Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Tale of Two Novels: On belonging and being a White Friend Who Gets It

When your clothesline gets stolen, you improvise. 
I did something unusual for my birthday this month.  I ordered myself two novels. I’m normally a non-fiction gal, but I thought I should branch-out.  Besides, my husband had been teasing me about my choices in beach/pool-side books (and, yes, a book on prison ministry or A Year of Biblical Womanhood is light reading compared to The Women’s Bible Commentary, which is my current heavier reading).  I just finished both novels and realized that juxtaposing my reactions to them was quite self-revealing, so here I am blogging about it.

I started with Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff. It came highly recommended by some nerdy clergy colleagues—all of whom (I suspect not coincidentally) fall into the demographic of white liberal American males. I really wanted to love the book too—to join the club of those who discreetly exchanged its inside jokes, but I found all the crass sexual comments/objectification of women off-putting. I simply didn’t share the author’s sense of humor, and the anachronistic story left me feeling like I hadn't learned anything either. I’d put the book in the category of flicks like Talladega Nights except without as much clever theological commentary  (Am I reacting too harshly? Maybe, but I’m feeling emotionally charged having just read some commentaries on the VMA scandal and Blurred Lines)

Sigh. Not enjoying Biff was particularly disappointing because ever since I was old enough to understand the difference between the American definitions of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ (particularly with the word ‘Christian’ tacked onto them) I’ve found myself feeling not invited to the clubhouses. Conservatives believe I’m a closet heretic and the liberal clubs generally don’t like that I don’t wear every cause I support on my sleeve and I critique their paradigms. Then there are the rebels who think I’m too straight laced to party with them and the folks who are leery of church-going-folk altogether. And, of course, I’m too white to gain full entry into any social club that is explicitly for non-whites. Perhaps that’s part of why I reached out early on to social misfits and international students. It's been told to me that despite feeling that I didn't belong anywhere, I have in fact been de facto president of a rather large association over the years.  

This brings me to the second novel: Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah. A glowing review of it caught my eye in Ethiopian Airline’s in-flight magazine, and I later listened to an NPR interview with the author. It was described as a story about a Nigerian woman who moves to the USA for college and years later decides to return home. It addresses issues of race, class, identity and belonging.  I was intrigued and quickly devoured all 477 pages. Her astute observations resonated with me, and I wondered how closely the author resembled her heroine in personality and worldview. I fantasized about meeting Adichie socially someday—perhaps at a State Department function. Would we hit it off? I'd like to think she'd view me as a kindred spirit, but I fear I'd seem like another Kimberly, a character in her novel—an elite white woman who overtries at being sensitive, describing every black woman she sees as 'beautiful' and misting over with pity whenever she meets someone from Africa. Even "poverty was a gleaming thing; she could not conceive of poor people being vicious or nasty because their poverty had canonized them, and the greatest saints were the foreign poor.” (151)

I’ve seen too much to view the world as Kimberly does, and I’ve been away from America so long that I now look back at it from a distance, frequently shaking my head in bewilderment or facepalming at the demographic of my birth. And yet, I’m self-aware enough to know that there are others who roll their eyes at me—finding my attempts to navigate issues of identity and belonging cringe-worthy, and I thank the few along the way (shout out to Stephanie Matthews) who have called me out bluntly when I needed to be set straight. 

In Americanah, the heroine Ifemulu becomes a professional blogger on issues of race in America and explains unwritten rules about being an American black person to non-American blacks. One such post is about the “White Friend Who Gets It.” 
Sadly, this is not as common as one would wish, but some are lucky to have that white friend who you don’t need to explain s#*% to. By all means, put this friend to work…. They can say stuff that you can’t… Let your white friend say it. If you make the mistake of saying this, you will be accused of a curiosity called “playing the race card.” …Here’s to all the white friends who get it. (361) 
Am I such a white friend (WFWGI)? In the American context, I'm not sure, but I'm trying and still learning. Many Congolese friends have told me that I often play that role for them, though--especially when it comes to speaking up for them among United Methodists in the USA. Over the years I've called out folks for treating African United Methodist friends like they are intellectually or morally inferior or for flat out objectifying or ignoring their struggles. I've even given geography lessons to general agency staff--like why purchasing someone from Kamina a plane ticket 'home' to Kinshasa is akin to buying a person from Florida a ticket 'home' to Alaska. (and, yes, the friend was stranded in Kinshasa, getting desperate and asked me to intervene since she had traveled as one of the invited token Africans at their event)

