Friday, November 26, 2010

Success and the R.O.U.S.

“This goes completely against our model,” said the head of SIFAT.
“Ours too,” I said.

It was a recipe for disaster; we’d both seen these sorts of projects crash and burn before, and neither of us wanted anything to do with a fruitless money pit. We knew what most to avoid: top-down initiatives—particularly ones that started with a “great idea” by an American and involving a sudden large infusion of money/resources. Doing so almost always resulted in the community neither taking ownership of the project nor having the political capacity/motivation to effectively maximize the potential of the resources given.

Why in the world, then, did SIFAT accept a group’s offer to help build a SIFAT training center in Lusaka, and then Friendly Planet Missiology agree to help make it happen?

I’ve been procrastinating addressing this question directly hoping that I could find an academic way to articulate what we both had intuited. After all, I do seem to be pulling a missiological version of “Do what I say; not what I do” on this one.

Simply put, we agreed it felt like a force more powerful than us had thrust us into this endeavor—assuring us that we’d been cast as actors in a grand plan. Plus, despite all the reasons why it sounded like a very bad idea, it appeared to be the way forward.

This week I realized that I already knew what to say to such questions. When the wise leader Westley in the film The Princess Bride was told “We’ll never succeed.” he responded,

“Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has… We have already succeeded. I mean, what are the three terrors of the Fire Swamp? One, the flame spurt. No problem. There’s a popping sound preceding each. We can avoid that. Two, the lightning sand. You were clever enough to discover what that looks like. So in the future we can avoid that too.”

“Westley, what about the R.O.U.S.s?”

“Rodents of Unusual Size? I don’t think they exist.” 
[the viewer know he is fibbing, and they are promptly attacked by one]

I think that about sums up how I feel about the realities of trying to build a SIFAT appropriate technology training center on United Methodist land in Lusaka despite the limited capacity/size of the UMC here and that none of the leaders here knew anything about SIFAT until they were informed by their bishop in DR Congo that the center would be built.

Is this risky? Yup. Can we succeed? With the dream team of SIFAT, Friendly Planet, Bishop Katembo, our new Assistant Bishop, and many local leaders, of course we will. After all, we managed to overcome many of the dangers thus far. Am I’m failing to mention the challenges I know to be ahead? You betcha. Should you try this at home? I wouldn’t recommend it.

However, if you do find yourself stuck in charge of a problematic mission project [Pastors and mission chair folks: I’m especially talking to you], I’ll say to you what my family always says to me: Have fun storming the castle!

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Price of Rocks and the Glamorous Life

Unlike most married women in America, I do not own a diamond ring. Instead of a shiny rock on my hand, there is a delicate pearl (just what I'd been looking for) that I found on sale for $40. It sits next to a simple band that we found in a box of wedding rings at an antique shop.

Don’t misunderstand me; I am a girly-girl who loves getting dressed up and wearing pretty jewelry, and my husband would have presented me with something expensive when he proposed had he not known me better. Fortunately, he knows that when I look at the display windows of a shop that sells gemstones I become physically ill. All I can think about is where the rocks probably came from and wonder what underpaid (or enslaved) person suffered to obtain it. My mind whirls with the testimonies of Congolese friends who have described the horrific conditions of so many of the mines—of Indian slaves locked in containers when they aren’t being forced to dig and of small children risking their lives to find baubles for foreign brides. Why would I want all that blood on my hands, ears and neck? (Yes, I do recognize the irony of me writing these words on a laptop containing coltan, which was probably stolen from Congo and sold to buy more weapons)

You can imagine how I felt, then, when I ended up with a group of American women yesterday on a tour of a jewelry workshop with a mini-lesson on gemstones. I tried to be open-minded and optimistic. Earlier this year I toured one mine in Congo run by an American company trying to operate humanely. They had high safety and environmental standards and had even built houses, schools and clinics for the workers and nearby communities. Perhaps this store would reassure me that they knew exactly where their gemstones came from, and that the miners were well treated and fairly compensated for their work. Instead, the owners talked in circles in response to my questions. Sigh.

