Missionaries are made to leave

Missionaries are made to come and go, or at least they should be. Jesus had about three years of ministry and then he left. The Apostle Paul went from town to town. There’s a bifurcation in modern Western missions between missions lasting two weeks and those lasting 20 years or longer. I worked with situations where a Western missionary has worked in the same language for 20, 30 or even 40 years. Sometimes my American friends express admiration for missionaries who spend many decades in the same place, but I’m pretty sure that is not always a good thing.

A missionary’s role should change as he or she trains local people with whom they are in ministry and they take on more responsibility. We see this in the ministry of the Apostle Paul. After announcing the Good News and seeing some converts, he named and mentored leaders for the new Christians before going on to the next place. He then kept in contact, prayed for those he left and visited them when that was possible. Leaving did not break his relationships. Another aspect of Paul leaving well was that he incorporated some of the new believers from the place he was leaving in his mission to the next place. He also brought all of them into praying for it.

We shouldn’t follow Paul’s example slavishly, but we ignore it at our peril. Depending on the type of ministry (translation develops slowly), a missionary might stay in one place for a long time. But even a long stay should be preparing for a good departure. Bible translation not infrequently takes place where there are low levels of education, making it difficult to train local people in all the complexities of translation. But difficult does not always mean impossible, especially when the time frame is 20, 30 or even 40 years.

A while back, a missionary told me that another missionary should be allowed to stay where they were because that had become home. Being in a place that feels like home is a good thing, but it is not a valid missionary goal. In fact, it sounds like a way to justify staying long after one’s missionary goals have been accomplished. Missionaries who stay in one place for a long time may do so because they like it, they are comfortable, or because they get respect. Recent research found that 96% of missionaries reported that they were functioning well in the society where they are conducting missionary work. Moving would disrupt that. A few times in my career, missionaries faced with a potential change of location have said to me that they want to stay put because “God has called me here”. In every case,  that “here” was a situation that they found personally fulfilling.

Dayle and I with Abidjan staff a few days before our departure. They gave us traditional Yacouba outfits.

I recently took an interim assignment in Côte d’Ivoire. I was given a very specific six-month mandate – take care of current matters and work with a national committee to recruit an Ivorian director. When those things were done, Dayle and I returned to our assignments in Ghana. We had an advantage. Our assignment specifically demanded a transition. We had no choice. Perhaps all missionary assignments should be like that.

Learning going the wrong way

Dedication of representative translation committees for three Ghana languages, 2014

Launching translations in three small languages in Ghana’s Volta Region that no on ever learns, although the people who speak these languages almost always learn the regional language.

In Africa, people who speak small languages learn larger languages, but the reverse does not usually happen.

When a missionary whose language is English learns a small language, that speaks volumes. Not only has the missionary learned the language, he or she has done something counter their own interests. Learning the smaller language is a step down the social ladder. When Africans learn smaller languages to minister to people, that also speaks volumes about humility and service. I have written about a specific example.

An African translator told me how a church leader mocked him for volunteering to help in literacy in his “little language”. The person told him that such activities have no value because his language is so small.

But the things that are growing the church in rural areas in northern Ghana and northern Côte d’Ivoire are translations and literacy in those “worthless” languages that no one will bother to learn. It’s another delicious example of God’s subversion from below:

Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. (I Corinthians 1:27)

It turns out that the things people readily dismiss as useless provide the real leverage for transforming communities and bringing Gospel life.

Things have changed

i-zAt the end of my time as Director for Côte d’Ivoire, I was moving from files for the incoming Director. That meant labeling a file drawer. The drawer was previously labeled “Members “I-Z”. That meant that when that label was made, it took two file drawers to contain the personnel files for the members (meaning missionaries from the West) who worked in Ivory Coast and this drawer contained those whose last name started with a letter from I to Z.

I was amused. It took me back to the time when Bible translation was lead and motivated by missionaries coming from the United States, Great Britain, Switzerland and other western countries. In fact, that situation lasted for the first 20 years I was in Africa. This simple file drawer label took me back to that time.

Handing over to the new Director

Handing over to the new Director

Dayle and I were in Ivory Coast temporarily and I had just handed over to an Ivorian Director. There was one another American couple here and they were temporary too. Besides the four of us, there were no western missionaries residing in the country doing Bible translation. It only took a few hanging folders occupying a small part of one file drawer to contain all their paperwork. But there are translations ongoing in 19 languages and those files are voluminous.

One of the big changes in Bible translation in Africa over the last two decades is the ascendancy of national translators and related personnel and the steep decline in the number of western missionaries working directly or indirectly in translation. This change was foreseeable from the early 1990s. It began happening in the mid 1990s and accelerated after the year 2000.

change-is-bad-goodI have met a number of missionaries working in Bible translation who found these changes troubling. They ask what we are doing wrong, or what the church back home is doing wrong. Once, when I described the changes, a fellow missionary told me “You do nothing but discourage me.” This was in spite of the fact that we had a number of highly trained Africans ready to fill the gap; some with more training and experience than some missionaries.