I've discovered that the other responsibility of a WFWGI is to generally keep quiet on issues that would reinforce negative stereotypes. No matter how good of a friend you think you are, you don't have the right to air other people's dirty laundry to people who won't understand the context.

It took me a bit of time to understand the 'laundry' rules. When I first started spending time in Congo, I hated the 'curtain' tours (as in don't-look-behind-the) the local church would take me and other visitors on. "How gullible do they think I am?!" I wanted to rip open the curtain and see the whole picture. I didn't yet understand the rules of the game or that it is played universally. What company, congregation or do-gooder organization is going to show an outsider (especially a potential investor) anything other than an idealized version of itself?

I had to prove myself as someone safe to tell--someone who could get it--before real candor began--before my Congolese colleagues would start coming to me when they needed somewhere to vent or advice/sympathy on dealing with Americans who didn't understand.

Now I gladly play along with the curtain tours. I occasionally get to help lead the tours myself all while knowing that there are still some curtains that are closed to me and might always be so. And that's ok because, as I learned working at the US embassy, some issues are highly sensitive and I'll only be told if the ones dealing with the issue think I can be trusted and I need to know about it.

That said, I still have mixed emotions as I play the game. I function as the useful white front for Congolese friends' projects, and I usually bite my tongue when Americans (primarily white) boast about their partnerships or rant about lack of accountability/transparency with partner conferences in Africa.  What I want to say to all of these Americans is that you are blind to the game you are playing. That, no, of course you aren't being told the full truth because your 'partners' don't trust that you can handle the truth.

There, I finally said it aloud. Furthermore, the American church needs to remove the plank from its own eye and realize that it is the one that isn't trustworthy. We have consistently behaved as selfish fair-weather friends, only caring when our ego is being stroked, when our 'partners' shower us with compliments and treat us deferentially. We abandon our colleagues when they dare to disclose that their poverty hasn't made them saints or when the next shiny charity catches our mission committee's attention. In their greatest hour of need, we not only weren't there for our Congolese colleagues, we didn't even didn't even notice that their world was engulfed in horror.

American (dominantly white) churches continue to systematically engage in condescending treatment of our African colleagues, and most of our attempts to correct this come across as ignorant as Adichie's Kimberly (which then feeds the problem by reinforcing the pressure to close all the curtains). I'm not saying there hasn't been progress--there has--but it is hard to remedy the problem of our racism when we try to deny its existence.

It is highly unlikely that our Congolese colleagues are going to say any of this to you. Even if you serve on the same committee or work in the same building they will continue to play the game. They dare not disclose what they really think for they do not trust that you would remain 'partners' if they did. But, as the white friend I can say such things to you without fear of grave consequences, and thus the more I think about what Adichie writes, the more I think I have a moral obligation to do so.

It seems the least I can do on this the 50th Anniversary of Rev. Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Why I Love Congolese Scouts

Our official escorts in Mulongo
It’s no secret that back in high school I had crushes on boy scouts (particularly Eagles and rugby playing scouts). There was just something about hanging out with guys with survival training and chivalry. I listened to so many of their stories about camping adventures at Philmont it was if I’d been there too. How wild and exciting they made it sound! Of course, Mom teased that when they’d all come over to our house it was like watching Wendy and the Lost Boys interact.

I, myself, hadn’t lasted long in our local girl scout program. A couple years of selling cookies and decorating cakes was enough for me, so when we moved I wasn't interested in finding another troop.

