Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Another Story of Legacy

I met Magala (on left) 32 years ago.

In the early days of my work in Pokot I would preach three times each Sunday in three different villages. First stop was in Makutano, where Paul became a follower of Christ and eventually the pastor. I’d travel 2 hours from my home to Makutano, finish the service around noon and then I would then drive to a small village off the escarpment called Mtempur. Under a tree I would play my mandolin and speak to the few who were curious. Nothing came of that work.

I’d be in Mtempur from about 1 to 3 p.m. and then travel on to my last preaching point, which was another 30 miles down the road in a town called Kacheliba. I actually would sing, (Moto), play my mandolin and preach in the center of town. I look back at those days and wonder what possessed me to do such things. I usually arrived home after dark each Sunday, bone tired, covered with dust from being on the road and in the village all day.

One Sunday afternoon in Kacheliba, after my message, I asked if anyone wanted to become a follower of Christ. Magala came forward, knelt at my feet with his hands folded and his head down. I took him by the shoulder and told him he didn’t have to kneel before me as that was a Catholic practice, but on that day Magala became a follower of Jesus.

Magala has an interesting story; much of it is in my dissertation. His wife refused to embrace his faith and a few years after his conversion she left him. About five years later Magala took a much younger wife and he now has a total of eleven kids, ranging from age 30 to 9 months, not bad for a guy over 60. Though a herder and uneducated, he is one of the few Pokot who are moving away from the traditional ways of this semi-nomadic tribe and doing all he can to make sure his children go to school. He told me last month that he has had to sell a lot of cattle these past few years to pay for school fees, a huge indicator of a worldview shift.

Magala’s compound is about seven miles from the town and of course he must walk everywhere as he has no car or bicycle, so he doesn’t make it to church every Sunday. Yet, after thirty-two years Magala continues to serve the Lord, as an elder in the church and a witness in the community.

When he was baptized he took the name “Richard.” In Kacheliba he is still called Magala and I’m still called “Moto.” I’m very proud that my old friend is still following the Name of Christ after all these years.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Missed Opportunity

In the last post I discussed the shortsightedness of short-term teams and their need to have more than the feel-good experience of being in Africa. But there is another part of that story that is crucial and that is the career missionaries themselves. Are they seizing a golden opportunity to let people know of their financial and spiritual needs?

My first question to the career family was, “Are you making the best use of these teams to let them know of your ministry?” I told this young couple that I would never let a group of people, who obviously are concerned with the Great Commission or they wouldn’t be there, to get out of town without building a database for future potential support. I would get the emails of everyone in the group and make sure they were a part of the monthly ministry update; I’d talk to the head of the group and ask if it would be possible to visit the church when back home on furlough; I’d give them those missionary prayer cards which gives information on where to send donations; I’d even print out the last newsletter and give to them. Since the women were slobbering all over the three-year-old boy, I said, factiously, I’d have him pass out the prayer cards. I’d put a sign around Fido’s neck that read, www.pleasesupportmyowners.com. Well, not really, but you get my point.

I am not suggesting that missionaries be crass about raising support and Lord knows there is a boundary that can be crossed where one can be a nuisance in always asking for support. However, everyone in our business knows that’s it’s hard to raise and maintain funds for ministry. To have a group of people around you for two weeks and not at least let them know they can invest in the lives of those who are there longer than 14 days is, to me, missing a great opportunity.

People don’t know the needs unless they are informed. My problem with short-term missions is that it is often shortsighted and misdirected. With the help of missionaries on the ground they have an occasion to help those teams have more of an impact in missions than just putting a coat of paint on a building.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Shortsightedness of Short-Term Missions

Let’s see how ambiguous I can make this post.

Recently I visited a family in Africa. They are there on a shoestring budget, but making it. My visit coincided with a short-term group of 9 Americans. The career missionaries were responsible for the short-term housing, work projects and everyone seemed to get along fine. The women on the American team fell in love with the career missionary’s kids, especially the three-year-old boy. They cooed, hugged and played with him. All good stuff.

