I was told by several people that the Africa experience would leave me a changed person, and they were correct. My first impressions of Africa were tainted by stereotypes of uncivilized natives living in huts perpetuated by the media to reflect a negative image on black people in general. Lessons learned in Sunday School, from missionaries, and from teachers in all black schools enlightened me to a better understanding of the reality of life in Africa. Having the opportunity to interact with persons from Africa at church sponsored events informed my understanding directly, enabling me to see them as real people.
Reading about Africa, watching documentaries on television as well as news reports, listening to presentations and lectures, provided me some intelligence about the geography, the various countries and cultures, climate, natural resources, environmental concerns, politics, tribalism, sexism, racism, continuing exploitation by the foreign countries, genocide, corruption, human suffering, and the devastation caused by HIV/AIDS. The embarrassment I felt as a high school student at the treatment Patrice Lumumba experienced at the murderous hands of his political enemies after being a catalyst ushering in the liberation from Belgian colonial rule of what became the Democratic Republic of Congo. My spirit is pained by the brutal ethnic cleansing that took place in Rwanda and Uganda and the ongoing atrocities occurring in the Darfur region of Sudan. It was in the last decade of the twentieth century that the evil system of apartheid in South Africa was dismantled, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and majority rule came to that country. All of these realities colored the palette from which my picture of the African continent and its people was created.
I was impressed by what I learned of the vitality of the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ on the African continent. I was particularly awed by the fact that there are 750,000 Disciples in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone. The work done there by missionaries over the years has borne fruit in a mighty way. When I was blessed to be invited to travel to South Africa and Angola, I looked forward with great anticipation to the time that would be shared in dialogue with church leaders in those countries. As an advocate for church transformation, I had a keen interest in getting an inside look at the transformation taking place among the churches in South Africa and Angola and ways to translate what I learned into applications meaningful for churches in the U.S.
Every aspect of our journey provided learning opportunities that opened up my understanding of and appreciation for the profound differences in doing ministry in Africa and doing ministry in the U.S. The most glaring difference was the amount of resources available. Even though there is great concern over budget shortfalls in many local congregations, regions, and general units of the church, the people are in a position to make up the shortfalls by simply giving more, which would not necessitate anyone having to suffer. The money is there, the challenge is in getting the people to give. One need only to compare the difference in the per capita income between the average American and the average Angolan to see how much more of a challenge it is to acquire the needed resources to fund ministry there.
The other difference that touched my very soul was what the effort required for the local saints just to share in worship and ministry which gives evidence of their high level of commitment. After our return from the visit to the Mission Station, I woke up and sat on the edge of my bed at 4:45 in the morning feeling anger as I reflected on how the people walked over some of the worse roads I have ever experienced to greet us in Christian love and those in the U.S. who give excuses why they can=t drive across paved streets to greet a missionary visiting the area. Upon further reflection, my anger increased as the reality of how so many in America take God for granted, acknowledging him when it=s convenient for them, Not understanding that but for the grace of God, they would be walking down two miles of bad road to get fresh water to bring back to a mud hut that had no electricity. I calmed down after a few minutes and looked inward, thanking God for the experience, asking forgiveness as I too have at times taken him for granted.
The time we spent sharing with the pastors of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa and the Evangelical Congregational Church of Angola revealed the strong commitment to the cause of Christ on the part of these men and women that is the foundation for transformation among these churches. I was privileged to receive a copy the vision plan for the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa which has a theme AIn Christ There Is a Future@ and hear it articulated by Dr. Dibeela, General Secretary. The plan lays out a clear path to transformation not only for the church, but also a strategy for being a source of transformation in society. The local pastors spoke of the need to continue to address the everyday needs and concerns such sexism, domestic violence, alcoholism, unemployment, and HIV/AIDS.
Because of the civil war that devastated Angola, many people came to Luanda from the provinces seeking a safe haven from the fighting. Now that peace has finally come to the land, the people are returning to the provinces to rebuild their lives. As they reestablish themselves in these rural areas, they are organizing churches which give the Evangelical Congregational Church of Angola the enviable and daunting task of providing pastors for these congregations. Many pastors travel from the city to rural areas to serve these congregations. Angola is struggling to rebuild its infrastructure after twenty-four years of civil war; there are no interstate highways for these pastors to travel. Having gained first hand knowledge of those rural roads, my appreciation for their work is great. I was moved by the determination of these pastors to serve the people of God as they work through the impediments that emerge because of limited resources.
The focus for this meditation springs from my perspective of their labor and commitment.
"Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior." (Habakkuk 3:17-18 NIV)
These pastors do not have access to a program that provides salary support for three years. There are no foundations giving grants to develop leaders among these new congregations. The Angolan government does not have a faith based initiative program. Yet there is great joy as these men and women of God press on through the storms of adversity to hear a still, small voice saying "peace be still" as they emerge into the light of the smiles of the people as the gather to praise God.
Committed pastors, committed people who live by faith and not by sight. Faithful pastors, faithful people who understand what is really important. This leads to the question for us as a board: what is really important? What percentage of the time and effort we spend translates into direct benefit to the missionaries, our partners, and the ministries through which they work to give life to ACritical Presence?@ Has the charge given to us to support and sustain the work of our missionaries and partners been overshadowed by personal agendas, a lack of commitment, partisan concerns? We suffer the angst of budget cut, but are those cuts being evaluated based on making ministry in the field a priority? As we do our work, let us remember what is really important. I lift up the children at the Bridgman Center in Soweto; I lift up those pastors in Angola who struggle over miles of bad road each week to fulfill their call to serve the people of God.
"Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior."
(Habakkuk 3:17-18 NIV)