It came therefore, as both a surprise and a laugh to me when I moved to Kamina, DR Congo in 2005 and found out that my neighbors and new best buds were active scouts. Weren’t they a bit old to still be scouting?  What exactly was the point of it when everyone there already knew as a matter of daily survival how to live off the grid and Macgyver random objects?  How do you talk about allegiance to God and Country when your government is so broken?  I had much to learn.

I was shocked when I began traveling with the bishop into even more remote communities—ones that had been directly impacted by the war—that there were always scouts there to meet us upon arrival. They not only would help transport the luggage and equipment, they’d form a human line around the visitors and escort them safely to their lodging. They then took shifts guarding the compound 24/7 and would act as runners for supplies. Scouts, it turned out, are the go-to crew for hospitality, crowd control, security, protocol, and important event set-up (sound system, outdoor electrical, etc)—not to mention their other do-gooder projects like assisting widows and orphans or mobilizing community clean-up efforts. I also noticed that the deeper into the war zone we went, the more disciplined the scout troops seemed to be. This was no coincidence.

At first it disturbed me how much these scouts resembled young soldiers as they marched in their lines. Then it hit me: for these young men who knew the face of war and been recruited (often forcibly) by armies and warlords, the decision to join the scouts—the community’s unarmed peacekeeping force—was a bold act requiring the resolve of a patriotic soldier.

The United Methodist Church’s North Katanga Conference alone has 4,807 (as of August 2013) active scouts. They are planning to hold a jamboree next summer in Tenke, DR Congo and have invited scouts from the USA to join them. Dr. Art Collins, president of the National Association of United Methodist Scouters and pastor of Ellettsville First UMC is heading the recruitment and registration for Americans interested in attending or underwriting this event. I encourage you to contact Art for details.    
scouting in Kalemie, DR Congo

Scouts in Tenke, DR Congo welcoming the FPM bike team

Scouts in Kabongo assisted local police with crowd control at annual conference

Scout troop that guarded our guest house 24/7 in Mulongo this summer

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Plan

Having a plan is a good idea (except when it's not)
When I was just 15 years old my father took me on my very first trip to Zaire (now DR Congo). This trip sparked in me an obsession to understand why there was so much poverty in world, why it didn’t feel like go-gooder efforts were getting anywhere, and what the anti-poverty experts knew that I could then take back and share with folks in the church pews.  Thus, over 16 years ago (was it really that long ago?!) I enrolled in American University’s BA/MA program in International Development.

My plan seemed so simple:
  • Step #1: Learn everything that is known on the causes of and solutions to poverty.
  • Step #2: Use this knowledge to critique dominant do-gooder/mission models and offer an alternative path of action.
  • Step #3: Introduce new model to the masses.  Do this through writing a book, becoming a traveling keynoter/consultant, be elected/appointed to a leadership position, etc.
  • Step #4: Be happy in the knowledge that my work had made a difference in this world.
If only changing the world were as easy as it seemed back then. My plan was based on numerous na├»ve assumptions. For example, it turned out that anti-poverty experts knew a lot more about projects that have failed than they did about formulas for success (I spent five straight years analyzing countless failed development initiatives---what that did to my mental health is another conversation). It also turned out that when you try to explain to folks--especially church folk--that they are using antiquated mission models, their predictable response is not one of appreciation and requests for your advice on how to change. In fact, this is an easy way to quickly make yourself persona non grata in both ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ religious circles. There aren't many returned phone calls or consulting contracts for the nerd who dares to suggest that a congregation/conference/agency overhaul its beloved mission program.  

Needless to say, I’ve been somewhere between steps #2 & #3 for several years now, and I often think of the old plan as a bad joke. At times I suspect that what I thought was my call was simply me listening in on the party line. There are, for example, a handful of recently released bestselling books that say much of what I've been trying to explain (Toxic Charity, for example). Change seems inevitable even without my voice in the mix, although I don't think we've reached a tipping point yet (perhaps in secular society, but the church is more resistant).

