What is really needed

Two weeks ago, I wrote about an incident where a missionary raised money for something that was not needed. You can read it here: https://heartlanguage.org/2016/07/07/when-understanding-fails/.

It is extraordinarily difficult for an American to understand what people in the developing world really need. A church audience was easily convinced and their hearts moved so they opened their wallets. I love their hearts, but that doesn’t make their action effective. In his book Walking with the Poor, Bryant Myers wrote: “The poor deserve more than gifted amateurs with their hearts  in the right place”.

Ebola in Africa - MapLet me give you an example of something that has proven really useful, but probably doesn’t look that way to most Americans. That is the new rapid test for Ebola. During the recent Ebola outbreak in some countries of West Africa, researchers were looking for a rapid test for Ebola. Eventually one was discovered and put into use. It takes 15 minutes. You might imagine that it would be nice to know if you had Ebola or not in minutes rather than days. But it is even more important than you imagine. In fact, it was the game changer, in my opinion.

You may have heard that people resisted the efforts of the public health officials trying to combat Ebola. In fact, in local mobs in Guinea killed some. People attacked ambulance drivers and paramedics. They hid sick relatives from the authorities. Crazy you say? Well, you’d be wrong. Their actions were quite understandable, at least they were before the quick Ebola test.

Ghanaian newspaper

Ghanaian newspaper

Let’s say you have a child with symptoms that might be Ebola. At the outset, the symptoms of Ebola are like those of many common diseases. So you can’t know what the child has. Before the rapid test, if you took your child to a Ebola center for treatment, they would examine him or her, and if the symptoms could be Ebola, your child would have blood drawn to check for Ebola. But the test took several days. Because of the danger of contagion, they won’t let you take your child home. Instead he or she is held in an isolation ward with other sick people who are also waiting for their Ebola test results. That means that your child will be housed with sick people some of whom almost certainly have Ebola. If your child doesn’t have Ebola, he or she could well contract it at the Ebola center. That’s why people resisted sending their family members and friends to Ebola centers.

Let’s say that you live in an area where there is no Ebola center, but you do have a local hospital. People who are suspected of having Ebola are keep there while awaiting the results of their Ebola tests. Do you want to go to that hospital? Send your child there? One of the side effects of the Ebola outbreak was the people died of treatable diseases because they were afraid to go to clinics and hospitals.

Ebola poster I saw in GhanaBut the rapid test changed that. In 15 minutes Ebola could be diagnosed or excluded. People came, got tested and left or were admitted. Public health crews going door to door could administer the test on the spot, eliminating the need to take every sick person to the hospital.

The rapid test was not just a rapid test, it was a tool that changed the relationship between the public health officials and the public. It is possible, I think, that the changed dynamics between officials and the public was what eventually brought an end to Ebola outbreak. We use the phrase “game changer” too loosely, but the rapid test was a real game changer. Not only is it rapid, it also works without electricity so it can be deployed anywhere.

I see the same thing in Bible translation, the things that have profound impact (small literacy programs, printing orthography guides in local languages, courses for pastors to teach them how to read in their own languages…) don’t sound like much to many American ears. I have heard the representatives of US-based translation agencies say they don’t fund those things because American Christian donors aren’t interested.

Like I said, I think that it is extraordinarily difficult for people in one place to understand what will change life for people in another place. Be honest, if you had wanted to give to the fight against Ebola and you had been presented with three choices – contributing to the development of a rapid test, to a Christian doctor or nurse traveling to effected countries to help, or giving money to support an Ebola center – which would you have chosen?

Foreigner

Definition of foreignerI’m living and working in Côte d’Ivoire, a former French colony where the official language is French. Here, I am an “étranger”. That word is ambiguous because it has two meanings: a person one does not know or a person from another country. Asking Google to translate foreigner into French and then asking it to translate stranger into french both result in the same translation: étranger.

But the word in West African languages which is commonly translated foreigner means neither, although it is closest to foreigner. It means a person who is from another place (not necessarily another country) , who has come to take up residence. The community welcomes and harbors the person, lending him land for housing and farming or other economic activity. If the foreigner is a man, someone in the community may give him their daughter as a wife as a way of making him part of the community or even to exercise some control over him.

