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?

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