I've yet to find a book that covers everything that should be said on the topic, but I'm pretty pumped about the progress my father is making on his book. I've put him on a 1,000/words/day minimum regime and he's been sending me his daily updates for accountability.  At this rate he'll be ready to send the manuscript for professional editing by September. The book's format is heavily influenced by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, so for those of you who have been hoping for a step-by-step how-to manual on mission work, this won't be it.  It will be, however, a journey into the heart of DR Congo and the ramblings of a mad man on a bicycle. Some of you will find it profound; others will be confused. If you've been following his blogs for awhile, I suspect you will find it enlightening and challenging. It has potential to become a classic, or, at least a cult classic. Of course, Mark Twain defined a classic as "a book which people praise and don't read," so I'm hoping that it gets read before that happens. There is already serious talk of an indie film (not of the book itself, but of one of the stories of heroism told in it); the filmmaker is currently seeking investors for the project.          

The deal Dad and I made was that I'd manage Friendly Planet Missiology this year so that his only professional responsibilities would be to ride his bike (where he does his best thinking) and finish the book.  Who knows--maybe next year will be the year of The Plan.  ;)

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Something About Mulongo

Kitchen conversations in Mulongo
Alright, so I promised to tell you about what I was doing in Congo last month (beyond getting ordained), and since the U.S. government in an ‘abundance of caution’ has said I should avoid leaving the house this week, now seems like a good time to write.

To start off, let’s clear up a common cause of confusion about where exactly I went and who is in charge of the programs I’m (via FPM) assisting. Imagine, if you will, going to a big church event and meeting a Rev. Joe Monroe. Rev. Monroe inspires you with stories of the struggles and initiatives in the town (coincidentally named Monroe) and district (also called Monroe) that he oversees. You’d love to visit Monroe someday, but you doubt you ever will since it is in such a remote place. Soon after you get a call from Denver, an acquaintance who met a Dr. Ivan Monroe and was inspired by Dr. Monroe’s sharing of the unmet health needs in the community where he was serving as head medical doctor and of how he had recently started a nursing and midwife training program there. Your acquaintance is seriously considering making a large financial contribution to Dr. Monroe’s ambitious project and wants to know if you could do a site-visit and give him your professional opinion first. Where is this school? Monroe, of course.

Now replace “Monroe” with “Mulongo” and you’ve got the start of the story of how FPM ended up having Mulongo as its DR Congo headquarters with Rev. Joseph Mulongo as its Country Director and a nursing school headed by Dr. Ivan Mulongo as its first major bricks&mortar partnership project. The story has a lot of twists and turns—some of which you can read about in Dad’s old posts --and a lot more will be told in Dad’s book.  

Last month, I traveled to Mulongo not only with my family but with Denver’s wife (Robin) and their pastor Deanne. We wanted Robin to witness how her contribution had been transformed into cement and roofing sheets for a fully accredited nursing school--the only one in the region. The faculty and students—especially those receiving scholarships from her family—wanted to testify to the many lives being saved because of the education received at this school. Robin was overwhelmed by what she saw and has decided to take the lead in the state-side efforts to raise support for scholarships, construction materials, and equipment for the nursing school. (Dr. Ivan, now a congressman, continues to be the main contributor and fundraiser for it in DR Congo.) She’d be happy to speak with your group about the school and ways you can get involved.

While in Mulongo, we stayed in Joseph and his wife Mary’s beautiful home. (Have I mentioned that Mary was one of the first graduates of Ivan’s nursing school and that she now teaches there?) As you can imagine, there is a very good story behind how a United Methodist pastor built such a nice house when most of his colleagues’ parsonages threaten to collapse with every rainfall. It starts with a laptop he received when visiting the Indiana UMC’s conference office and a desktop printer he bought with his personal savings. Mulongo used them to open the region’s only printing station. With those profits he made thousands of bricks—half of which he sold, and half were for his house. We figured that a pastor who is entrepreneurial enough to turn a budget laptop into a 4 bedroom house (with indoor plumbing!) all while leading several community development initiatives is exactly the sort of person who should be vetting and coordinating FPM-funded projects. 

