Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Started! (At Last)

When I arrived in the Central African Republic in the fall of 2012, one of the first tasks the Christian Education director talked to me about was finding better Sunday school materials.  We searched and discussed and planned.  We became aware of the lessons (in four books) written by members of LUCSA (Lutheran Communion in Southern Africa). (I think by now they have even more book…) The problem was that the books are in English. 

So, cooperative effort!  The Directors of Christian Education from EELC (Cameroon) and EELRCA (Central African Republic) meet (with me) in Garoua Boulai in the summer of 2013 to create a plan to translate the books in to French (for Cameroon) and Sango (for CAR).  We also explored the cost of printing 1,000 copies of each for congregations and created a plan (and budget) that included training teachers on the new material and its pedagogy.  As you can imagine, this is a huge undertaking which will cost a lot of money in the long run.  We submitted a request to ELCA Global Gifts and waited.

Monday and Tuesday of this week, the Directors of Christian Education and their assistants met to get the task off the ground.  Why did it take so long for us to get this started?  I think you can
imagine: insecurity in CAR, more than anything else.  We could not ask the people from Baboua to risk their lives while the road was frequently being attached by bandits.  Now, though, with UN escorts, small cars (the Central African equivalent of buses) can safely travel Cantonnier – Bouar without problems.  It is slower because travelers must wait until the convoy is ready to leave – around 10 a.m. from Baboua – and go at the slower pace in order to stay together.  Still, they can arrive without being stopped by bandits. (Picture L-R: Jean Diouf Ndoungue, Bernatte Mboudga, Dr. Joseph Ngah, Rev. Maurice Kemane, Dr. Susan Smith)

The meeting in GB (sort of a mid-way point between N’gaoundéré and Baboua) had to be scheduled over two days.  To travel the 250 km from N’gaoundéré takes three hours in a private vehicle and 3 ½ - 4 hours or longer in a bus. Monday, Dr. Ngah and Mme Mborodga got to the station at 6:30 a.m. (the projected time of departure).  They actually left at 8:20 and didn’t arrive in GB until 2 p.m.  (Even in Cameroon where travel is “easier,” it is not without complications!)  Rev. Kemane and Mr. Ndoungue from Baboua had a shorter distance but the need to wait for the escort; they arrived at 11:15. 

Despite these difficulties, we were able to meet for several hours on Monday and a couple more Tuesday morning before those from out of town (everyone by me!) had to reverse their travel.

Here’s the basics of what we decided.  We have a copy of the first four Sunday school manuals written by LUCSA; we will begin with Book 1 that has 54 lessons (one for each week of the year, more or less).  It needs to be translated into French and Sango, but there are not a lot of people qualified to do the work from English to Sango.  Christian Education of EELC will be responsible for getting the work translated into French.  Later, Christian Education of will get the lessons translated from French to Sango.  In the meantime, the Central African director will supervise an artist(s) who will draw pictures for each Bible story used in the lessons. 

The total task is huge!  Translate four books into two languages; draw two images for each story; get everything printed (we figure 1,000 copies for each of the two church bodies); train Sunday school teachers and pastors (who supervise)… and I am sure a thousand small steps in between that we are not aware of yet! 

Nevertheless, the sense of the meeting this week is, “Alleluia!  We have started!”  We’ll figure out the rest as we go along, with the help of God.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Leading While Being a Servant

I have been reflecting a lot recently on this Biblical passage from Mark: “And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45 RSV)

How do we live in positions of responsibility (those who rule in some capacity) and yet serve – or even more, be a slave to all?  Who are those who are in such positions?  Do those of us who believe that leaders should serve have an obligation to challenge leaders who don’t serve? 

Why am I thinking about these things so much recently?  The world is full of exploding violence; people who are acting out against others who are not like them; immigrants facing incredible difficulties as they flee horrendous home situations; police in the USA (and elsewhere, no doubt) shooting those they are to “protect and serve.”  Are the men who have taken over the national park in Oregon terrorist or not?  Is the world worse that it was?  Or, are things just visible in a different way than they were 50 or 100 years ago?

I will say right up front that I don’t have answers.  I guess that is another reason I continue to think about these questions. 

I believe that is it normal for cultures to create ways to establish who is “in” the group and those who are the “other.”  It is natural that people get comfortable with what they have and want to maintain it.  It seems normal that when others want what we have, we feel threatened and strike out.  But, is “normal” right? 