No matter how long the foreigner stays, he remains a foreigner. His children and grandchildren are still foreigners. However long they live on the land lent to them, it is still a temporary residence. The best translation of the term is “resident alien” (but not an alien of the science fiction type).

Only people from that place are not foreigners. They consider themselves the original inhabitants, even though that is often not the case in historic fact. In fact, if a person considered an original inhabitant moves far away, he is still considered an original inhabitant of his “home” area as are his children, grandchildren and so on. After all, where they now live they are resident aliens. Such people stay original inhabitants even through they may have never been “home”. They are not foreigners if they come “back”. I have asked Africans in big cities where they are from, and I sometimes find out in the conversation that they have never been to that place.

I think that some Americans are adopting some of the same way of thinking. Don’t some of us consider some people”foreigners” if they are culturally different from us even if they have citizenship?

When understanding fails

An African friend told me about a trip he made to the USA. In the course of the trip he was the guest of a missionary who works in his country and the missionary took him to a church meeting where the missionary was speaking. The missionary made quite a point of the bad relationships between different ethnic groups. He cited instances where he saw and heard people from different ethnic groups insulting each other. The missionary explained that he planned to help with reconciliation through the Gospel. The church audience was very moved and gave a large offering.

My African friend was shocked. He didn’t say anything during the meeting, afterwards he spoke to the missionary. He told him about a common cultural practice in West Africa known as “joking relationships“.

Chief in the Ghana's Volta enters a multi-ethnic event

Chief in the Ghana’s Volta enters a multi-ethnic event

I ran into joking relationships early in my missionary career. We had traveled from our village to a nearby town to buy supplies. We went into a little restaurant for lunch. At one point, a man came in and started insulting two of the patrons. They began insulting him back. It looked serious. I thought that a fight was about to break out, so I was gathering my things to leave when they all started laughing and the man who had just came in sat down with them – all friendly like nothing had happened.

When I told an African friend about the event, he explained that there is a joking relationship between some ethnic groups in which they insult each other, each trying to find the wittiest insult. The insults are given and taken in fun. It reminded me of how relationships between men can work in the US. The right way to give a complement to a manly man in some circles is backhanded – in the form of a disparaging remark such as “I’ve seen worse” or “Who would have thought you could do good work like that?”

It turns out that the joking relationship in Africa can be the foundation for overcoming conflict and producing reconciliation.

So, that missionary didn’t understand the joking relationship, thought that the insults were for real and raised money to solve a problem that didn’t exist.

I am reminded again that as an outsider, I need to take time to understand and consult local people before coming up with my own ideas about what needs to be done. In recent weeks, I made at least one mistake because I didn’t do that.

My dear friends, you should be quick to listen and slow to speak or to get angry.
(James 1:19 CEV)

Mediation

A few weeks back I had a very interesting experience. I was sitting in a meeting with Africans and Westerns discussing ways to reconcile a conflict. We were all Christians, but the differences in the approaches of the Westerners and the Africans was stark.

I went away thinking about the conversation and trying to understand the different points of view. I did a little research on the web and found a very pertinent article by Mark Davidheiser: Special Affinities and Conflict Resolution: West African Social Institutions and Mediation. It turns out that he teaches both cultural anthropology and conflict resolution. In part of the article, he tells of research he did among the Mandinka people who are found in Ivory Coast and Guinea. He writes:

The Mandinka generally view mediation as a matter of persuading disputants to end their conflict and reconcile, rather than as a structured process of facilitated problem solving and negotiation.

There was the answer! We Westerners were engaged in problem solving. We went straight to trying to find a common way forward through the issues that separated the two parties. In hindsight, it seems obvious to me that we did that without even thinking about what we were doing. The Africans just wanted to produce reconciliation and they did not need to deal with the underlying issue. I don’t think that we or them could have described our different approaches, much less understand how the other’s was different.

I’m not yet sure if or how this insight will help me, but it sure explains a lot.

Forced changes

I am filling in temporarily as the director for translation work in Côte d’Ivoire (also known as Ivory Coast). If things go according to plan, we’ll be back in Ghana in a few months.

Abandonned armoured vehicle in Ivory Coast. Photo courtesy of a colleague.

