Friday, December 6, 2013

What I Learned in Africa, Part 4

So far in this series of posts, I've been talking about my recent trip to Tanzania. 

But today, in honor of the passing of Nelson Mandela, I want to talk about my other trip to Africa. 

In 2011, I attended the World Methodist Conference in Durban, South Africa. Many thanks to Covenant member Roma Wyatt who got me to go. (At the time she was Executive Assistant to the General Secretary of the World Methodist Council.)

I learned a lot in South Africa. In fact, I was pretty amazed by what I learned. 

I knew about South Africa's history of Apartheid, which literally means "apartness." 48 years of a white minority brutally oppressing the black majority.  I figured that, even though Apartheid was officially over, there would still be lingering hostilities and tense race relations. 

But that was not the case. At least not in my (obviously limited) experience. 

I went to an opera about the life of Nelson Mandela. I sat there in the Durban Playhouse with black people and white people together, all celebrating the life of this man who spent 27 years in prison for leading the movement to end Apartheid. 

During intermission, I talked with a white South African who had lived through the actual events we were seeing on stage. He was immensely proud of what had happened. I told him I was a bit surprised by what I'd seen: Black people and white people eating together, shopping together, worshiping together--and now watching an opera about Mandela together. I told him how segregation in our country ended over 50 years ago, and yet I still encounter racial tension. 

I asked him, "Isn't there still a lot of racism here?"  He smiled and said, "It's hard to be racist when you're less than 20% of the population." And then with a laugh he added, "The only racists we have left are some old Afrikaners." 

Well, not too long after that I met "an old Afrikaner." (The Afrikaners are the descendants of Dutch settlers who instigated Apartheid and kept it going for all those years.) I fully expected to get an earful of racism. Instead, this man talked about how he had been a member of the South African army who guarded the polls on that historic day in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected President. He told me that before the 1994 election he gave speeches at churches and garden clubs and told the white South Africans, “It’s going to be OK.”    

And this "old Afrikaner" told me that he was proud to be part of that time in his country's history. 

He told me about the 1995 Rugby World Cup, when Nelson Mandela put on a Springbok jersey and handed the first place trophy to team captain Francois Pinnear. 

Before this Rugby had been seen as a sport only for white people. But Mandela managed to pull the whole country together behind the South African team. It was more than a sporting event. It was a moment of reconciliation and healing. 

And as he relived that moment, the old Afrikaner said (with his deep guttural accent), "Ya, Nelson Mandela's a good chap!" 

While I was in South Africa, I attended a Rugby game. I was in the stands with black and white people together, all pulling furiously for the Durban Sharks. 

At the World Methodist Conference I heard the head of the All Africa Council of Churches speak. He talked about the role the church played in South Africa’s reconciliation.

It was the church that called for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that worked to heal the divisions. He said, “How did the South African miracle happen? First and foremost because the church said, ‘A sinner should be forgiven.’”

So what did I learn on that trip to Africa? I learned that people can change. That an entire country can change. 

I learned that one man can make a difference.

I learned that the movie "Invictus" is accurate. 

I learned that Nelson Mandela was a Methodist! 

And perhaps most important, I learned about the power of reconciliation. And that the church still has a role to play in bringing it about. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013


Cornerstone near the front entrance of Covenant
20 years ago today, Covenant Community held its first public worship service. Over 200 people gathered in the minitorium at Reynolds High School to witness the birth of this new congregation. 

This past Sunday we celebrated Covenant's 20th by having founding pastor Mack Strange come back and speak. His theme: "God is Faithful!" 

It was an incredibly fun day. Mack told story after story of God's faithfulness, both in the founding of Covenant Community, and in his own life. Some of the stories were hilarious -- others made you cry. 

My favorite moment may have been when Mack and I stood on stage together leading the congregation in prayer. I, the current pastor, gave thanks for Covenant's past. Mack, the founding pastor, prayed for Covenant's future. 

Alan and Kellie Armstrong are a couple who were part of the pre-first-service leadership of Covenant
Community. They both went door to door with Mack to help get the church off the ground. Alan led worship and was the youth director.  Here are some memories from Alan: 
As I look back, I believe that our ability to see Jesus in each other unified us with the HOPE that God would create this unique expression of His love in the auditorium at Reynolds high school. This is the genesis of CCUMC.

