Saturday, July 05, 2014

Lubumbashi, DR Congo: robocops, pizza, and skinny jeans

There is a giant robocop at the busy intersection near the Methodist building in downtown Lubumbashi. There is also an Italian-style flowing fountain and a sleek food court/shopping centre featuring South African chain restaurants (including Galitos and Pizza Inn). Every direction I look I spot young women wearing tight fitting jeans and fancy tops.  Am I tripping on malaria meds or has reality shifted?

I've been coming in and out of Lubumbashi, DR Congo since 1995. It is the first big city after crossing the border from Zambia and the capital of Katanga, so pretty much a required entry point for getting to the United Methodist conference of North Katanga. Since Lubumbashi is a transit town for me, I'm only here a handful of days each year.  This has created a surreal time-lapse photography experience as I've watched the city change.

There was a time that this city depressed me--everything was rundown like out of a post-apocalyptic movie and the vibe was a mix of paranoia, bitterness, and an exhaustion that comes from barely surviving. Later, the city stressed me out--chaos, crazy cars, corruption and cruelty. The vibe was that of those hustling to climb out of their poverty by any means available. My North Katangan friends who had moved to this sprawling city with dreams of financial success were suffering more than they suffered back home.

Today, however, as I wandered around downtown and rode out to dine at a friend's house on the other part of town (the road was now paved all the way there!), I thought to myself how alive and healthy the city seemed.  I marvelled at the building renovations, new construction and beautification efforts. Even on the radio there was an anti-littering public service announcement.
 

Countless new businesses catering to the emerging middle class. It occurred to me that I need to rethink my wardrobe for next time; I was clearly the least fashionably dressed woman on the street.

Today I started seriously thinking that I would enjoy living in Lubumbashi... now if I can only convince the USA government to reopen that consulate here they closed years ago so that my husband can be the first to apply for the job. ;)


Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Happy in Djibouti

Hands down the best music video I've seen made in Djibouti.  Congratulations to everyone involved in this project!



Thursday, May 29, 2014

Tourism and Terrorism in Djibouti

Hiking in Foret du Day, Djibouti
As most of my readers probably know, last weekend two suicide bombers went to a popular restaurant in downtown Djibouti and killed themselves and a Turkish citizen as well as wounding over a dozen other expatriates. Al Shabaab claims responsibility and threatens to attack again. While I've always felt safe here in the pocket of calm that is Djibouti, last weekend was a sad reminder that no place in the world is immune to terrorism.  My heart breaks for all those who were impacted directly by the attack.

I am also sad for all the local businesses and their employees who will suffer financially because of reduced tourism activity (especially with Camp Lemonier back in lockdown mode).   My good friends at Phoenix Travel Services had several cancellations, and our pals at Dolphin had so many snorkeling/scuba excursion cancellations that they've announced they are closing at the end of the month (hopefully to reopen in the fall).

The thing is that while, yes, you might want to think twice at the moment about going out for drinks and/or clubbing at places popular with ex-pats in Djibouti in the evenings, I still feel safer here than I do in much of the USA in terms of fear of being a victim of a violent attack or mass killing.

So, on that note, let me do my part to promote Djibouti tourism by telling you a bit about the great overnight road trip we took in Djibouti via Phoenix Travel Services. We drove to Lac Assal (which we'd visited before), lunched and took a quick swim at the beach in the bay of Goubet, and slept at the campground up in Foret du Day (high elevation, so nice and cool).  The next morning we hiked around the 'forest' (sadly, due to climate change, most of the trees are dead, so it was like visiting a ghost forest. We toured a reforestation program, though) and then crawled through lava tunnels on our drive back to Djiboutiville.

The rare dragon tree is found in Djibouti




Bay of Goubet--great spot for lunch or even camping

Hiking in Foret du Day


The campground huts

more of the campground. Quite civilized camping.




nursery at the Foret du Day reforestation program

We were told this is a highly hallucinogenic plant--traditionally popular at wedding parties


 


climbing lava flows

crawling through lava tubes


 

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Should we Send a Team? A Historical Perspective (A Mission Trip FAQ)

 Here's the scenario: Your congregation, which has excellent ministries in your own community, feels called to get involved in a ministry in a faraway place. Some of your congregants say that you should send a team to offer assistance and build relationships. They want to get to know the leaders and the ministry before making a decision on whether or how much money should be sent. Besides, they say, these trips let us learn from each other in profound life-changing ways. Others are skeptical. They say that the 'help' that teams give is often not helpful and can even be harmful. Too often these trips smell of poverty tourism and are insensitive to those we visit. Considering the thousands of dollars spent on plane tickets, those ministries would be much better off if you just sent financial support instead.

