reflections on life

In a number of ways, life “post-Tanzania” will not be the same as life “pre-Tanzania.”

For one, today is my first day working from home as a freelance writer rather.  That reality is both exciting and terrifying.  How do I begin?  What if I fail, and I don’t get paid enough?  Will I be able to manage my time in a responsible way?  I am entrusting these questions — along with the innumerable others — to God, who holds my life in the palm of his hand.  He is in control.  He will be my guide and provider.

Today is also the day I begin my work as the recreation coordinator at a local youth center.  Again, this both excites and terrifies me.  Will the kids like me?  Will my presence have any noticeable impact on them at all?  Will the activities I help plan connect with them in the least?  Will my lack of Spanish fluency hurt my influence in that place?  Again, these are out of my hands at this point. (except maybe the Spanish part … gotta get down to Central America for some language school!)

Third, I think we both have a slightly different outlook having visited Africa.  Those who have visited Africa know that it has consistently gotten screwed in its long history — crusaders and occupiers, corrupt leadership and government handouts, damaging missions and unhelpful Non-Government Organizations, to name a few.  The continent seems to be reeling from all this, and everyone seems to be out to take care of themselves.  Who can blame them, really?  Things just don’t work as smoothly, efficiently — read: “well” — in Africa.  Forward thinking is almost non-existent, and when it is there it is almost always self-serving.  In short, it is an all-around frustrating place for a person from the West to visit, let alone live.

Tanzania is the 11th poorest nation in the world.  We saw some incredible poverty.  Naked, dirty babies; crippled beggars; run-down shacks; mountains of rank garbage — the works.  How can we live the way we’ve been living with the knowledge — and the photos to prove — that this level of poverty exists?  How is sending a check to corrupt African governments actually improving the lives of the babies, the beggars, the single mothers?  (Answer: it’s not)  Are the Christian communities on the continent making any noticeable difference in addressing these issues?  From our experience and conversations with friends who live in Africa, I think the answer is again a general “no.”

The first Sunday we were with our friends in Moshi, TZ, we attended a local church.  The service started off extremely refreshing — joyful, loud praise music in Swahili.  Then the American got up to speak.  He spoke of his desire for the congregation to become “less African” because the gospel erases all racial divisions.  He spoke of the financial abundance that is triggered when a person writes a check for more money than they can give and brings it to the pastor.  He spoke excitedly about a church in Zimbabwe — one of Africa’s poorest countries — that had recently built a $10 million building to house its more than 12,000 members, saying that this church’s “success” came as a result of sacrificial tithing.  He asserted that the way of Jesus was one of power … of loudly voicing one’s beliefs … of “taking nations for Christ” — by force.

The whole sermon, which lasted far too long than it should have, made me extremely uncomfortable.  It was as if he was speaking an unintelligible language.  He was preaching an Americanized, charismatic prosperity message in a context that is so far from that it’s not even funny.  What if these people never leave poverty?  What if they don’t build a $10 million building or grow to 12,000 members?  Does that mean God hasn’t blessed them?  Did they not pray hard enough?  Is it OK for these sweet Tanzanians to be — get this — both “poor” and “blessed?”  I was pretty much sickened by the cultural insensitivity of this preacher and message, but luckily, I’m not sure it took.  In other words, I think he may have been just a little too “out there” to have any lasting impact on this little community of believers.  Thank God.

There’s no telling the damage that the West has done on Africa with its brand of Christianity.  Our friends there say with confidence that in all their travels on the continent, they’ve never visited an authentically African church.  Why is that?  Is it because the westerners can’t keep their grubby hands off of it long enough for it to be culturally appropriate?  Is it because Africans are made to believe that the Western faith is the ONLY faith, and those who don’t accept this aren’t appointed as leaders?  Is it a fear of syncretism with the local folk beliefs?  Might many of those in the mix not know any better?  I’m not sure exactly, but I would guess it’s a combination of these and more factors.

I’m thankful that our good friends in Tanzania are looking to break this trend.  More on how they are doing this in a later blog post.

———————

This is late news, of course, but many of you will be happy to know that my brother’s band, Homer Hiccolm and the Rocketboys, won the Sound and Jury contest and played at last weekend’s Austin City Limits music festival!  They beat out 300 bands who entered the contest and were voted on by fans and a celebrity panel of judges to earn the spot.   This was indeed an amazing honor, but these guys are good for it — they’ve worked hard in the 2 1/2 years of being a band.  Go check out these great ACL 4-minute features about HHRB leading up to the finale, and go listen to their tunes if you haven’t.  Oh, and buy their new EP — “Sing, Bird, Sing” — from their mySpace page when it’s released on September 27th.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Indeed too many people in the U.S. think they “invented” christianity. My husband (from Russia) has often commented on that. WE (the U.S.) think we have all the answers, and doggone it, you’re going to do it our way. VERY frustrating.

    Reply

  2. Thanks for the Africa report.

    Your description brings me shudders, as well as painful reminders of my own African journey (summer ’91 – rural South Africa).