The love of "family" was at work in the lives of each member … I remember working through difficult "family" issues and loving each other. I remember celebrating "family" events of joy filled times and loving each other. I remember desperately grasping hands in tragedy and loving each other. 

I truly believe that God equipped the family of Covenant Community with brave hearts to love each other in times and in situations that the world would have labeled as too risky to love or to trust. Through this experience, we learned to give each other the Grace God has given us in the midst of mistakes and trials. We eventually learned to celebrate the simple fact that there are no mistakes too big that for God to fix! Jesus has always been at the center of Covenant Community, sharing His Grace and Love! 

So, if you were to ask me of my fondest 20 year old memories I would say it was in the way we corporately loved Jesus and how we loved each other as family.

Early on, it was Mack's evangelical idea to go door to door with informational door hangers about a new faith community forming in the River Ridge area. Kellie and Mack were very comfortable with this method of inviting people to meet with us if they were not currently part of a faith community.  Sharon was "with child" and so I went it alone.This was clearly not my method of "evangelism". I would ring the doorbell & then run away throwing door flyers behind me as I fled screaming "Mack made me do it"! 

Now, while looking in the review mirror is good for reference, nobody ever reached their destination by looking behind. (I think that's in the Bible somewhere!) I believe that the best is yet to come! If we can learn anything from a 20 year celebration of God's passion for His people at Covenant Community it has to be this: Let Jesus drive. Our job is to stick our heads out the window and let the world know how awesome the ride is! This is the great adventure!
Alan, Kellie, Catherine and Collin today

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What I Learned in Africa, Part 3

Third thing I learned in Tanzania: We need to rethink the way we do missions. 

Lots of American Christians have been on short-term mission trips. In most of the circles I've run in, these trips have often involved building something or giving people something. 

What we don't realize is that we may be doing more harm than good. 

For example, I went to a church in Tanzania that was lagging in attendance. Why? Because the church was started by a missionary who gave out gifts every Sunday. But when the gifts stopped coming, so did the people.

I met a Tanzanian pastor who said that some missionaries are harming the church because they’re teaching the Tanzanians to think of themselves as helpless and dependent on outsiders. 

I heard stories about unhealthy patterns of relating between missionaries/mission teams and Tanzanian pastors and Christians. Americans are seen as the givers -- with all the money, all the answers, and all the power. Tanzanians are seen as receivers, and only receivers -- with no responsibility and nothing to offer. 

In the long run, creating dependency does more harm than good. Doing for others what they can do for themselves is not helping. It's hurting. It humiliates and degrades and does not lead to self sufficiency. It keeps people in poverty. 

In the picture above, members of the Masarura United Methodist Church in Tanzania are building a new church building. They're doing it themselves. And they're building it out of bricks they made themselves in ovens like these:

Now, a team from an American church had been there -- but only to work side-by-side with the Tanzanians. And only after the Tanzanians had gotten the project started by making around 5,000 bricks. 

In fact, Eric's policy as a missionary is that he does not provide construction money or outside help to churches until after they have reached a similar level of achievement on their own. He's not going to enable dependency. 

Masarura UMC is growing.  I'm sure the fact that its members feel like it's their church (not a missionary's) has something to do with that. 

We need to rethink how we do missions. We don't need to stop doing missions. We don't need to throw out short-term mission trips. But we might need to throw out some of our beliefs and attitudes. 

We need to be servants, not heroes. 

We need to do a lot of listening. 

And we need to form partnerships where both sides give and both sides receive. 

For an example of this kind of partnership, check out this Partner Church Covenant from the UMC's "In Mission Together" initiative.  

For an article that deals with this subject in more depth, read "Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Missions Trip." But be sure to also read the follow-up article, "Toward Better Short-Term Missions" that offers some ways to rethink the way we do missions. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving!

It's still my favorite holiday.

I love the food. The time with family. The days off from work. The reminder to pause and count blessings. Like I said in Tuesday's post -- we have a lot to be thankful for. 

Lorie and I are driving down the mountain to spend Thanksgiving with family, and I'll be taking a few days off from blogging. Be sure to check back next week. I'll continue the "What I Learned in Africa" series (with some stuff I did NOT share in last Sunday's sermon!) and I'll post some thoughts on Covenant's 20th Anniversary celebration coming up this Sunday. 