Who is right?  

The practice of sending teams to faraway places for a week or two is relatively new. So new, in fact, that the church is still figuring out the why and how of it. Some readers remember the days before 'mission trips' were commonplace. Back then, international ministries were viewed as solely the domain of professional full-time missionaries. Congregations would collect funds to support these missionaries and the programs at their mission stations. Occasionally, people from the USA would make lengthy visits to these mission stations to help out with specific tasks and train to be a missionary.

By the 1960s, we began to explore the idea that international ministries could be done by people who weren't called to be career missionaries. Instead, regular folks (often recent college graduates) would volunteer to spend a couple years or so sharing their skills and/or testimony of faith in faraway places. President Kennedy was inspired by these such programs when he founded the Peace Corps, which in turn inspired an overall increase of international volunteering.

As airline travel became more affordable, middle-class working folks began using their vacation days to see the world. It didn't take long before many of them got the idea of using their vacations to visit ministries they had supported for years or do something to address the problems they had witnessed in their travels. Over time, some even decided to bypass the old American-managed mission stations and work directly with local church leaders.

When organized volunteering trips began popping up in the 1970s, many rejected as absurd the idea that anything significant could be accomplished over such a short period-- especially when the volunteers were amateurs. However, as more and more Americans returned home from these trips with testimonies of how their eyes had been opened and their understanding of the world transformed, the practice spread like wildfire. By the 1990s and 2000s, these 'mission trips' had become a massive phenomenon.   

Why am I giving this history lesson? 

It is critical that we understand that, 'mission work' as most of us understand it is not "the way we've always done it;" we are learning and evolving. As tech people would say, we're in beta mode, and beta mode is a beautiful thing.

While countless people have written about the ways in which we have unintentionally done (and continue to do) some damaging stuff in the name of 'mission work,' we aren't who we once were. We aren't geniuses yet either, but if we want to get smarter about how we interact with our sisters and brothers around the world, we are going to have to keep putting ourselves out there.

So should you send a team?  If you've been invited and you'd like to go, then I say go for it. But, be sure to

  • Honor the voices of dissent; They are providing constructive criticism.
  • Go to learn; The people leading the ministries you are visiting have much to teach you.
  • Do your homework; Attend a seminar led by VIM or FPM trainers, read books on cross-cultural collaborations, research the region (history, traditions, etc.) and the ministry itself. 
  • Focus on building relationships. Being supportive friends of the ministry's leaders is primary; 'doing stuff' is secondary. 
  • Only offer help that has been requested. (Don't you hate it when someone gives you 'help' you didn't need, but you don't want to hurt the relationship by asking them to stop?) 
  • Follow-up, Follow-up, Follow-up. The only thing short-term about a mission trip is the length of the visit. Have multiple debriefing and 'next-steps' meetings with your team-- even years afterwards. Use the gift of modern technology (ex: video conferencing) so that leaders of programs you wish to assist can lead these strategic planning conversations. 
  • Have fun!

*I am writing with the assumption that most readers are from congregations in the USA and thus focus on history from that perspective. While I am also focusing on international mission trips, much of what I write applies to domestic mission trips as well. 

Recommended Further Reading:

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Why I'll Stop Talking about "Short-Term Mission Trips"



Recently I've read several books and academic papers on the subject of "short term mission trips." I've been gaining new insights and historical perspectives that I look forward to sharing on this blog. That said, from here on out I will be avoiding use of the popular label "short-term" mission trip.

Why? 

I'm glad you asked.

Let's stop and think grammatically about it.  In this case, "short-term" is functioning as an adjective.  But what does it describe? The trip? That would be redundant. The mission? hmmm.. While sometimes that makes sense (just as sometimes candy and alcohol have medicinal purposes), generally speaking, it is a contradiction in terms.  

I argue that a significant percentage of unhealthy mission trip practices would disappear if those going on these trips understood themselves as committing to a life-long relationship with those involved in the ministries they are going to visit. When there isn't a long-term commitment, what we are doing is sending folks on educational voyages/pilgrimages (which can be a very good thing--I just think we need to use a separate name for it).  I'll save that soapbox for another day, though.  ;)

So, until I have a better term, I'll be dropping the 'short-term' when blogging about mission trips.

