Saturday, September 20, 2014

Heart FOR Africa in the Heart OF Africa

It’s as close to a scene out of the African Queen movie as you can get. Situated on the banks of the Wamba river in DRC, even the name of the village sounds perfect: Kikongo.

Proving that Kikongo is at the Heart of Africa!
But that’s where the similarity to a 19th century story-book safari ends. Why? First, our visit to Kikongo started with a 59 minute flight in a Cessna 206 piloted by MAF program manager, Nick Frey. Second, instead of the romanticism of a jungle rainforest, we discover some of the tough, realities of mission work in the center of present-day Congo.

Glen and Rita Chapman both grew up in Kikongo as missionary kids. Now, they’ve been serving in this same place for almost three decades with the American Baptist mission. After a mid-morning snack served in the dining room of the house Rita’s grandparents built, we head out to tour the hospital and pastors’ school.

“Some of the things we see happening now are really discouraging and make us wonder if our time of service should end soon. The hospital no longer has adequate funds to maintain normal lab equipment and most doctors find they can make more money selling cheap Chinese medicines in neighboring towns than providing good service here,” Rita explains.

Glen demonstrating his "magnificent flying machine!"
At the pastors’ institute, Rita tells about an even more complex problem. “Self-trained pastors are coming into this area preaching a new version of the prosperity gospel based on an unhealthy preoccupation with spiritual warfare. By instilling fear in the local people about the power of Satan and evil spirits, they find a profitable business offering special prophesy and deliverance prayers for those who will pay for it in order to gain spiritual protection. Churches like these are popping up all over devastating our own congregations. Strong theological training is desperately needed for future pastors, but this competition is challenging their motivation for training altogether.

Despite these discouragements, Glen and Rita carry on with dogged and even creative endurance. A newly, MAF-installed satellite antennae gives them 24-7 connection to the Internet and regular ministry updates on Facebook. And thanks to help from missionary inventor, Steve Saint, Glen regularly flies a powered parachute at tree-top level to nearby villages in order to show the Jesus Film.

Cruising the Wamba River
But the Chapman’s real love for the land and its people is revealed on our dugout canoe ride across the Wamba for lunch at a neighboring village. Showing us the way, they help us dig our fingers into a meal of fish, plantains, squash seed, fermented manioc and stewed greens with caterpillars. It’s clear how much at home they are in this setting and how loved they are by these villagers. It helps me understand the pain in their eyes when they explain the troubling changes happening around them.

“Too bad you didn’t bring your swimming suits,” Glen yells above the din of the outboard motor on our way back to the airstrip for our flight home. “The water’s perfect. . . and the crocodiles stay pretty much in the swamps at this time of day!”

Glen and Rita—I thank God for you and pray for His strength and wisdom as you continue serving Him in this challenging “Heart of Africa.”

Glen and Rita Chapman

Friday, September 19, 2014

Catalytic Boost

The Democratic Republic of Congo is not exactly known for its great reputation of unity. Rampant tribalism and ethnic divisions have kept this country fragmented for years, even within the church community.  That’s why the meeting I attended this week in Kinshasa was so unusual.

I’ve been hosting a first-time visit to DRC by two friends who represent a missions-minded American foundation and thought it would be good for them to hear first-hand reports from national church leaders. Thinking we could have a nice, intimate conversation with ten or fifteen leaders, I was surprised to see our room packed out with over forty-five men and women representing most key national churches and ministries.

In order to help my friends gain a broad perspective, I asked each participant to address questions related to evangelism strategy successes and hindrances. Although each report started out addressed to my guests, it soon changed as people in the room began realizing they were hearing things from each other they had not known before. This was especially true between resource providers, like Scripture Union or Crusade and the actual church denominations that have been struggling to implement new evangelism strategies. It was pretty cool watching the lights come in the eyes of these men and women as they began swapping business cards right there during the meeting in order to connect later.

Equally impressive to me was the long detailed list of obstacles and hindrances discussed during the meeting. Going far beyond the typical gripe of not having enough money, these folks listed sophisticated issues such as lack of credibility of those ministering to professional businessmen, cultural differences over the issue of possessing more than one wife, and racial discrimination between bantu Africans and newly converted pygmy Christians.