IN THE MEANTIME: Check out these blog posts from friends and colleagues of mine…

  • In the spirit of what I posted yesterday about being proud of the United Methodist Church, here's a recent piece by Jim Harnish on "Why I am a Methodist." 
If you're traveling, be safe. 

If you're a member of Covenant, I hope to see you Sunday at our 20th Celebration. 

And if you're one of my faithful readers -- see ya' next week!


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What I Learned in Africa, Part 2

This is the second in a series of posts in which I'll share some of the important things I learned in Tanzania.  You'll recognize some of this if you heard my message at Covenant this past Sunday--but keep reading, because I plan to add to and expand on what I shared that day.

Second thing I learned in Tanzania: I'm actually PROUD OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH! 

I saw so many wonderful things that the UMC is doing in Tanzania. We're starting new churches. The people in these churches are reaching out to their communities. They share food with their neighbors. They go door-to-door to tell people about Jesus. They're starting small businesses to help people work their way out of poverty. They're ministering to street children

And the UMC is doing this kind of thing all over the world

This is Angel House Orphanage, started by a United Methodist Church in Carlisle, Ohio. It houses almost 60 orphans. 

Right next door is Angel House Secondary School. Remember what I said yesterday about education in Tanzania? This school meets a real need.  

It was started by Eric and Liz Soard, the missionaries with whom I lived and worked in Tanzania. 

Eric and Liz have been in Tanzania for four years, two years as volunteers and two years as full time missionaries with the United Methodist Church

In that time they’ve started the Angel House Secondary School, planted seven churches, trained pastors and church leaders, led several construction projects, led a well project, and started the Emmanuel Center for Women and Children.

And they’re only 26 and 27 years old!

After living with them for 2 ½ weeks and seeing what they do, I’m proud to be part of the United Methodist Church!

Now you may be wondering: "Claude, if you're so proud of the UMC, then why does your church not have 'United Methodist' in its name?" The answer is that we are missionaries to the culture we live in, just like Eric and Liz are missionaries to theirs. 

In Tanzania, a denominational name is a selling point. People there don't trust independent churches. They see independent pastors as charlatans who just want to take people's money. They are attracted to a church that's part of a larger, reputable organization. 

But in the United States, it's exactly the opposite. People here don't trust large institutions. Denominationalism is all but dead. Most of the growing churches in this country are independent.

One reason we say "Covenant Community Church" instead of "Covenant Community United Methodist Church" is because the second one is just way too long of a name!

But another reason--in fact, the main reason for everything we do at Covenant--the reason we dress casual, sing to a praise band, use video and visuals--is to reach our culture -- to create a place where people who are un-churched, de-churched, and hurt-by-church can come home to God. 

Eric and Liz have worked hard to adapt to Tanzanian culture. They've learned to speak the language (Swahili). They've learned the customs. And by now they've probably eaten over a thousand pounds of ugali. They're doing what it takes to reach the culture they're trying to reach. 

And we at Covenant Community are doing the same. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What I Learned in Africa, Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts in which I'll share some of the important things I learned in Tanzania.  You'll recognize some of this if you heard my message at Covenant this past Sunday--but keep reading, because I plan to add to and expand on what I shared that day. 

The first thing I want to share is sort of a no-brainer. You're going to read this and say, "Duh!" And of course, I knew it before I went to Tanzania. But when you're actually there, and you see and hear -- and taste -- and smell -- things in person -- well, it makes it a lot more real. 

First lesson: WE ARE BLESSED.

I mean, we in this country are really blessed. More blessed than we realize.

For example, did you drive on a paved street today?
In Tanzania, I lived and worked in the city of Tarime. And in all of Tarime, I only saw one paved street and it was in horrible shape. Just driving around from place to place was a challenge. 

Have you flushed a toilet today? (I have a pretty small bladder, so I've been down the hall quite a few times this morning.) 

In Tarime there is no sewer. Most folks use an outhouse, which is really just a hole in the ground (no seat) surrounded by some kind of privacy screen -- maybe a wall made out of sticks or mud, or even some sheets stretched across a simple frame. The outhouse pictured above is the one behind the church where we did our pastors' school. It's a pretty nice one since it's built out of block. But using it was ... uh ... well, let's just say I would have preferred a tree, but that wasn't an option in the middle of town. 