Taylor 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Land Sailing in the Grand Barra, Djibouti


As part of my on-going campaign to highlight the perks of life in Djibouti, I bring you photos of our embassy's recent land sailing adventure in the Grand Barra. Having no experience, I was nervous at first, but it was quite fun. The place has a shade shelter and tables/chairs, so our group did a pitch-in lunch. There is a also a basic western-style bucket-flush toilet there. 

Tip: Fearing my sunglasses would be insufficient protection from the swirling sand clouds, I brought along my tinted swim goggles. Very glad I did. 


That's me





Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Short-Term Missions: Don't Forget the Importance of Follow-up!

Here's something to chew on:

In Randall Friesen's 2004 DTh in Missiology (via UNISA)  research report titled "The Long-Term Impact of Short-Term Missions on the Beliefs, Attitudes and Behaviors of Young Adults," he found that “post-trip regression in participants’ beliefs, attitudes and behaviors one year after returning from the mission experience was...significant. This regression indicates that inadequate attention is being paid to participant re-entry, debrief and follow-up….It is counter-intuitive to invest discipleship resources on returning short-term mission participants; however, the data indicates that is where the most significant discipleship challenges are found.”

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Mourning Zibi in Djibouti (or, Mourning with Strangers)

Last Thursday evening at the Djibouti Protestant congregation's women's association meeting, Yolanda announced that Zibi had died.  "Who?" was the general response.

Zibi, a Cameroonian footballer had recently moved here on a contract from a Djiboutian team. Between his training schedule and the birth of their son, Zibi and his wife Princess were strangers to most of us at church. But, they had presented themselves to the senior pastor upon their arrival, so as far as the women's association and the church council were concerned, we had a moral responsibility to pay our respects to Princess and offer financial assistance in her hour of need.

And so, last night, there we were-- a menagerie of foreigners (Congolese, Malagasy, Cameroonian, Ethiopian, Swiss, German, French, American, etc.) gathered in the sparsely furnished apartment of a dead man we didn't know so that his widow--a foreigner like us--could ritually mourn his passing with the support of a community of faith. A handful of his teammates--some I'd seen at church--were there as well. Perhaps they were also flatmates.  

Princess sat in the circle with us.  I noticed her bald head (in mourning or her style?), her muscular build (also an athlete?), and the face of an emotionally drained but spiritually strong woman. As we sang, she changed her son's diaper. Her way of mourning that evening reminded me of a friend of mine.

When the church leaders had finished offering all the words, songs, and gifts of comfort they had brought, Princess informed us that Zibi had been a happy man. He wouldn't want to be remembered through songs of mourning. Could we close instead with a joyous song of faith?

And so, we did.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

When Short-Term Mission Trips Make a Difference: A Testimonial

Yup. That's me on the right: my first trip outside the USA.
Critiques of short-term mission trips have been in academic journals for many years, and they've recently started to go viral in the mainstream discourse. I am happy about this dramatic increase in awareness; for too long unhealthy practices have continued on unexamined. If you don't know what I'm talking about, then this blog post was not written for you--not yet, that is.


This post is for those who have been reading books like Toxic Charity and Dead Aid and articles like Why You Should Consider Cancelling Your Mission Trips or Rethinking the $3,000 Mission Trip and need to be reminded to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I'm offering my story as a case study.

About two decades ago, The United Methodist Church's South Indiana Conference gave me a youth scholarship to go to the North Katanga Conference (DR Congo). 

What was the mission? My father had been invited to be the keynote preacher at the conference; his words were so appreciated that the bishop convinced him to preach at the Tanyanika conference too. Dad was also there to witness the distribution of the hundreds of bicycles Hoosiers had helped purchase through the fundraising campaign he had led. I and two of my classmates (brothers), however, were just tagging along for the adventure. 

What did I do/accomplish? I had no skills to contribute or even ability to converse in local languages. I was that girl wearing comical braids, souvenir t-shirts and scandalous shorts. True to stereotype, I had even packed a beloved stuffed animal to sleep with, and my journaling was fairly shallow in the reflection department. 

We teens passed the time by wandering aimlessly around the village and entertaining the crowds of children who followed us. I'm certain that what the local church spent on our regional transport, food, etc. far outweighed anything one could argue they gained from our being there. The two brothers never returned to Katanga. It took me 10 years. 