By the end of the day, six themes emerged as topics everyone agreed needed more follow-up: youth outreach, holistic evangelism, church planting methods, media, electronic technology, and leadership training. Before we parted for the day, a plan was set up for future meetings on each topic.

Little did I dream that an innocent request for an informational meeting would eventually become a catalytic boost of encouragement toward partnering together in national evangelism for DRC.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Listening Centers

100%!  The answer she finally gave was 100%.

Want to know what the question was? You’ll have to read to the end of this blog.

It’s not every day that I get asked to host someone on a first-time visit to Kinshasa, DRC. For the past couple of days, that’s what I’ve been doing-- introducing two representatives of a significant, mission-minded American foundation to key national church and ministry leaders from this huge country. One of those is Bishop Nyamuke, who has been sharing about five different elements of a national evangelization strategy that includes helping children develop a healthy, Christian world-view.

“We have over 18,000 schools in our country managed by Protestant churches,” he explained. “But even though we are free to teach biblical truth, it’s not happening. Over five million children enter our schools as pagans at  first grade and leave twelve years later still as pagans.”

To emphasize the need for youth outreach further, Nyamuke arranged an entire afternoon for us with school children from two different churches. Through songs and testimonies and even a fiery mini-sermon by a sixteen year old boy, we learned about some of the cool things being promoted among Congo churches. One is the eleven Listening Centers that have been established recently throughout the city of Kinshasa.

Yvonne and her children groups sharing with us in Kinshasa, DRC
“We have learned that many children struggle with deep emotional needs and yet have no place within their families, schools or churches to talk about it,” said Yvonne, one Nyamuke’s designated youthwork trainers. “Now we’re training school chaplains specifically how to listen and sensitively deal with children who are willing to come and open up about their issues.” As we probed further with Yvonne about the types of things children grapple with, we learned that a big one is the sexual abuse of young Congolese girls by fathers, uncles, brothers and other males in their community. 

That’s when I asked my question: “Yvonne, what would you guess is the percentage of teenage and pre-teenage girls in Congo that experience either sexual abuse or harassment?” She paused for a long time before answering, her face becoming quite sober. “Basically one hundred percent,” she said.

For the next three months, I have the privilege of having my four-year-old granddaughter, Elizabeth, living in our home while my daughter’s family is in the USA on furlough.  When I stop and think about Elizabeth growing up in an unsafe world that that had virtually 100% certainty of sexual abuse, it just turns my stomach. And yet, it sounds like that is what every young girl can expect growing up in Congo—and I would suspect a good share of the rest of Africa as well.

If there ever was a time, place and reason for biblical transformation of cultural values, even in African Christian communities, it is this issue in the Congo and it is now!  Thank God for Bishop Nyamuke, Yvonne and Listening Centers that are now beginning to do something about it.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Seeds of Hope

The demonstration flowed through the center of town. Bodies of those killed during the previous night were carried along to accentuate the point that international security forces were far from making this city a place of peace. This time it was primarily Muslims protesting the indiscriminate killing of their kind by the Antibalaka—a self-proclaimed vigilante group committed to ridding Central Africa Republic (CAR) of Islam. Although the international media consistently identifies the Antibalaka as Christians fighting again Muslims, nothing could be farther from the truth. Claiming powers from witch-doctor hexes, these animistic-background groups believe they are impervious to the bullets (bals in French) from AK-47 rifles. Thus their name: Anti-bal-AK. Meanwhile most Protestant churches remain proponents of non-violence and peace.

One of the many armored personnel carriers used by
French troops on mission in CAR
Because of the demonstration, Bertin, director of ACATBA*, was late in picking us up for our ride to the airport. But then, our Air France flight was also late—like a whole day late! Problems with non-functioning runway lights yesterday forced the flight to divert to Yaounde, Cameroon instead. So finally, a day later, I’m seated onboard and glad to finally be going home, even though I know I’ve missed all my on-going connections in Paris. There’s something about spending so many years in Africa that helps one appreciate and live out the meaning of the popular phrase, “Il faut patient√©” (You must be patient.)