Thus far FPM's decision to put Rev. Mulongo in charge of the programatic-side of operations has been successful beyond our wildest dreams. Now he's proposing some ideas of income-generating projects that could fund FPM programs and salaries (If the Catholic Church has its own gas stations and hotels in Congo, why couldn't we start a business?). We believe strongly that FPM should walk its talk by leveraging local assets to fund its work, so we plan to give at least one these ideas a try in 2014. We're not ready to broadcast all our plans just yet, but if you are interested in investing, please let us know! 
There are plenty of rooms at Joseph and Mary's house

Joseph and Robin by the Nursing School's sign

Meeting with some of the nursing students

The Nursing School

The school's maternity wing under construction

Nursing students at the celebration for the completion of the first building

Words of appreciation to Robin for financial support

Want to see more photos of Mulongo?  Check out the public album's on Bob's Facebook page.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Missiology 101, Session #1b: Feeding Other People's Children

Don't judge too quickly; Alpha is well-fed.*
So much is swirling in my brain right now (Peter Capaldi as The 12th Doctor, our embassy closed, FPM initiatives, etc.), but I promised I’d get back to you about last week’s mission trip flyer thinking exercise.

Interesting thing about it, my readers generally fell into two distinct categories: those who were instantly horrified by my example, and those who weren’t sure what I was getting at. More interesting, the less exposure the reader had to ‘mission culture,’ the more objectionable s/he found the flyer I described. I lift this up because I’ve found the same phenomenon true about explaining the work of Friendly Planet Missiology (FPM). With rare exceptions, there is an inverse correlation between how much involvement one has had with mission programs and how easy it is for one to intuitively grasp FPM’s approach and see how it is different from the dominant model. I’ve got some fuzzy ideas on why that may be, but I’m sure one could write a dissertation on that question alone. 

So let’s get back to the mission trip flyer that advertised an “opportunity to feed [insert nationality] children.”  What’s wrong with feeding children? Nothing at all. My husband and I feed our toddler multiple times a day, and occasionally we ask someone we trust to do so on our behalf. I would never consider feeding someone else’s child, however, unless the child’s caretaker requested it, and even then I might refrain (but that’s another conversation). What if the child had a dangerous allergy or other medical food-intake issues? How would I feel if a stranger fed my daughter without my explicit permission?  How would I feel if their manner of doing so showed that they thought I was failing at my parental duties or that they didn’t even recognize my parental role?  American parents warn their children about strangers who hand out candy, so why do so many of them then think it’s ok to be the stranger passing out treats in someone else’s neighborhood?

For decades now, countless do-gooder organizations have launched successful fundraising campaigns in the USA that tell middle-class and wealthy Americans that they have a moral obligation to feed hungry children in faraway places. I distinctly remember in the ‘80s and early ‘90s watching the images of unwashed emaciated barefoot children on my television screen as Sally Struthers stood next to them and pleaded that we give up our morning coffee habit and instead purchase sponsor our very own needy child. Some programs even promised that “your” child would send you thank you cards and pictures. For those exposed to such commercials, the guilt trip was put on so thick that it didn’t occur to most of us to question whether such ‘solutions’ to childhood hunger were even appropriate or what the parents of the children in the commercials thought about all of this! I’m not going to go too deep today into why child sponsorship programs are fundamentally unhealthy (the few that are halfway decent aren’t actually child sponsorship programs; they just do bait&switch fundraising), but I encourage you consider that there are healthier and more effective ways to help children. 