The brothers (one of which is currently a political science professor in Qatar) can tell you their story some other time. As for me, I now had a stamp in my passport and the big wide world in my heart. That trip set into motion the course of the rest of my life. You tell me: Considering I could not have gone otherwise, Was giving me that scholarship a good use of church funds?

My second international short-term mission trip experience was an "alternative spring break" in Honduras organized by my university's head chaplain who had once been a GBGM missionary there. 

What was our mission? To educate ourselves and give some post-hurricane redevelopment assistance 

What did we do/accomplish? We journeyed to a village in the mountains and met people living there. We listened to stories about their lives and the situation in Honduras. We carried some construction blocks up a hill for a bit. We spent a day visiting the Mayan ruins in Copan. We got to have casual intellectual conversations with a couple of our university's international development professors who were on the team. We did souvenir shopping; I bought textiles and splurged on a fantastic carved trunk. I highlight the shopping part because purchasing items from local artisans was my main contribution to Honduras on that trip. I'm assuming that based on who was our leader, our hosts did not suffer financially from our visit. I have not returned since then; I don't know about the other students.  You tell me: Was this a better alternative to spending spring break lounging around in, say, Florida?  

I was recruited for my third international mission trip--offered all expenses paid by the Timmy Foundation for a month in Haiti.

What was my mission? Stick around a few weeks after the main team left to play big sister to a couple of inexperienced volunteers and report back to the foundation my observations about the medical school that they were being asked to assist. Coincidentally, most of the folks on the team were members of a very large United Methodist congregation in Indiana--including its senior pastor. 

What did I/we do/accomplish? I have no medical skills; only some on the team did. The unskilled entertained children while the doctors and nurses opened a pop-up clinic. I am still haunted by the desperate mother who was there each day; she had spent everything she had to save her child with encephalitis. We did not provide the help she sought. Later, we played with kids at an orphanage. (A woman on the team later tried to adopt one of the girls, but her request was refused by the orphanage director.) 

We were hosted by a woman who had returned home to Haiti after earning her doctorate and was trying to get a medical school off the ground. I unexpectedly became a substitute teacher at a boarding school for troubled Haitian-American youth that our host was running on the same compound. Upon my return to Indiana, I reported back the foundation and team leaders that there was something fishy about the orphanage and that the school's founder/director, while passionate and inspiring, had so many projects in the air that she had stretched herself to the point of poor management of all of them. By the time I gave this report, however, the congregation had already resolved to put their support behind the school and dismissed my recommendations as lacking vision/faith and/or proper respect for its director. I've not been back to Haiti; I'm not sure what happened after I walked away, but it appears that the foundation no longer sends teams there, and the congregation is involved in projects in another part of the country.

Ma Tante 
This last-minute joining of the trip occurred during one of the bleakest chapters of my faith walk. I had just completed my MA in international development and was feeling quite discouraged about the state of the world and my ability to change it. Either God didn't exist or God was a jerk; either way, we were no longer on talking terms. That's when Ma Tante (Aunty) walked into my bedroom. Despite her advanced dementia and my limited Creole, she preached to me coherently for half an hour straight, and I understood exactly what she was saying. She commanded me to get on my knees and pray for my faith to be saved. She proclaimed with confidence that God was preparing me for ministry with those who are suffering. She spoke with such authority that she brought me to tears. Later, when I informed her niece, the school's director, she responded nonchalantly: "Ma tante spent years as an evangelist; she probably just slipped back into that role for a moment." Aunty didn't remember me when I saw her again that day, but I still remember her. I've kept her photo prominently displayed for over a decade--a daily reminder to snap out of it, pray for faith, and go do what I've been trained to do.  You tell me: Is the world a better place because of that trip?


If you haven't noticed, the theme here has been the impact such trips have had on the quality of my life and ministry. It's a common theme among those who have been on such trips. In fact, I'm looking forward to reading a book I just heard about: Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience, which appears to make a similar observation. I suppose a better question to be asking isn't whether short-term mission trips are valuable experiences but whether we are being honest with ourselves about who benefits from them and the implications from that.  I assert that we are getting more out of these trips than we are contributing. Perhaps, then, the challenge is to figure out how to do a better job of balancing the equation.

Shameless plug:  Friendly Planet Missiology has teamed up with the NC Jurisdiction Mission Discovery program, the IN UMC Volunteers in Mission program, and IN United Methodist Women to offer a chance for up to 7 lucky young adults (age 18-30) to travel with us to discover North Katanga. Application deadline closes very soon, so drop us a line immediately if you want in on the action. We're sure it will be life changing. 