Should immigrants be allowed into a country/state/town?  A knee-jerk reaction, too often, is “NO!  They will take our jobs/resources.  They will lower property values.  There will be terrorists among them.”  I would like to think that reading history would moderate this reaction.  In the USA, each new wave of immigrants was stigmatized and ostracized.  In various places it happened to the Italians, Irish, Jews, Eastern Europeans, Africans.  It was worse for the latter group because they couldn’t learn English, change their names and clothing in order to “blend in.”  The group in the USA that had the biggest right to feel threatened was the Native Americans whose homes and land were stolen as they were chased further west and then onto reservations. 

Global climate change, I believe, is related to these same questions.  No one wants to give up the level of comfort they currently have – in fact, most want to have more – even if it means we are damning future generations.  It seems we can tell “developing” countries to limit their use of power (electric, especially) and consummation of limited natural resources, but are we willing to do the same?  We say, “Yes, we cut down the majority of our forests and have suburban sprawl eating up more and more land.  Learn from us!  Don’t follow our example.”  But, what right do we have to limit access to modern technology, conveniences, and power-greedy appliances when we demand more and more of them for ourselves?

Do the actions of objectifying women, raping them, demeaning them, and passing laws limiting what they can do really make men more important?  More powerful?  When people in any position of authority demand a bribe to do their job, do they really feel better about themselves because of what they can now buy or the fact that they could demand something of others and get it?  Aren’t fear and insecurity about one’s identity really the root causes?  It takes a strong leader to be a servant (despite fear and personal insecurity). 

Privilege exists.  Certainly White privilege exists.  Colonizers everywhere insisted on it.  Affluence and habit reinforce it.  Here, I can speak with clarity even greater than when I was living in the USA.  I have electricity (a lot of the time) and running water (usually); I live in a large house – bigger than I need.  (And, before I came I lived in a large house – bigger than I needed.)  I can buy what I need and most often what I want.  I have so much more than the vast majority of people here.  Privilege.  OK, my salary comes from ELCA in dollars, but there are others who get good salaries who would find it more difficult to get what I have.  And, then, there are lots who live hand-to-mouth with very little. 

People in Cameroon and CAR defer to me – often, everywhere.  I was chatting with a Central African who now sells telephone credit at a small stand here in GB.  It was complicated explaining why I didn’t buy credit from him.  (The answer is, as often happens in the USA, I have an account, can make as many calls as I want a month, and pay at the end of the month; few Cameroonians or Central Africans have that privilege.)  Toward the end of the conversation, he asked that I stop by to talk to him more often.  He said that talking to a white person would help him advance.  I must have looked doubtful (shocked?) because he said that those who get and follow advice from white people can do better in business.  I would like to help him discover that he has all the intelligence he needs, but given differences in educational opportunities, refugee status, and income levels, is intelligence alone enough?  What would you do in a situation like this to counter the strong belief that white is better? 

When you are asked to sit up front (near the altar) in a church service just because you are white, what would you do?  If you refuse, you insult the people.  If you accept, you reinforce the privilege. 

I heard a church leader here say that he never walks anywhere because it is below the dignity of his office.  Well, here is a stand that is easy for me.  I walk most everywhere I go.  Shopkeepers in town sometimes offer to pay for me to go home on a motorcycle taxi, but I refuse explaining that walking is good exercise.  I am breaking one stereotype about leaders (and white people) with this small action.  (Maybe this is not a good example of me going out of my way to change perceptions since I like walking and it is genuinely what I prefer.)

If you hear that a church leader has raised his own salary despite the fact that the budget has been in the red for years, is it your (our) place to challenge that person?  If you (we) are living at the expense of others or living a privileged life without paying attention (or realizing it), is it necessary/appropriate for others to challenge us?  If we are challenged, can we listen and hear?

When fear, or its offspring hate, dominates conversations about refugees, immigrants, shootings, etc., how do we open dialogue in ways that calm fears instead of inflaming them?  When groups are so polarized (especially political parties) that they react to a person of another group without listening to what is said, and, react with inflammatory language, how do you (we) open doors.  Too many have let belittling others so that they can fell better about themselves become a habit – a knee-jerk reaction.  I believe that the message from Jesus calls us to listen, to understand why someone else feels the way s/he does, without trying to convert him/her.  We see the humanity in the “other.” We can even find common ground. 