After the circle talking ended, the group went back to oohing and ahhing the shiny rocks spread before us. (Was I really the only one disturbed that they never said they maintain a clean supply chain?) We heard all about different kinds of stones, where they are found—turns out Zambia has the most valuable emeralds in the world—and how to tell the difference between a $50 rock and a $50,000 rock. Most of the time you have to look extremely closely and often with a microscope to see the differences. The gemologist placed before us rocks of various values so we could become better at recognizing the quality ones. She even showed us the current prize in their collection. You could buy a decent house for what they’ll probably get for that large rock. (I noted an uncomfortable grimace when I remarked on what the unnamed miner who discovered it would be able to do with his share of the profits.)

Next we were told about various tricks used to fool people—many of which can even trick experts. Did you know, for example, that companies frequently irradiate stones to darken their color, since a darker shade can increase the price by thousands of dollars? We were told to ask stores how long ago their stones were irradiated; apparently they ought to sit for a year for their radiation levels to decrease.

Now here’s the thing: Say what you will about me, but I just don’t get it. If you placed before the average person two trays: one with thousands of dollars worth of cut gemstones and the other with manufactured imitations, s/he would have to look closely to tell the difference and even then might guess incorrectly. The first tray probably involved human suffering and degradation to acquire. The second was made in a laboratory and/or factory by better-paid (but probably still not enough) workers. Which tray do you prefer?

I’d say tray #2, but quite frankly, I’d much rather an option C: like a necklace of reclaimed wood or recycled glass or something. I would wear it with my clearance rack dresses and Chinese-grocery-store dance shoes while eating locally grown ‘real’ food enhanced with fresh herbs from my garden and admiring my collection of handmade art (most of which cost me less than lunch at Burger King).

a) $5 (blue crystal), b) $1,300 (Tanzanite), c) $112 (California Sea Glass)
Which is which, and which would Taylor rather wear?

Let's get this straight: This blog post isn’t about me being holier-than-thou or frugal (although my cousin is the Queen of Free). It isn’t even about my financial situation or some sort of sacrificial abstinence from the finer things in life. I am not sacrificing anything; I have a beautiful home, eat delicious meals, attend elegant functions, travel the world and look fabulous while doing so thank you very much. I am not silently judging you, my dear friend, when I glance at the shiny rocks you are wearing as you tell me how you want to end suffering in the world; I recognize that my purchasing habits are also hypocritical and we're on this journey towards sanctification together.

What I’m really trying to say is this: It is high time we step back and reconsider how we define the glamorous life because the status quo is hurting the world and not making us any happier (yes, I did just rip that off from Annie Leonard). Let's recover from our affluenza by revisiting our views on quality and style. If we don’t, we are doomed to a world where even the most glamorous of our evening functions consist of women wearing the cost of college tuition, men wearing what they wore to the office and the d.j. blasting techno all night. Is that what we really want?  Is it?? Perhaps the only thing worse than saying “Let them eat cake! and Have our old clothes!” is not realizing that our cake is nasty and we're actually naked.

Of course, you should take everything I write in context. After all, I'm just that odd ballroom dancing United Methodist pastor who lives in somewhere in the heart of Africa.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Build Week and Being a Good Friend

Build Week

My last few weeks have been engulfed in the “big build” here in Lusaka. The heads of SIFAT, the Southeast Jurisdiction’s VIM coordinator, a big team from Trinity UMC Birmingham and others flew into town to start putting up buildings on The United Methodist Church’s plot of land. They worked alongside a couple hired professionals and a team of volunteers including several local pastors, pastor’s wives, lay leaders, UMW members, youth—even the Bishop’s Assistant and a representative from the bishop’s office in Lubumbashi came down to help.

The Americans and many of the others have gone home now, but the work is not yet complete. A small local team is pushing to get the caretaker’s home in move-in condition (i.e. walls, roof & doors; electricity and running water will come next year we hope) by the end of the month. I’m taking a break for a few days and leaving it to the local leadership to carry this phase of the project to the finish line.

Other phases of construction will come as the funding is raised, although the Lusaka District won't sit on its hands waiting for another American team to arrive next summer. They’ve already put together their own fundraising plans: crushing & selling stones from the plot’s rocky land and putting in a sweet potato crop come planting season. In addition to the planned SIFAT appropriate technology training center, long-term proposals from Lusaka district leaders include expanded farming, a poultry project, a sanctuary, school, parsonage, clinic, and an orphaned/abandoned children’s center.

