by Dwayne J. Westermann (September / October 2003 • Volume 19 • Number 5)
Charitable giving is one way to help impoverished people in developing countries. But when members of this congregation meet hunger and poverty face to face, friendships are formed and lifestyles are forever changed.
The headman of the Msitu wa Tembo Lutheran Parish (Msitu wa Tembo means "forest of elephants") is a diminutive man, unusually short for a Maasai. He is no more than 50, but you would think, to look at his wizened face and gnarled hands, that he is very old indeed, bent and weathered. He is responsible for the welfare of this small village in northern Tanzania, East Africa.
When I first visited him, it was in the midst of severe drought; the land was parched and cracked. In this normally verdant savannah, only the thorny Acacia trees gave a hint of green vegetation. We stood talking near the village's thatched-roofed church while the dust devils swirled around us. I inquired about the health of his family. Tears filled his eyes as he told me that his wife and his children were managing. "Except for my youngest son," he added, his chin quivering.
"Is he ill?" I asked.
"No," he told me, "he is dead, now two months." The grief-etched creases in his face caught the blowing soil, making him look even older.
Forest of Elephants Lutheran Parish was suffering through the worst drought in a decade. Everything and everyone in the village were covered with the same rust-colored dust that aged the headman's face. Though one had only to look up from the village to see the majestic, ice-capped peak of "The Mountain" not so many miles distant, the snows of Kilimanjaro brought no relief here. Ezekiel would have recognized the place with the scattered, whitening bones of cattle baking in the equatorial sun (Ezekiel 37:2). Msitu wa Tembo had been emptied of men and older boys who had taken their starving cattle to find pasture many kilometers distant; only old men, women, and children remained.
"I'm so sorry for the loss of your son," I told my host. "How old was he?"
"He was 12 years old," the father said. "And he was a very good boy; he helped me a lot in the shamba (garden) and with the cows. He was a very good son to me."
"Malaria?" I asked. That was a likely bet, since malaria takes so many children here. But the headman shook his head and his eyes filled up again.
"No," he said softly. "He was taken by..." he paused and shuddered as he sucked in a deep breath, expelling the words in a whisper, "...a mamba."
A crocodile! Dear God! A crocodile had taken his boy! With the drought, the village water supply was gone, and he had sent his young son to what was left of the river to fetch water some three kilometers away. The boy had leaned over the river's bank to fill his bucket. Then, in an instantaneous and lethal explosion of water and reptile, he was snatched away! It was not until three days later when searchers found remains down river that they were able to confirm what had happened.
All I could do was stand there dumbstruck and shake my head. Pastors are always supposed to have ready words of comfort and consolation; but never in more than 25 years of ministry had I been confronted with a grieving father who had lost his child to a crocodile! I could not think of a thing to say that would not be a mere splotch of salve on a gaping wound. Was it not enough that these poor people must live in such terrible circumstances, struggling with hunger and drought? And then to have your boy taken by, of all things, a crocodile!
As I stood there mute, this father ministered to me. He took both my hands in his and, after a long moment, said, "Mpendwa rafiki katika Kristo [Dear friend in Christ], thank you for sharing my grief; but let us remember that all things are in God's hands."
Jesus' words about the centurion at Capernaum echoed in the near-empty village of Msitu wa Tembo, "...not even in Israel have I found such faith" (Matthew 8:10).
There are many such stories of extraordinary faith that are readily recounted by those who have come to know and love the Lutheran Christian people of Tanzania or those of other developing countries, people who rely on their faith as the first and sometimes only line of defense in a daily struggle for survival. That visit to Msitu wa Tembo and the many people and places I have visited since have provided a deeply fulfilling source of personal renewal. In this unforgiving land where rivers can conceal lurking death, we have discovered that "river of living water" (John 7:38) from which we thirsty people are warmly welcomed to drink.
Paradoxically, ours is a thirst that grows from a flood of plenty in our nation. It is when we spend time with those who daily endure the crushing burden of poverty and have only their faith in God to sustain them that we begin to understand why Jesus so often spoke of the danger of wealth and the way to true treasure (Matthew 19:2124).
Sharing My Experiences
My oversea experiences were a source of faith renewal I very much wanted to share with my congregation, because I sensed there were many thirsty people there, too. Attempting to do so proved frustrating in the extreme. Oh, to be sure, our congregation's members politely received the slides and travelogues. "Thank you for that nice program," they would say, and then they kindly took up an offering for whatever my cause du jour was — hunger relief, scholarships, a grain mill.
But, as gracious and sympathetic as they were, they did not understand, through no fault of their own, what I wanted most to share with them. Slides, even accompanied by the most passionate narration, do convince people, but only of the fact that you had a wonderful experience, that somehow the experience renewed your faith. It is not possible to teach an experience. The attempt to do so only leaves thirsty people wishing it could be so for them. We cannot quench their thirst by describing the wonderful drink we were privileged to have.
That is why the congregation began "Lutheran Safaris." It has become my privilege once a year to take a group of 12-20 people to experience this life-changing adventure for themselves. We call it "incarnational mission," mission in the flesh, being there as students and companions. With partner staff in Africa, our congregation works together to help each group of travelers begin to gain an understanding of what life is like for our friends there, to see it with their own eyes, to worship in thatched-roofed churches, visit villages, hospitals, schools, and homes. We hear lectures on the economy, the political situation, food security, and the role of the church in the lives of the people. And, yes, we do go "on safari" to see the wonderful animals of East Africa (always a highlight, but rarely the experience that people most cherish).