The Bible has some interesting stories about people living in what they considered very bad situations but God said that the situations were good. One of my favorites is in Jeremiah 24 which starts like this:

The Lord spoke to me in a vision after King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia had come to Judah and taken King Jehoiachin, his officials, and all the skilled workers back to Babylonia. In this vision I saw two baskets of figs in front of the Lord’s temple. One basket was full of very good figs that ripened early, and the other was full of rotten figs that were not fit to eat.
“Jeremiah,” the Lord asked, “what do you see?”
“Figs,” I said. “Some are very good, but the others are too rotten to eat.” (Jeremiah 24:1-3 CEV)

Dried figs: Photo courtesy of Mburnat via Wikipedia commons

Dried figs. Photo courtesy of Mburnat via Wikipedia commons

You will agree with me that those who had been forcibly removed form their homes and taken to a foreign country were unfortunate while those who were left in their county were fortunate. But God goes on to say the opposite – that those who were taken away from the country and their homes by force are the fortunate ones; but those who remained in their country and their homes are unfortunate; the bad figs are really the good figs and vice versa. God has a radically different interpretation of the events and his interpretation was confirmed over coming decades.

When we experience disappointment or other negatives, we need to ask God to give us his view of the events.

One of the challenges in missions is for missionaries to seek God’s view of the trends that are happening rather than relying on our gut instinct. I have come to the conclusion that shrinking missionary workforce and the increased number of nationals is not someone’s mistake. It is God’s doing. If we try to fix it we are actually working against God.

Now this does not mean that there is no room in Bible translation for Western missionaries. Quite the contrary. God calls who he calls without regard to nationality, race, gender or anything else. The question is not whether there is a place in Bible translation for Westerners, but rather whether God has called you and whether as a missionary you will work to promote the directions God is taking Bible translation or work against them.

A workshop where translators from five languages perfected their translation of the book of Romans.

A workshop where translators from five languages perfected their translation of the book of Romans.

Role ending

The new director and her husband

The new director and her husband

As many of you know, I was unexpectedly asked to serve as acting director for translation work in Côte d’Ivoire and I have filled that role for the last six months. That ended on October 1 when I handed over to an Ivorian, Mrs. Pierrette Ayité (pronounced ah-yee-TAY). One of my principle responsibilities was to work with a group of Ivorian Christians to recruit a new director. It was with great thankfulness to God and a sense of satisfaction that I handed over to her because I believe that she will do a great job.

I have been reflecting on these last few months. I could say lots of things, but one reflection keeps coming back to me. I’ll get to it in a moment.

For a couple decades, our ministry has focused on helping African churches and African Christians understand the role they can play in Bible translation and perhaps receive a call from God to be involved. We did not come to Africa with that focus, not at all. Instead it flowed out of a set of personal experiences and out of seeing how God is growing his church on this continent – both in terms of numbers and in terms of depth.

My time in Côte d’Ivoire confirmed another reason why we pursue this focus. In familiarizing myself with the translation work after my arrival, I discovered a rather serious lack in some of the translation programs. The thing was, it was the Ivorians who saw the lack, not we white missionaries. As I dug into it, I came to be convinced that they were right to be concerned. At the end of September we has a meeting with church leaders where they fully confirmed that the lack was real and that it was crucial that it be dealt with. We should not be surprised that they saw the problem first. This is their country, their languages and their churches. They will understand them in ways we do not.

Ed working with Ivorian staff

Ed and other staff members preparing information for the recruitment of a new director

A very good reason to involve local people in Bible translation is that they will make it more effective because will see problems and opportunities we don’t. That is the reflection that keeps coming back to me. By the way, that reflection is confirmed by recent research showing that translation has more impact where local people are more involved in decision making. If you are interested in working in a cross-cultural team where each person and culture contributes and all are appreciated, ask God if working to produce lasting impact through Bible translation is for you.

PS: Dayle and I will stay in Abidjan for a few more weeks before returning to Ghana.

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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.

Backup and fools

It’s World Backup day. Seems fitting that it is one day before April Fools Day. I have a story about a fool and a missing backup, which I originally published in May 2012. Click on the title to read it all.

  • Crooks and Crow - In the early 1980’s, Liberia was in a civil war and we were living in Abidjan, surrounded by refugees. Liberians crossed the border into Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). The UN set up refugee camps but some refugees made their way to Abidjan. Among them was a class of crooks – confidence men who would tell […]

Boarding process

When we were assigned to Côte d’Ivoire in the early 1980s, I used to occasionally fly with the national airline. The prices were reasonable and they covered much of the country and neighboring countries. One morning I checked in as usual. There were a row of Air Ivoire planes outside the terminal waiting to go to various destinations. Our flight was called. We were to walk to our plane. A staff member showed us which one.