For those who have engaged me in lengthy off-the-record chats about my thoughts on various forms of “mission trips,” you may find it odd that I have become so active in a project that involves Americans spending well over $50,000 (per workteam) to fly to Africa and volunteer on a construction site for a few days. Frankly, so do I. It is God’s quirky sense of humor, I suppose that all of this fell into my lap. Or, perhaps, I was chosen because my ambivalence kept me focused on how to make this the start of an empowering relationship that will bear much fruit on both sides of the Atlantic.


For those interested in some of my missiological reflections from this week, then keep reading below. ☺


Being a Good Friend

It happens to all of us: Someone we love has a problem, and we rush in to “fix” it. Is this being a good friend? Sometimes yes; sometimes no.

Sometimes what our friends or family members need is an extra set of hands to lighten heavy burden of an overwhelming task. Sometimes they need our expertise on a subject. Sometimes they need to borrow our power tools. Sometimes money is needed. Sometimes, they could just use a shoulder to cry on.

Other times, however, our help is not only not helpful; it enables unhealthy behavior. Many who have lived with persons with addiction issues or even physical or developmental challenges understand this problem very well. Thus, the acts of giving our labor, advice, objects, money or even shoulders can help our friends or reinforce the underlying problem and ruin an opportunity for transformation.

When my father and I needed a name for our ministry, we choose Friendly Planet Missiology partly because TheoPraxis had already been taken, but mostly because it highlighted the core of our missiology: we assist in the transformation of communities by being good friends to those whom God has called to serve in them.

Much of the logic of how to be a good friend can be applied across the planet. So here’s a quick quiz for you—Which of the following domestic and international “mission projects” are examples of being a good friend and which are harmful?

a) Physically building and/or repairing a house/clinic/school/church/etc.
b) Donating food & supplies for homeless persons/schools/clinics/orphanages/etc.
c) Funding the purchasing of toys/mosquito nets/wells/Bibles/bicycles/boats/etc.
d) Sponsoring a child/school/congregation/orphanage/etc
e) Funding a scholarship program
f) Leading a Vacation Bible School in a poor community

If you answered “It depends” to all of the above, then you are correct. To discern whether an action would be helpful, one should start by studying not just the problem but asking if the solution really requires our assistance. Doing something for people that they can do themselves is rarely helpful unless both parties view the act as an expression of love--not charity. Even this is treading on thin ice when the giver is financially wealthier than the recipient. It is much better to focus on the building of relationships and wait for appropriate opportunities to be a good friend to emerge.

When it comes to being good friends to our colleagues serving in DR Congo and Zambia, the ways in which we could help seem overwhelming at times. They are up against enormous challenges; it is tempting to rush in with every ‘solution’ that we know. However, the roots of these problems are deeper than lack of cash or objects. No amount of bank wire transfers or containers filled with supplies will fix the problem just as $10 million from Bill Gates would not solve the problems in your congregation. Sustainable solutions are messier than that; in every corner of the planet they require the transforming of hearts and minds.

We are striving to be good friends to the folks serving in the trenches who are making disciples for the transformation of the world.

Thank you for being our friend.


D.S. Rev. John Ilunga and family living at the SIFAT center's caretaker's house

A reflection/discussion exercise:

Think of one of your very best friends—someone who is the wind beneath your wings. What is it that s/he does that has made the difference in your life? What has s/he refrained from doing that has boosted your confidence? When this friend helps you out of jam, what do you appreciate most about the way in which s/he offers assistance?

Now think of the well-meaning person in your life who deflates those wings. (If you can’t think of anyone, count yourself lucky—and perhaps reflect on if you are that person) Do they give you help or advice that you never asked for, assuming that you aren’t capable or smart enough to handle things yourself? Do the presents they give you make you feel more ashamed and/or resentful than joyful? Would you have to “swallow your pride” if you ever had to ask this person for help?

What do your experiences suggest about how to be a good friend to people in your community and across the planet?