American “grid” and take everything at face value. Maybe our African brothers and sisters are in much greater need than we have realized (…or maybe it’s just more than what I realized). Maybe they need what we have (and by that, I mean Jesus) much more than we need what they have. By no means does this mean that we are superior…it simply means that they need Jesus.
It’s been a somewhat sad realization for me…like someone just popped my little happy balloon. But it is the tough reality. And one that I’m very thankful to be learning.
During the late afternoon, we attended the youth gathering which Shawn facilitates each week at the Mbale Church. When they say “youth” here, it can mean anyone from 13 years old to 28 years old. So apparently, I’m still a “youth” here! J Shawn had Matt, Amy, and I sit in front and told the kids to ask us anything and everything that they want to ask. And as Matt said, they weren’t exactly throwing us softballs. They asked about marriage and dating and sex and they asked about the problems that youth in America are facing and what advice we would give them as youth of Uganda…really great questions.
We had dinner tonight with two of the Ugandan missionaries that work with the Mbale team – James and Noeli Luchivya. Noeli prepared an amazing meal for us then they walked us through their “steps” program on the process of planting a church in Uganda. They basically have this organization that is an umbrella under which all of the church plants fall called the New Testament Churches of Christ. And basically when someone wants to plant a church under that umbrella, they have a distinct list of steps that must be followed before they consider it an established church. It includes multiple seminars and teachings on the basics of faith and what it means to be a follower of Christ and also involves the preacher/teacher of that congregation having biblical training at MTI. The process is a really great one, and makes sure that all of the churches are unified in their core beliefs.
James and Noeli are amazing…they are an awesome picture of two people who have been trained up and discipled by this mission team and are now going out and making disciples all over this country. They are basically in charge of the entire rural development program now. Awesome story.
I’m learning more and more about how much I don’t know...