The career missionary family is not in leadership position, but is what some would call “support staff.” The short-term teams provided funds for the team project and of course spent at least $2000 each for their 10-day excursion, which comes to $18,000 or $75 per person per hour to experience life outside of the U.S. The visitors go home, the missionary family remains behind to struggle with language, culture and the issues that only a career missionary will face.

Here’s my question. In all the time the short-term team was there did they ever really sit down with the career family and ask about what their lives were like? Did the short-term team get any insights on how to pray for the missionaries, the work, the country or any real working knowledge of the people that the career people have given their lives to serve? While they may have shared candy with the cute missionary kids, I wonder if they even have a clue of the missionary’s financial needs?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Eternal Legacy

The Apostle Paul was not above boasting, or at least giving humble thanks to God for the work that He did through himself. Whether it was the faithfulness of the church in Philippi or his claim on the life of a slave named Onesimus, Paul often took human credit for the work of the Gospel. Likewise, I cannot help but brag about what God has done through the work He allowed us to do in Kenya. The rewards of service are not always in the by-in-by, sometimes we get to see the fruit of our labor here on earth which allows us to realize maybe we did a few things right in the ministry God gave us.

Paul Gichuki was just a twenty-three year old kid selling used clothing in a small town called Makutano back in 1977. I was thirty years old, green as grass as a missionary who had little understanding of culture but had a passion to take the message of Christ to those who had never heard. In my nativity I started meeting in a rented school building, playing my mandolin and reading my Swahili sermons every Sunday morning. At the conclusion of my first sermon a Kenyan came up to me after the service and told me in English that I needed an interpreter as no one was going to understand my Swahili. My response was that whether anyone understood me or not I was going to learn the language and I wasn’t going to depend on an interpreter.

Paul was one of the first men to accept Christ in those early years. I met with these young converts, often three days and nights every week, discipling them in a mud hut and by kerosene lantern. I continued to preach in my broken Swahili each week, but after nine months Paul took the lead of the small congregation at Makutano.

Thirty-two years later, Paul is still the pastor of this first church. In spite of the hardships that come with being a pastor - being run out of the Pokot district because he is a Kikuyu, suffering the death of his wife, Paul has remained faithful. He travels 40 kilometers at least twice a week to Makutano, is the dean of the Bible Institute and has been instrumental in helping start over 200 churches since I left the country twenty years ago. His church now runs over 300 every Sunday, has sent a missionary from his congregation to the Sudan and has two Pokot chiefs as a part of his congregation.

My part in this remarkable story is small as it truly is more about the faithfulness of Paul than it has to do with me. But I can’t help but boast in Christ that I had at least a small part in what God has and is doing in a remote part of the world in northwest Kenya.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Butting Heads

No doubt you’ve heard the expression, “Those two people are always butting heads.” Ever wonder where that expression came from?

While sitting underneath a tree near my mud hut a neighboring herd of goats passed through my compound to graze. Two young male goats, “Billy’s I think they are called,” decided that they would engage in what young males often do, see who is the toughest. For at least thirty minutes I watched these two adolescent males work off their testosterone frustration, as they are not yet big enough to breed with the many females in the herd. Raring up on their hind legs they would slam their heads together with such blows you could hear the thump with each mighty crash.

As a young man I often butted heads with people, trying, I suppose, to assert my position with those I worked with, in my marriage and with other relationships in an effort to be perceived as right. I often butted heads with my dad growing up and I sure did butt heads with my teenage daughters when they were at home, which I deeply regret today. Much older now, I no longer butt heads with people, certainly much less than when I was a kid (no pun intended). I’m learning that those who engage in head butting are, for the most part, immature, expending a lot of energy without getting anything worthwhile done. Like the dominant male in the herd, I continue to graze while I watch others knock each other out with their senseless head butting. I know that sometimes I should engage more, but rather than deal with the he obstinate or foolish, I would prefer not be involved. It’s amazing to me how many people I know who have been butting heads with others all their lives. You’d think by now they would know better, but instead they continue to have conflict in their lives primarily due to meaningless butt heading.

So, the next time you feel like you’re butting your head against the wall or that you have someone in your life you are always butting heads with, learn the lesson from the bush – at the end of the day the only thing that is accomplished with endless head butting is a headache and you still haven’t solved anything.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Culture Change Among the Pokot

The song by Clint Black, "This Killin Time Is Killing Me,” runs through my head as I spend the last full day in Pokot. Doing research in the bush is a long arduous task.