Have you been to, are you now attending, or do you plan to go to High School? What about college? 

In Tanzania, education is only provided through grade seven. IF you pass the National Examination (which less than half of students do), you might be accepted to Secondary School (grades 9-12). If you are accepted, you will have to pay for tuition, books, and uniforms. 

If you are fortunate enough to come up with that money and make it through Secondary School, you then have to pass another National Exam. I talked to a young man who had just taken that exam. He has to wait until April to find out whether he passed. 

If your score on the National Exam is in the top two divisions, you have to do another two years of school (like going to grades 13 and 14) before you can be accepted into a university. 

As you can imagine, very few Tanzanians have the resources to make it through high school, much less college. 

Another question for you: When you were in school, or if you are in school now--did you have a textbook of your own for each of your classes? In Tanzania there's only one textbook for every five students. In the cities. In the rural areas, it's one textbook for every forty students. 

Another question: Have you had a bath today? Are you wearing clean clothes? Do you have clean water to drink? 

In Tanzania I saw people washing clothes and bathing in muddy creeks and rivers. I also saw people collecting water in plastic jugs from those same sources -- I hope it wasn't to drink. 

Here's the thing I want us to realize. What I saw in Tanzania is how most of the world lives. (In fact, a lot of the world is even worse off!) I know our country has problems, and I know an increasing number of people here are struggling. But I want us to remember that even with our struggles, we still have a lot to be thankful for -- things we don't even think about -- like paved roads, clean water, sewer systems, free public education (and state-sponsored universities) ... I could keep going, but you get the picture. We are blessed. 

With Thanksgiving approaching, I encourage you to think about some of the blessings we take for granted. (This post will remind you of some others.) As you think about those blessings, breathe a prayer of thanks to God. And maybe think about how you might use your blessings to be a blessing to others. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Similarities ... or not?

 Mtana United Methodist Church outside Tarime, Tanzania

When I was in Tanzania, I didn't just teach. I also had the opportunity to visit some of our United Methodist Churches. I met with the leaders and listened to their stories. And I discovered some similarities between churches in Tanzania and churches in the US...
  • People not attending church: It's a problem in Tanzania just like it is in the US. Church members just don't show up on a regular basis. Except that in Tanzania, it happens because people are subsistence farmers, struggling to survive, scratching out a living by cultivating small plots of land with hand tools. It's back-breaking work, and sometimes people are just too exhausted to go to church. Other times they can't attend because they're working feverishly to sow seed before the rains come, or to get the crops in when they're ready to harvest. 
  • People showing up late: Sometimes people slip into church after the service has already started, just like they do in America. Except that in Tanzania, it's because people have no means of transportation other than their own two feet. I found out that some people walk more than an hour to get to church. And one thing I experienced in Tanzania is that the rain often comes in sudden, torrential downpours. So if you're outside walking to church and there's a sudden rainstorm, and you don't own an umbrella or a raincoat, you're going to run for the nearest cover--and end up being late. 
  • Low offerings/budget issues: I guess it's a problem everywhere. Offerings going down, churches behind on their budgets. Except that in Tanzania, it happens because people have no income. Not low income. No income. In one of the churches I visited, the leaders talked about ways to generate income for the church (not just for the church's operating expenses, but income for the people to live on). One way they could make money was to own cattle as a church and then rent the cows out for people to use for plowing. They would need a minimum of six cows, as it takes four to pull a plow and most of the time two of your cows are going to be sick. This was a great income-generating idea, but the church did not have the capital to purchase the cows. They came up with another idea: Buy fruits and vegetables wholesale at harvest time, when prices are low; store them using careful methods to keep them from spoiling; and then sell them later when supply has decreased and prices have gone up. Great idea. But again--no initial capital. 
So, in Tanzanian churches, just like in the ones I've served as pastor, people skip church, show up late, and don't give. 

Except the reasons are vastly different. 

Maybe you're a church member in the US who's pretty casual about your attendance and your giving. When I think about the challenges faced by church members in Tanzania, I have to ask you a question: 

What's your excuse?