Area of downtown Bangui where demonstrations happened
the next day
As I leave this past week in CAR behind, I wonder what the future will bring this troubled country. I’ve experienced the results of a dysfunctional government that can’t even fix street potholes in its capital let alone provide basic services for its people. I’ve seen the discouragement in the eyes of those weary of wanton killing that still occurs somewhere almost every day. I’ve talked to national church leaders who can hardly talk when they recount stories of churches burned, pastors executed and their wives raped. But I’ve also witnessed the resilience of people whose faith in God gives them hope to endure.

I’m impressed that ACATBA is “hanging in there” committed to Bible translation for the forty-some tribal languages of CAR. And I’m even more touched by their desire to add elements of community care to their village translation work—like offering basic health services or simple water projects. As Bertin says, “How can we only be interested in bringing them the Gospel message if we are not also willing to demonstrate Gospel action?” He also believes this is an important way to help people regain credibility in Christianity, especially for those who are actively rejecting their faith believing God did not protect their loved ones during the atrocities of this civil war.

With this sort of determination to press on, I’m so glad ACATBA will have the on-going support and assistance of Wycliffe Associates as expressed through several practical projects that Africa Area Director, Al Hawthorne hopes to provide. And I count it a privilege to be a part of that help by continuing to provide organizational training, mentoring and encouragement for Bertin, his team and his board of directors. God willing, during this next year, I will help them develop a church relations strategy, create a PR video and possibly even accompany Bertin on a fund-raising trip abroad to develop some new donor relationships for the future.

More than anything, I’d love to see those seeds of hope still present in these CAR friends blossom into continued fruitful ministry for many years to come.

Myself with Bertin, director of ACATBA

* ACATBA stands for Association Centreafricaine pour Traduction de la Bible et Alphabetization

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Cold Showers and Bullet Holes

The instructions next to the shower said, “One-Turn on water, Two-Turn heater knob to position 1 or 2, Three-When finished, reverse process.” But, no matter where I turned the knob, even to position 3, no hot water was produced. So as I stepped under the showerhead and endured the rush of yet another cold morning shower, I thought to myself, “Oh well, that’s Africa for you. You just can trust things like this to work here when you need them.”

Downtown Bangui
It was my first morning in Bangui, Central Africa Republic and after breakfast at the Grace Brethern Guesthouse, Al Hawthorne, Africa Director for Wycliffe Associates (WA) and I headed over to ACATBA, the national Bible translation organization for this country. The plan was to spend the day with Bertin Oundagnon-Basso, the director, learning how well his organization had survived the past eighteen months of rebel crisis and civil war. It didn’t take long, however, for casual chatting to evaporate as Bertin began explaining the realities they had experienced.

Showing the scars of the warning bullets fired at him
For those who have already forgotten that CAR has even been in a crisis, here’s a quick review: About two years ago, radical Muslim foreign militia began pouring over the Chad and Sudan borders and quickly gathering national Islamic groups together into a loose network, called SELEKA. Within months, they had toppled the current, weak, government and put in place their own leaders.  Specifically targeting Protestants and Catholics, SELEKA, led primarily by the Arab foreigners burned and looted churches, homes and businesses with accompanying killing and rape. This immediately created street clashes with non-Muslim gangs (called Anita-Balaka) looking for methods of revenge. Hundreds of people were slaughtered on the streets causing thousands to flee the country. Now with French and UN troops holding a lid on things, there seems to be an uneasy cessation of hostilities.
Bertin showing where he was pushed
up against a wall by rebel militia

All of this became very real for Bertin on March 24 last year when two different groups stormed the ACATBA compound and looted vehicles, computers and anything else they could haul away. Most sobering of all was hearing the account of SELEKA men shoving Bertin up against a wall, demanding keys to everything and giving him five minutes to deliver. They then fired two shots from an AK-47 into the wall inches from his feet to show him how serious they were.

Even more sobering was hearing that one of ACATBA’s translators himself was shot and killed by rebel militia while attempting to hide out in a hospital.

As amazing as Bertin’s account was, what was more amazing yet was to learn that despite these tragedies and difficulties, ACATBA continues on involved in every single translation project they were doing before except one which is out East, located in the heart of the SELEKA – controlled territory. To meet the men and women of ACATBA and witness their personal dedication in translating God’s Word firsthand is as moving an experience for me as any I've had on any recent trip to Africa.