Abandonned armoured vehicle in Ivory Coast. Photo courtesy of a colleague.

Ivory Coast is coming out of prolonged period of conflict and civil war. During a good part of that time, many missionaries and almost all Westerners doing Bible translation left the country. That left the Ivorian translators on their own. Instead of stopping, most of them kept translating. Coming out of the conflict, we have a very different situation than we had going in. There are still outsiders involved, but like Dayle and I, most of them play limited roles.  Ivorians are the translators, they lead the translation programs, provide expert guidance, do the training and provide quality control.

But the change is more profound than than just changing the faces around the translation table. Churches here are picking up the will to do translation. They sponsor translation programs, choose translators and take care of some of the administrative details. Some have been quite active in doing adult literacy among their members. I am working with a group of Ivorian Christians who want to reformulate how Bible translation is done so that it fits their way of doing things. They think that will give the translations even more impact. I agree.

A number of years ago, the head of a successful African mission told me:

David could not use Saul’s armor. The church in Africa will not do Bible translation the way you do.

David was successful precisely because he abandoned the standard way, the “right way”, the king’s way, the way all the experts advised. King Saul told David:

 “Don’t be ridiculous!” Saul replied. “There’s no way you can fight this Philistine and possibly win! You’re only a boy, and he’s been a man of war since his youth.” (I Samuel 17:33)

Africa is considered inconsequential by many, just as Saul thought David inconsequential. Might Jesus’ church in inconsequential Africa devise a way to translate the Bible into its 1,800 languages that no translation expert would ever recommend and yet succeed by doing it their way? I believe that is exactly what will happen. The conflict in Ivory Coast forced some changes in Bible translation. Those changes are opening the door to more profound changes. I say: Be on the lookout for falling giants.

The meeting room at the translation center in Abidjan. Bullets came through this roof doing the conflict.

The meeting room at the translation center in Abidjan. Bullets came through this roof doing the conflict.

The Picture Window

A Particular Glory - John PiperJohn Piper has written a book about the Bible entitled A Particular Glory. I find the book fascinating partly because it echoes some of my experience with the Bible that I have not been able to articulate, and partly because it offers a very fresh break from the “battle for the Bible” that has dominated Evangelical teaching and writing about the Bible for more than a few decades.

Piper shifts the focus of the discussion to the view of things (of god, of human beings, and of creation) presented in the Bible. That view, he says, is compelling because it is rich in the glory of God.

As I said at the beginning, the Bible has not been for me like a masterpiece hanging on the wall of an Alpine chalet but rather like a window in the wall of the chalet, with the Alps on the other side. In other words, I have been a Christian all these years not because I had the courage to hold on to an embattled view of Scripture, but because I have been held happily captive by the beauty of God and his ways that I see through the Scriptures.

I have stood in front of this window all these years, not to protect it from being broken, or because the owner of the chalet told me to, but because of the glory of the Alps on the other side. I am a captive of the glory of God revealed in Scripture.

John Piper is a well-known pastor and theologian with a seminary degree. He has written numerous books. This book, A Particular Glory, has received endorsements from leading evangelicals.

But poor, uneducated, subsistence farmers in northern Ghana (among others) beat him to the idea and to the experience. It is only in recent years that the Bible has been translated into the languages of northern Ghana (and not yet all of their languages). But when it was, many of them accepted it and the truth it contains, not because they had some fancy, logical defense of its inspiration and historicity, or because of who brought it (they had long rejected the Christianity brought by Western missionaries), but because what it says gives them a compelling new way to see God and all of life.

Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa, who did his doctoral research on the impact of new Bible translations in northern Ghana, told a conference in 2012 that for those peoples in northern Ghana:

The Bible now provides the key to understand the world.

Before John Piper wrote his book, those poor farmers were already standing in front of the large and clear picture window which is the Bible in their language, joyfully compelled by the glorious view it provides. At a church meeting in Ghana in 2014, I saw their joy they read and talked about the Bibles in their languages they all held in their hands.

Henry Venn

Henry Venn

Henry Venn

Henry Venn (1796-1873) was an Anglican missionary leader. His contribution to missions was to propose and implement a new way of doing missions and then have that start changing his own church back home.