The underlying reason why child sponsorship commercials and mission trips to "feed hungry children" are unhealthy is the same. Both ignore the fact that children don’t fall from the sky, and they don’t survive for long outside of their mother’s womb without at least one person who cares feeding them. Any ‘solution’ to childhood hunger that doesn’t play a support role to this person is offensive and unsustainable. “What about orphans?” you ask. Even most orphans have relatives or community members looking out for them the best they can. Yes, there are situations where children are torn out of a nurturing social fabric and are trapped in abuse, de facto slavery or crime networks, but even then for an outside group to create a ‘solution’ that ignores that the hearts of adults from the child’s home community are also breaking is dehumanizing on one of the deepest levels.

Speaking of dehumanizing thinking, the very semantics of getting to feed local children conjures up memories of going to the petting zoo and, for a few coins, getting to feed the cute baby animals. Despite what generations of traveling sideshows and television commercials have programmed deep into our subconscious, children living in far away places are not objects that God placed on Earth to entertain us nor are they there for us to hand-feed or adopt like an exotic pet. If you don’t feel the least bit uncomfortable when a choir of young orphans performs for you on their USA tour, I suggest taking some time to think about those children not as adorable entertainment but as impressionable kids whose visas will soon expire and will soon be thrust back into their barely functioning orphanage. What kind of psychological damage do you think that will do to them, and what kinds of cruel jealousy backlash from other children and adults will they face when they return home? (but I digress)

Now that I’ve scratched the surface on common blindspots relating to hungry children, I'll try to offer some practical advice.

If you are currently in charge of leading/advertising a mission trip that will include interacting with malnourished children, consider the power that semantics and mindsets can have both before and during your trip. For example, instead of advertising a chance to feed children, talk about an opportunity to meet with [insert nationality] community leaders and spend a day at the neighborhood nutrition and tutoring center they created to assist street kids and latchkey families. Be sure that your team members don’t forget that the social taboos concerning stranger-child interaction at home most likely will apply on your trip too. Make sure they also understand that children aren’t puppy dogs in the pet store. Lavishing a struggling child with attention for a few days and then disappearing often does more long-term psychological damage to the child (warped understanding of love and reinforced abandonment issues) then it helps. Don’t tell a child how much you love her/him if you aren’t going to back it up with actions and a lifetime commitment! (and never tell a child that you want to take them home with you---they could hear it as a promise, and you may find it an impossible one to keep even if you were serious about your intensions to adopt her/him)

Now please don’t interpret this blog as a blanket condemnation of child-focused nutrition centers (or food banks or soup kitchens for that matter). They have their place as a stopgap measure until a sustainable solution (living wages for all) is reached. For example, my mother, a public school teacher, is active in a program in her town that provides sack lunches, books and positive social interactions for at-risk children during the summer holidays. Through this program, she interacts with many of her past and future students, encourages them in their reading habits, and fills the nutrition gap normally covered by the free/reduced school lunch program. This program is led by folks who have a holistic view of the problems faced by the children and parents living in the low-income housing sections of their town, and thus it is proactively done in a way that does not dishonor the families that allow their children to participate in it. Do you see the difference between this program and the mission trip as it was advertised?  If not, please don't give up on me yet.  These are hard conversations, and we'll keep on exploring. 

The daily ritual at the Methodist Children's Home in Kamina, DR Congo.

 *Alpha has been living at the Methodist Children's Home in Kamina for several years now.  His caretakers give him plenty of nutritious food, but his body doesn't absorb it. Local hospitals lack the diagnostic equipment to determine the cause and possible solutions.  

Author's addition:  I realized after posting this that I didn't offer any practical advice for folks who are already involved in a child sponsorship program. Since such programs vary greatly in their implementation model, I suggest by looking into your organization's approach.  Read their website and see if they talk about working alongside grassroots leadership structures. Is there any mention of the children's families? Are they working on projects that address the underlying causes of poverty? Do an internet search on criticisms of your organization and see what pops up. Prayerfully decide your next steps from there.  You might decide to stick with the organization, but if you do, please do so because you respect their methodology--not because you've been guilt tripped into thinking a specific child will go hungry without your intervention.