During our time together with our African friends, we try to reflect biblically and theologically on what it all means. We try to provide opportunities for our travelers to consider what actions they might personally take in response to this plunge into another world. The incarnational mission approach is essentially a three-step process:
(1) We go, see, and listen to experience something of what it means to live in a developing country. Of course, this is a very limited exposure. We do not pretend to suggest that, having made a two-week foray into another country, we know what it is like for our friends to live out their daily lives there. But we do understand a great deal more than we did. For most first-time travelers, even this brief introduction is nothing less than an amazing revelation.
(2) Throughout the course of our travels, we try to reflect on our experiences from a biblical perspective. How does the Word of God speak to what we have seen and heard? How is God's Word understood by our partners, and how might that be instructive for us? What new insight can be gained from listening to the Word in this very different cultural context?
(3) Toward the end of our trip, we ask two questions: What difference will this experience make in my life? and What difference could this experience make in the lives of those I met? Travelers are invited to consider actions they may want to take in response to what they have seen and heard and how they have understood that biblically and theologically. Actions may include changes in one's own lifestyle, a material response on behalf of our partners, a desire to find ways to continue developing the friendships made, or an eagerness to tell others about what they have learned.
It is not possible to teach an experience. The attempt to do so only leaves thirsty people wishing it could be so for them.
These three steps — experiencing, reflecting, and acting — lead most participants to a serious reconsideration of their own lifestyles, to a commitment to learn more, to deeper biblical insight, and to a continuing engagement with these partners in the future. We hope this also leads them to repeat the process at a more profound level.
The new insight and renewed faith our travelers gain have been translated not only into changed lifestyles and material support for our friends in Tanzania but also into an enthusiasm for many facets of mission and outreach in our own congregation and to encouraging other members to join them in local efforts. It is one thing to have the pastor show some slides and prattle on about the value and importance of mission, of seeing beyond the walls of our own congregation, of caring for the poor, and about the renewal of faith that grows from that. It is quite another to have members of the congregation who have experienced it for themselves, thought it through, and acted on what they have learned saying the same thing. In this case the old adage is reversed; it is a word from such an enthused member that is worth a thousand pictures!
As we travel together, meet and talk with people, develop personal friendships, and see with our own eyes how others live and struggle to survive, all the while keeping the faith, our Lutheran Safaris travelers will say over and over again, "I just had no idea! Of course, you see the pictures and read the statistics, but actually knowing these people, and having them as friends, that's very different. Now poverty has a face and a name. This is my friend we're talking about who is trying to feed her family on a dollar a day! And I want to do something about that!"
In saying that, these travelers have identified the single, biggest barrier to helping congregations reach out beyond their own walls. It is not that we are selfish and unwilling to share the good gifts with which God has blessed us. It is simply that most of us have no accurate idea of how life is for people in developing countries. We do not understand because we have no personal experience of that reality.
While our Division for Global Mission and Lutheran World Relief do a superb job of providing educational materials, there is something more we can do to build on the information they provide us. What is needed is the creation of personal relationships with people who live these lives about which we read. It is one thing to hear that 800 million people in our world are chronically malnourished. It is quite another to know some of those people personally, to share a meal with a family who may not eat tomorrow, to become friends, to stand in their drought-stricken village and hear about the child who was taken by a crocodile.
Is It Good Stewardship?
This question always arises: is this approach good stewardship? Would it not be better to take the money that these trips cost and direct it to world hunger or some other global ministry? There was a time when I would have agreed, but now, having been there, having had my life dramatically changed and having witnessed the same change in others time and again, here is my answer:
- One couple who paid the $2,300 each for the two-week trip ended up giving over $150,000 for the building of an elementary school for disabled children in Tanzania.
- Another couple committed to funding a Tanzanian student for medical school.
- Over $85,000 has been pledged in the last three years to our American God Parent Scholarship Program to assist African students.
- Our congregation built a 21-station computer lab and partnered with nearby Roanoke College to create an annual foreign studies program at a Lutheran secondary school in Tanzania.
- Our Virginia Synod youth have funded construction of a multi-pond fish farm at a youth vocational training center as a direct outgrowth of these trips.
- Two of our Lutheran Safaris travelers have returned to Africa as teachers.
- Many others have been compelled to put their fervor to work in local mission and outreach to people in need.
- Our congregation's giving to the ELCA World Hunger Appeal has substantially increased.
In our parish, and in other parishes that have participated in these trips, lives have been changed. In learning to know fellow Lutherans who struggle daily just to survive, we discover that survival is first and foremost a matter of faith in the God who provides what we need. We learn that we, who are wealthy in the world, have been given these blessings by God as a trust, an inheritance, to be shared with those in need. We learn that this is God's plan; this is how God intends the world to work! And we learn that we need these wonderful friends as much or more than they need us. That is stewardship. That is incarnational mission.
If mission outreach is to hold deeper meaning for our members and for us as professional leaders, we need to go out; we need to take our people out to meet those who can teach us and for whom we are asked to care. We need to be open to being taught by them, because they so often understand the power of faith far better than we.
One does not have to travel all the way to East Africa to find such teachers. They are close by, in the inner cities, on the reservations, in the Appalachian Mountains, just across the border in Mexico, members of our Companion Synods. Go and visit them. Become friends, companions, partners in Christ!
I often think of my friend at Forest of Elephants Lutheran Parish and of the grief he bears. The day after he rendered me speechless with the news of his little boy having been snatched by the crocodile, it occurred to me that I should have reminded him of Jesus' promise in John 10, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them...and no one shall snatch them out of my hand." But he already knew that. Truth is, he's the one who taught me that.
Dwayne J. Westermann is pastor at College Evangelical Lutheran Church, Salem, Virginia.