Let’s remember that Venn lived much of his adult life lived in a era when European nations were conquering countries around the world and making them into colonies. This activity was accompanied by a belief in the superiority and supremacy of Europeans and European nations. As a citizen of the UK, Venn was surrounded by the thinking of his times. As one author notes of Venn’s times:

This was also the age when European culture was not self-critical. Indeed, the superiority of western civilization could be assumed.

Venn was the Honorary Secretary of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) from 1841 to 1873. He used that position to shape the missions activities of the CMS in a direction away from European superiority. The belief in European superiority had crept into the church and into missions. For example, it was not uncommon for missionaries to retain control of the congregations they founded, stunt the development of local leadership, and demand respect for their authority from churches and converts.

Venn believed in a different approach. He wrote:

Regarding the ultimate object of a mission, viewed under its ecclesiastical aspect, to be the settlement of a native Church, under native pastors, upon a self-supporting system, it should be borne in mind that the progress of a mission mainly depends upon the training up and the location of native pastors; and that, as it has been happily expressed, ‘the euthanasia of a mission’ takes place when a missionary, surrounded by well-trained native congregations, under native pastors, is able to resign all pastoral work into their hands.

Wilbert R. Shenk describes Venn’s approach as follows.

He insisted that the mission organization should be viewed as a temporary scaffolding, to be dismantled once the church was fully organized and functioning.

He held before his missionaries the ideal of a church possessed of a healthy self-reliance.

By promoting the training of Africans and insisting on their competency in managing their own lives, he helped combat the effects of racism…

These ideas were very different from the ideology of his day. The supposed superiority of the white man implied that he would permanently run everything. But Venn wanted the opposite of the churches newly established by missionaries: As Shenk notes:

Instead the new church needs to receive encouragement as early as possible to try its own wings and move toward self-responsibility.

Venn bookAs you can imagine, his ideas met with all kinds of resistance.

But, as Yale Professor Lamin Sanneh has noted, ideas like Venn’s planted a seed which would eventually push out the concept of white supremacy. For, if Africans, Asians and others are capable of governing themselves in eternal matters of faith then the lesser and temporal matter of politics must follow.

And follow it did. It was in their churches that not a few of those who protested for the freedom of their countries got their first taste of freedom from White rule

As I noted, the racist belief in European superiority had crept into the churches. A variety of factors would eventually oust it, at least formally. But missions was the tip of the spear. It was there that Venn and others developed a different approach and implemented it. From missions it seeped back into the church at home. I suspect that today missions might again be the tip of the spear. Missions and Christian organizations like World Vision are taking an approach to the world’s refugee crisis quite different from those that dominate the US political landscape.

Here’s a seldom-cited reason to support missions:  the mission may help get your church back home out of false thinking that has crept into it from the surrounding culture.

Many of my thoughts in this blog draw on the following two documents:
* The Contribution of Henry Venn to Mission Thought; WILBERT R. SHENK
http://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/anvil/02-1_025.pdf
* Protestant Christian Missions, Race and Empire: The World Missionary Conference of 1910, Edinburgh, Scotland; Kim Caroline Sanecki
http://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1009&context=history_theses

76 year gap

Reading Mono translation

Reading Mono translation

In the remote city of Bili in northwestern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a congregation listens quietly as their pastor reads from the book of Mark in Lingala, a trade language in this region. When the same passage is read again – this time in Mono, the people’s mother tongue – the listeners sit up, smile and begin to laugh. They hear this story as though for the first time. (Source: Wycliffe News Network)

Long road in Mono area

Long road in Mono area

Although I was not present at this occasion, the story is familiar to me. Over and over I have witnessed the first exposure of Christians to the Bible in their own language during a church service. The reading often disrupts the service. In his book A Peculiar Glory (free PDF download), John Piper writes that the Bible is a window to God’s glory – a big picture window. What the Mono people in that church service experienced was the window changing from frosted to clear.

The article goes on to say:

The Mono people first heard the gospel from an African evangelist in the 1940s and many became followers of Jesus.

Here we are, 76 years after the Mono people first heard the Good News, and they are just getting the Bible in their language. Unfortunately, this situation is not rare in Africa. In Ghana, three translation programs started in the last 2 years concern languages where the people have had the Gospel for over 100 years.