    That was the trip that made me never want to have anything to do with missions again. Funny…

    Reply

  3. Interestingly enough, Richard Becks’ latest blog post seems to speak almost directly to what is buzzing around this post: the idea of empathy and our proper ethical response. If only we allowed ourselves to identify with those whom we tend to dismiss for reasons of personal discomfort, it would change the entire way we situate ourselves in this world. This, of course, should be the motto for every single inclination toward missions or missonal living, but even on a basic,”I’m a human, you’re a human” level, we could all stand to treat each other like legitimate beings worthy of respect and not just painful background noise to change into a different tune. I look forward to the rest of your reflections on your trip.

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  4. What is an authentic “African” church?

    What if the way they practice worship is the only way that they have ever known? The only way that their parents have every known?

    I am not suggesting that the TZ churches are not without fault and that western influence is not partly to blame, but seriously what would an “African” church look like?

    If people never moved around to talk about their faith what would happen? There are very positive ways to be involved in the world outside of your community and we should seek those out. Not shy away from them.

    Over involvement lead to many bad things, but uninvolvement is not the answer.

    (I am in Uganda so if anyone replies it will be at least 24 hours before I can respond)

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  5. I understand your frustrations with American church culture taking over churches throughout the world. I’ve had the opportunity to spend a decent amount of time in Europe, and I’ve seen the same thing there, especially this past summer in Romania. Romania, of all the countries in Europe, is probably most like the situation in Africa because of the common factor of poverty (though the poverty level is assuredly more drastic in Africa). But I’ve seen it in other countries and other churches. And it breaks my heart. Who are we as Americans to go spreading such lies about what the church is and should be? We’ve got enough problems within our own cultural context that we need to be working on and allowing God to change; why spread the disease of materialistic and self-centered “Christianity” any further? Can we not allow God to be God and allow Him to work in His people throughout the world in the ways He chooses and sees fit? An indictment and a challenge. And God will help us if we’ll allow Him to open our hearts and change us.

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  6. just out of curiousity, is there some notion that if American and other western churches never left their home soil that other churches throughout the world would be less messed up? I would accept the argument that they might be differently messed up, but come on what are we really talking about here?

    Further, Babylon and other evil nations have been used by God in the past to accomplish his goals, so should we not expect that God is able to use the (possibly misguided) efforts of western missionaries?

    The reason I am pushing this issue is that I feel like it is so easy to “take the piss” out of western culture and American churches, but would someone give me a viable alternative? So some church dynamics are less than perfect, but that is the reality we find ourselves in.

    What is a constructive way forward?

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  7. i’ve thought a lot about your post, steve, and how i want to respond. i don’t want to diminish the experiences that you and chrissy had in tanzania, but i do want to question the generalized nature of some of the comments in your post.
    first, you spent two weeks in tanzania. do you really feel that qualifies you to say, “The continent seems to be reeling from all this, and everyone seems to be out to take care of themselves. Who can blame them, really? Things just don’t work as smoothly, efficiently — read: “well” — in Africa. Forward thinking is almost non-existent, and when it is there it is almost always self-serving.”? perhaps this statement summarizes a portion of the attitude present in one very small part of the continent of africa, but surely there are many people in many countries in africa who do care for others. i am having a really hard time with your statement here because, to me, it sounds exceptionally ethnocentric. where houston and i are in gulu, i can think of many local people who stand out in direct opposition to your statement. additionally, in regard to “forward thinking” it seems smart to take into account a variety of factors that contribute to what westerners deem “fatalism.” i am starting to develop the opinion that this label is counterproductive. when you stop and think about the fact that in uganda alone, many people die young and often – the lack of forward planning might be a much more realistic way of living life in contrast to the american idealism that pretends we never grow old.
    second, you answer no to the question “Are the Christian communities on the continent making any noticeable difference in addressing these issues?”. i can say that here in gulu the local religious community (ugandan led) has rallied together and formed an advocacy group for peace that is composed of muslims, catholics, anglicans, and orthodox believers. when night commuting was still a reality in gulu, the heads of these communities would sleep on the street with children to help ensure their safety. this group has constantly plead the case of vulnerable people and has attempted to protect the many groups affected by the conflict here. perhaps in tanzania, some christian communities are failing to radically impact the lives of the poor and oppressed but this is certainly not a phenomenon that spans the 53 countries in the continent. i imagine that you might take offense if the same statement was made and applied across the board to all christian communities in north america, for example.
    houston and i love and support you and chrissy – and we hope you never doubt that, even with me coming down a little hard here. i know your heart and know that you did not intend for your comments to come across in a negative way. i want you to know that i do believe your experiences are valid and that they do represent part of the reality in tanzania. however, i also believe it would be a disservice to the many incredible people i know who are serving selflessly and who are forward thinking, or the many christian communities that are innovative in their response to poverty. our staff here at invisible children are a great example about this, and i would be more than happy to tell you about the sacrifices they make daily.
    i think we owe it to the great diversity and strength present in the many countries in the continent of africa to tell their story accurately. i hope that your blog and ours can be a place of honest reflection and truth so that people who have not had the chance to visit gulu or tanzania can be better informed and educated about these great places.

    Reply

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