Sunday, March 02, 2014

What is Mission?

Church Retreat/Member Baptism on Maskali Island, Djibouti: A Mission Trip?
The word  mission is used so frequently in the Church that it is easy to assume that we all know and agree on what it means. In truth, the answer(s) are complex and debated. Since I've recently been accepted in a doctorate in missiology (the systematic study of mission) program, you'd think I'd be able to offer a simple straightforward definition.  In truth, the more I read/reflect on the subject, the more possibilities I discover.  Below is an early beta version of my answers.  I fully expect to revise this post over the next several years.  Contributions welcome. 






mission
/ˈmiSHən/
noun

1) Primary purpose/task
  •  The Mission of the Church (What God has called the Church to do, Its primary task)--This too is debated. In what ways are the Mission of the Church and the Mission of God the same? Does the act of becoming a Christian makes one's mission in life the same as the Church's? It is possible for denominations to have different principal purposes, or are we debating interpretations of the same call?  The United Methodist Church's current mission statement, for example, declares its Mission to be "Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." However, the beginning of the preamble of The UMC's constitution states "Under the discipline of the Holy Spirit the Church exists for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers, and the redemption of the world.
  • God/the universe's Mission for all people --   Love?  
2) A journey one is sent on to accomplish an important task (in the Christian context, God is the sender)

          examples: the mission of Starship Enterprise, soldiers and secret agents given/sent on missions, a mission from God to put the band back togetheretc

3) Important task that someone(s) is given to do (in the Christian context, the tasks are given to us but the mission belongs to God)

This is where the usage of the word mission starts to get muddled. Do we call every task we believe God has asked us to do our mission? Are call and mission synonyms? Prof Lovett Weems teaches that mission is “what God calls the church to do. It is the purpose of a church...Vision, on the other hand, while grounded in the mission, is that to which God is calling the congregation to do in the near future to advance the mission.” (page 92 of Take the Next Step) Weems argues that what is often labeled as our mission is actually our vision of how to respond to our Mission. The potential semantic implications of making such a distinction strain my brain. Would that mean that I'm a missiologist specializing in vissiology?  Until I've made my conclusions, I've decided to start typing (M)ission and (m)ission to distinguish between the big Mission and specific missions, but maybe, though, you'll spot me starting to type vision where one would expect to find mission.

4) A building/center whose primary purpose is to do the Mission of the Church.

The distinction between a church and mission is often determined by who pays the paychecks and utility bills. Another distinction seems to be whether organized worship or the alleviation of suffering is viewed as the primary function of the building.  I'd be interested in finding commentaries on when/why we call a mission a mission and not a church.

adjective
5) ?

The meaning of mission as an adjective is tricky. Examples include: mission trips, mission projects, mission committees, mission speakers, mission Sunday, mission giving, etc. In every example I've been able to think of, when mission is used as an adjective in American churches, it generally refers to activities of the congregation involving doing something for financially struggling people outside of the social circles of the congregation's membership. The most popular of these activities include (re)constructing buildings, providing food, digging wells, offering medical services, providing objects (books, clothes, shoes, bed nets, etc), providing entertainment to poor children, and teaching classes. More recently, micro-credit, marketing fair trade goods and offering matching grants have been gaining traction. A small but growing number of Christians are experimenting with other alternatives, some of which are featured in Robert Lupton's must-read Toxic Charity. In some churches, mission work also refers to efforts to convert individuals to Christianity; in others, this is put in a separate semantic category: evangelization. Another thing to note about mission when used as an adjective is that it often refers to activities not financed by one's tithes; a 'second mile' of giving is required to fund them. Except for a handful of people who are called to mission work, participation in such activities is presented as optional and/or bite-sizable (one week of volunteering per year or a few evenings per month).     .....................  I hope you see where I'm going with this, so I'll just lift up a couple more questions I'm pondering:  If Mission is the primary task God has given us in our life, why does mission as it is used as an adjective not carry the same weight? Or this one: if all the other things we do at church aren't mission work, then what are they and why are we doing them?  Let's discuss.

A few great comments about mission to chew on:

"Mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God." --David J. Bosch
"It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church." --Jurgen Moltmann
"We understand mission as the "cutting edge" of a Christian community, that is, its attempts to change the world through projects of evangelism, healing, teaching, development or liberation." University of South Africa's Missiology Department