I came down here for the express purpose of finding out what has changed in the church and in the culture since my departure as a resident missionary in Kenya twenty years ago. When I asked Father Anthony, the local padre who has lived in Pokot since the early ‘70’s what has changed, his reply was quick and to the point – “Not much!”

Indeed, if one minute equals a year, in the past twenty years the Pokot may have moved ahead not ore than five minutes since my departure in 1989. The steps of change shift exceedingly slow in the desert, but they are few outward symbols of modification. Gone are those who wear goatskins; gone, too, are the open display of initiation rites for boys and girls. While it is true that there are many more Pokot children going to school, I am amazed how many young people are still hindered by their parents to leave the traditions of the past to embrace the 21st century.

It was my hypothesis, when I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the social structure of the Pokot two decades ago, that these herdsmen are not so much resistant to the Gospel as they are just resistant to change. My time this past week in Pokot confirms that premise. Change takes place when there is a compelling reason to make revisions in life. For many of the Pokot they don’t see an overwhelming reason for them to trade in their fimbo (herding stick) for schoolbooks. Even if their kids finish Form Four (equivalent of finishing the 12th grade in the U.S.), the chances of those kids going on to the university is nearly impossible. There are no guarantees in the promise of education as finding meaningful employment anywhere in Kenya, and especially in Pokot, is as rare as a rain shower in January in this desolate land. Herding cattle and goats may not be the path to material well being, in fact it’s a life that is, at best subsistent. But if one does not aspire to live in anything but a mud hut, is content with sleeping under the shade of a tree in the afternoon, drinking homemade beer at night and producing twenty kids with three wives, what’s the attraction to risking that way of life for the modern world which has yet to show a better way?

Unlike many missionaries, I do not equate change as a measure of evangelistic outreach. Whether the Pokot drink blood, practice polygyny and refuse to learn how to read or write is not primary for me as none of these things are salvation issues. What is important is how we communicate the Gospel to the Pokot in their context, no matter how backward we may think they are. That was my conclusion twenty years ago and that, along with the Pokot culture, has not changed.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Observing Culture: The Reward of the Wait

Studying culture through observation research is a lot like hunting, though it takes a great deal more time. Those who hunt deer or turkey must put up a stand or blind, sit in a camouflaged hole and hope something comes by. The reward of the wait is the kill.

As a missionary anthropologist studying culture, like a hunter, I seek out a target or subject in mind, in this case the Pokot of northwest Kenya. Unlike a hunter, however, I am hardly incognito as I spend my days in the village hoping to learn something significant about these nomadic and unreached people. It’s the pieces of the puzzle I am looking for which will lead me to a clearer picture of the whole as it relates to the social structure, worldview and avenues for communication to these pastoralists which live in the bush.

Here is an example of a cultural find this past week through observation research:

As I trek down a path outside the village a woman walks by with a cowbell clanging from her waist. I ask my Pokot friend what it means and he tells me she is the mother of a recently circumcised boy. By cultural law the boy is forbidden to see his mother during the period of healing (thirty days) and to avoid such a taboo the cowbell alerts him if she walks nearby. As a researcher you couldn’t organize such a discovery if you tried; such findings is almost by accident gained through the wait.

C.S. Lewis writes, “I happen to believe that you cannot study man, you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing.” I partly agree. I do believe that is through knowing a people that you learn best about them and not through sitting in a class or reading a book. However, sometimes you need to know how to study people to know them and understand what you are observing. It is through structured cultural analysis, i.e. knowing their worldview, kinship network, web of interpersonal relationships, that allows and outsider, like myself, to really get to know people of different cultures.

Twenty years ago I lived in Pokot and got to know them well, so this past week was not merely idle curiosity and certainly not a tourist event. Most of my days in the bush was long, hot and boring and, on the surface, neither earth shattering, life changing or having great eternal benefits…yet. Being in-place, on-site is the only way one will ever gain legitimate emic insights into the society of another. Learning more about the Pokot, even if it seems insignificant, is the reward of the wait.