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.