Church in the Mono area

Church in the Mono area

The 2.2 billion Christians in the world speak an estimated 3,000 languages. Of those, less than 600 have a translation of the whole Bible. Is this a problem? In many cases it is. Without the Bible in the language of the people, aberrant beliefs can creep in, traditional religious practices may continue even in the church, as people peer at God through frosted glass. There is no shortage of historical cases where Christianity disappeared after some time where the Bible was not translated, and cases where it stuck in spite of persecution where it had. Furthermore, the problems are most acute for the more marginalized in society – women, children, the uneducated, the poor; the very kind of people Jesus prioritized. Leading African Christians have stated that translations of the Bible in the languages of the people are necessary for Christianity to flourish in Africa.

The ministry of Bible translation is often presented as pioneering – working among people who have not heard the Gospel. In a significant number of places in Africa it is a ministry to those who have already claimed Jesus but don’t have access to his words. Even then it has an element of outreach. An evaluation of the impact of translations in northern Ghana found that Christians with the Bible in their own language spoke of their faith more often to their neighbors of other religions. The evaluation also found that Christians who did not have the Bible in their language did not speak of their faith to others because they felt that they knew less about their faith than followers of other religions knew about theirs.

(Photos courtesy of the Wycliffe News Network. If you have trouble seeing the photos, go to http://www.wycliffe.net/photos?album=Story5860PerseveringInTheHopeForScripture.)

Shaking hands all around

A traditional cheif and GILLBT Director

A traditional chief and GILLBT Director

In Burkina Faso where we worked for many years, it is customary to shake hands all around when coming into a room full of people, unless it is a big room with lots of people, of course.

We had just returned to the US from Burkina Faso. On our first Sunday home we were late for Church, Sunday school actually. I walked into a class which had already started. These were about a dozen people in chairs in a circle. My automated Burkina Faso reaction kicked in. I started going around the circle shaking everyone’s hand and softly saying hi. About 1/3rd of the way around the circle, it dawned on me that the class had stopped and everyone was giving a very perplexed look. I wondered, do I keep going, stop, or something else?

Oops, I thought, cross culture adjustment got me again.

Insufficient Information

Strategic planning cloudI have been involved in strategic planning for Bible translation on and off for years. The process is straightforward. One of the steps is to gather information such as the opportunities and challenges in the environment. For example, one of the challenges facing Bible translation in Africa is the high numbers of people who can’t read. A fact like that must have a response in the strategic plan; such as a literacy program, doing audio recordings, or both.

So in theory, a strategic plan is built on information. But often, some information is missing. There might not be a reliable source for the information, or different sources might give quite different information for the same item. So the bedrock of strategic planning – good information – is missing.

But we still have to make a decision, we are here to do something, so we must act with or without information. (Going forward without a plan actually means that you are going forward with an implicit plan – one you haven’t thought about, examined, prayed over or subjected to the scrutiny of others.)

There are several ways forward in this situation:

  • Make getting the needed information, a priority item in the strategic plan.
  • Make sure that the plan follows God’s character, is just and fair, and reflects God’s action and mission in the world.
  • Check the plan against self-interest.
Strategic planning in Congo in 2003

Strategic planning in Congo in 2003

Even committed missionaries or nationals can make a plan that is in their personal interest. For example, they might adopt a plan because it is likely to cost them less money, attract funding, or because it has the kinds of activities they prefer.

You might have noticed that we need to do the last two items in the list even if we have information. That is true, but solid information tends to marginalize self-interest, making it more difficult to surface. Say we have information that the people for whom we are translating have high numbers of people who can’t read.

Planning for the komo language in Congo, 2003

Planning for the komo language in Congo, 2003

When that fact is on the table for everyone to see and discuss, that makes it harder for someone who find literacy unappealing say that literacy is not needed. It can still happen, of course. But in the absence of information about literacy, team members who find literacy unappealing can consciously or unconsciously write a plan with little or no literacy. I use literacy as an example. The problem can be in an area.

In planning, lack of information can present an opportunity to test our commitment to working in ways that help others however that affects us. It may seem odd to see that kind of challenge can crop up in strategic planning, but in my experience the strategic planning process is almost always an opportunity for spiritual growth.