Air Ivoire did not assigned seats. So there was always a bit of polite jostling to get a seat. When we were all seated, a flight attendant came on board to make announcements. But the announcement was different. We were told that we had boarded the wrong aircraft. So the polite jostling resumed as we retrieved our carry-on luggage, got off the plane and walked to the correct plane. We were pretty much on our own until the same attendant returned to inform us that she was so sorry. She had made a mistake. We had boarded the right plane the first time!

One wise passenger broke through the generalized chaos that ensued to ask the attendant if she could tell us on which airplane our luggage had been loaded.

We dutifully jostled our way back to the first plane, listened to some groveling by the same attendant, took off and reached our destination with our luggage and without further incidents.

Gaston’s evaluation

At the dinner table with Gaston and others

At the dinner table with Gaston and others

In the early 1980s, Dayle and I worked in Côte d’Ivoire (sometimes called Ivory Coast). Part of our role was to visit translation projects and provide assistance of various kinds. On one occasion we visited the translators for the Dida language, including a wonderful Ivorian man named Gaston.  His family regaled us with a meal fit for a king. There were three courses: monkey and rice, fish and plantain fufu, then rice and beef. We ate outside under the shade of palm trees. Fufu is a prized dish in Ghana too, where we now work, so we are fortunate to be eating it again these many years later. But only if someone else makes it, because it is a lot of work.

I like spicy dishes, but the Dida spice their food several notches above my comfort zone – at a level way above “hot” which might be called “three alarm, atomic fireball surprise”. I could eat, but slowly and with some difficulty. The fact that the food was delicious helped, but not quite enough. My nose was running and my eyes were watering. Gaston saw my predicament and gave me a knowing look. I told him that the food was delicious, but the pepper was making my nose run.

“Oh”, he said, “that is good. We Dida have a saying. If your nose doesn’t run, the food doesn’t have enough pepper!”

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Crooks and Crow

In the early 1980’s, Liberia was in a civil war and we were living in Abidjan, surrounded by refugees. Liberians crossed the border into Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). The UN set up refugee camps but some refugees made their way to Abidjan. Among them was a class of crooks – confidence men who would tell creative stories to pry some money out of your wallet. Their tactics were the subject of daily conversation.

A new couple arrived and joined us from the US to help. I had to travel up-country with some colleagues, so we left the new guy in charge of the office. When we came back a few days later, he told us that two Liberian men had come to the office. They told him that a Liberian friend of theirs had worked as a national translator for his language. The missionary couple leading the translation had returned to their country for some months. The war broke out shortly after they left and they could not return. The only copy of the translation of most of the New Testament was in Liberia in the hands of their friend. He was trying to bring it across the border into Côte d’Ivoire for safe keeping, when he was detained by the police. The men said that they had traveled with him and were unable to get the manuscript from him. They wanted about $300 to go back to the border, pay the fine, and get their friend released with the manuscript of the NT. They would then return to Abidjan and give us the manuscript for safe keeping.

As our newly arrived colleague told it this story, we were smirking. It sounded like some of the renowned Liberian hucksters knew a little about Bible translation and had crafted the perfect story to soak our colleague. To our chagrin, he had given them the $300. We consoled him. “Three hundred dollars is not that much,” we said. “You meant well,” we had told him. He was embarrassed.

A few days later, three Liberians showed up at our office. The two who had talked $300 out of our friend and colleagues, and another who supposedly had the only copy of the translation of the New Testament into his language. We were braced for a new story and a request for more money. Instead, the third Liberian pulled out the only manuscript of the New Testament in his language! We quickly took the manuscript to the photocopier and made another copy, whicht we put in the safe.The next day, we were able to connect the Liberian translator with the missionaries, by phone, to tears of joy all around.

God had to get us “wise” people out of the office so that he could have a “naive” new missionary give money to Liberians with an improbable story. We would never have given the money, and the manuscript might have been lost. We probably would never have even known of our mistake.

This incident taught me an important ministry lesson – if I am careful with my charitable giving to the extent that I never waste money – never make a mistake – I probably will be making a different mistake; that of not giving money where I should. This principle goes beyond giving. If I screen national translators so well that I never get one who does not work out, I will probably be turning away quite a number who would do very well. Fear of making a mistake is a dangerous thing.

Most importantly, I need to listen to the Lord and the Holy Spirit. Something my wisdom considers foolish might just be what God is doing. This danger increases with experience, so the Lord needed to inject some humiliation into my life to get me back on track, like the day I ate crow in front of our new missionary colleague and three Liberians.