I am making some small decisions to try to be a servant leader (besides walking to get where I am going). 
·      When I see Facebook postings, I have decided not to read those that demean the “other.”  My clues?  Words filled with negative connotations, like: “[politician] just slapped down attack on [another politician];  Why the hell isn’t…; Professors hated [politician]; __ sent brutal response to ___; ___ is a piece of garbage.  (People from “both sides” use this kind of language – and who said there were only two sides anyway?!?) I will certainly not share those and I will do my best to be respectful of everyone when I write messages and/or share postings. 
·      I am trying to listen more and talk less.  I like the quote (from I can’t remember who) that says when you listen you learn; when you talk you are sharing what you already know, not gaining wisdom.  This is hard for me.  (Look, I have been “talking” for 2 ½ pages already!)  But, I think it is important.  Good leaders know what others think, feel, believe, and want/need. 
·      Listening has to happen in meetings, too.  I am making efforts to allow those I work with to take responsibility for their actions and for the direction of the project (or whatever).  I believe I have knowledge (and maybe some wisdom) to offer, but I hope to share it through questions that the participants need to answer so that they can work out for themselves what is best for the situation.  (This is hard, too, when people often want to be told, want to allow another to take responsibility, and/or don’t know how to step up to the plate themselves.) 

I am sure there is more I could do.  What are your thoughts on this topic?  I would be happy if this were more of a dialogue than a monologue.  What small (and large) steps can we take to be the servant leaders that Jesus calls us to be? 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Happy New Year!

As 2016 starts, I am reflecting on how much  I appreciate those around me who have opened their homes and families to me when I could not be with my own.  For many holidays in Pittsburgh, I did not travel to be with my parents or siblings.  A couple of good friends regularly invited me to celebrate with them.  This year in Garoua Boulai the same thing happened on New Year’s Eve.  Gbabiri David had a family reunion that day/evening but still opened his house to a couple of us who were away from family.  I am very grateful to David and his family – and I had a great evening!

In Cameroon, the President, Paul Biya, makes a speech on New Year’s Eve.  (I can’t imagine a US president doing that – people are too intent on partying Dec. 31 and watching football Jan. 1 – hence our state of the union address later in January…)  It was shown at 8 p.m. followed by a round table of people discussing the content and interviewing people from around the country.  At the end of that program, his message was broadcast again.  We didn’t see his speech (either time) but did see part of the analysis, including a message from the mayor of Garoua Boulai.  The mayor is Lutheran and often attends the same French service that I do.  When I saw her yesterday, she commented on my not having been in church New Year’s Day.  (I admit it; after having gotten home at 2 a.m., I slept in and then got off to a slow start on Jan. 1!)  I agreed that I had not been present, but that I had seen her on television Dec. 31.  She said, “Well, then, you are really Cameroonian!”

Bible School students at my house (with me)
I decided that during this holiday season, I would reach out to more people in Garoua Boulai, so on different days these people came to my house for a meal:  Elisabeth, the wife of a doctor at the hospital here who is currently completing a training program in Mbingo; Marie Chantal, a doctor who has been at the hospital in GB for about a year (whose husband is studying in Ottawa); and Solofo and Joely, the two Malagasy doctors in town (who also invited me to their house Jan. 1).  The Bible School students who didn’t go to their home districts also came for a drink and meal (that they prepared) on Jan. 1.  They brought music, too!  (I took few pictures this holiday season; instead I spent more time enjoying the company I was with.)

This weekend, I am hobnobbing with the “elite.” Yesterday, the regional bishop and his wife went to dinner with me.  While at the restaurant we saw the mayor who invited us to dine at her house today!  I can’t imagine being in the same “crowd” in Pittsburgh, but GB is a smaller town – and the bishop lives across the street from me, so I see him often. 

I found out during this holiday that the Cameroonian brewery has developed a new beer called Tango that is a mixture of Beaufort (a lager they already made/make) and grenadine.  Had they told me in advance what it was, I might not have tried it.  I can definitely say that mixing beer with a fruit drink does not work for me!  But, I can now say I have had one.  We have to be open to trying new things, right??

I leave you with a picture of part of the Christmas decorations from church.  They make arches of tall palms and then add hibiscus flowers and ribbons.  There were arches outside the front door, on the pillars near the front of the pews, and on the wall behind the altar.  (They also had a small, artificial (dare I say tacky?) Christmas tree with lights and decorations at the side of the altar.  Needless to say, I prefer the natural decorations.  Aren’t the flowers gorgeous?  Not traditional for Christmas in Pennsylvania, but then, I live in the tropics! 

May 2016 bring you opportunities to grow and stretch.  May all of our actions contribute to more peace in the world this year than last. 

Oh, and, happy 9th Day of Christmas!