In light of all that I've seen and heard this day, enduring a cold shower all of a sudden seems pretty petty.  Maybe the things that really count are working just fine here in Africa after all.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Beyond Good Enough

We have expressions for it, such as “notching it up a level” or “a whole new order of magnitude.” But these simply are not adequate to describe what Anita and I recently experienced at the Salzburg Music Festival.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra as seen from our wonderful
center section seats in the Salzburg Festival Music Hall
One of Anita's “bucket list” dreams has been to hear a live concert of the Vienna Philharmonic in their native Austria. So, after ironing out the wrinkles in her dress and my shirt after our trip from Nigeria, we prepared for a special evening during our holiday stop in Salzburg on our way home to Spokane.

Married to someone who has been singing for the past forty years in community and symphony choirs, I am no stranger to classical concerts; but nothing I’ve heard in the past equaled this experience in Austria. With renowned conductor Daniel Barenboim on the podium, world-class principals soloing in each section of the orchestra, and each member of the orchestra playing with their whole being, I learned just how amazing orchestral music can sound. The newly remodeled, wood-paneled Festival Music Hall seemed perfectly tuned to enhance the symphonic richness and vibrancy of this event. Also, it was a special treat for Anita to hear opera superstar Placido Domingo as guest soloist and the excellent Vienna Singverein as the choir for Reger's Requiem.  

Why a blog post about a classical music concert? Because there is much that reminds me of what it means to serve God with excellence. So often I feel that I (and many of my fellow Christians) become all too satisfied with OK performances in ministry endeavor. Worse yet, when I make OK good enough, it quickly becomes my performance standard, and I don’t even stop to think about what true excellence could or should be. Maybe I’ve become too influenced by an American culture overly sensitive to building up self-esteem by cheering every Little Leaguer who strikes out or giving a standing ovation at every single concert, regardless of the performance quality. Whatever the case, I realize that striving for something more—something really excellent—has not always been my top priority.

Anita had the special privilege of meeting  Placido Domingo after the
concert and getting his autograph on our concert program
That is one reason listening to this concert was such a stunning experience. From the execution of the first notes of the Adagio movement of Mozart's Maurerische Trauermusik in C minor, which were played so quietly that I wasn’t even sure the concert had begun, to the gripping themes of Bruckner’s Symphony  No. 4, I felt I was in the presence of something truly special. The orchestra could play so softly and exquisitely in one section of a piece; then it could expand in volume and palpable power to a truly magnificent finale. It was as if my soul was telling me, “Yes! This is the way a great performance sounds.”

On top of that, I was personally inspired to see outstanding musicians like Barenboim and Domingo, who have been performing for several decades, still demonstrating uncompromising professionalism in the execution of their craft. It was clear they have not allowed OK to be good enough for them.

And neither should I. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Getting It Wrong

New Megachurch in Abuja, Nigeria
One of the lingering impressions I’m taking away from this trip to Nigeria is how possible it is for well- meaning Christians to get it wrong. Today, the overwhelming theme among many Christian churches in Nigeria is the prosperity gospel. Teaching that God wants to bless his faithful with health and wealth, the “name it, claim it” theology now dominates Christian areas of the country. Even here, there are now massive megachurches sprouting up, led by pastors who point to their personal biz jets as evidence of God’s blessing. But more often than not, these church kingdoms are built on the contributed earnings of poor people taught that, if they give sacrificially, God will eventually reward them with the desires of their hearts. To me, this theology is closer to the mindset of a casino gambler than that of solidly biblical Christian.

As Anita and I spend a few days in Austria on our way home, we’ve seen another form of Christianity that has gotten it wrong. This time it’s the old, traditional Catholicism present in the many historic churches and cathedrals we’ve visited. The two dominant pictures we see in every case are Jesus as a tiny, helpless child or as a suffering, crucified criminal. In either case, the Son of God does not come across as a conquering victor over sin and death, but as an uncompelling symbol of weakness. As one Austrian Christian brother put it, most Austrians rarely view Jesus as someone with whom they need a personal relationship because they believe in God and have been baptized. Why do they need a relationship with Jesus?

Here are two representations of what I'm talking about, the first taken from a church in Salzburg, the second from St. Stephen's cathedral in Vienna.

Both these experiences in Nigeria and Austria have been good reminders that Christians everywhere must be careful how to apply God’s Truth lest they simply get it wrong!