Wednesday, February 26, 2014

10 Lessons Christian Missions Can Learn From The Peace Corps

When I decided to join the Peace Corps, I did so at the prompting of a couple of Christian missionaries. While studying abroad in Chile, I talked extensively with an American missionary couple who shared with me about missions and tent-making, fundraising and accountability. They offered sage advice which ultimately led me to apply to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer. I’m so very glad I did.

I cannot think of a better launch pad into a missionary life than the Peace Corps. As I observe many of the missionaries we come into contact with – in Zambia and elsewhere – I notice a frequent return to certain themes. As I listen to these missionaries share about their life and work, I find myself often thinking (but of course never saying), “It’s a shame your sending organization didn’t train you as well as the Peace Corps.” Despite being a completely secular organization, The Peace Corps does a lot of things right, and quite likely has something substantial to teach global Christian missionaries.

Before I go any further, I must insert the really big disclaimer that what is written below is not true for all missionaries in all places. Please do not take offense if you are a missionary who does speak a local language or who prioritizes integration. Likewise, please do not take offense if you are a missionary who has chosen, with good reason, to not be particularly sustainable or to focus on "the big guys." This post aught to be a tool for self reflection above all else. The goal is to honor Christ in all we do. My only hope is that some of these lessons might teach us to represent Him better.

1. Local language is not optional
            Even in Zambia where English is the official language, Peace Corps Volunteers are put through rigorous language training. We were not permitted to move to site until our language skills were up to par. Because it is so easy to get by with English, many missionaries only bother to learn a few phrases, shrugging and casually mentioning how they probably aught to know more. What they fail to recognize is that, for most people, their local language is a heart language. If the goal is speaking to people’s hearts, it is not going to happen with an American accent.

local language = insiders language

2. Safety and security are developed through integration and mutual trust
            When missionaries land on “the dark continent,” the first thing many of them do is make a personal safety and security plan. We’ve been given well meaning advice from Zambian missionaries before: trust no one, build fences, barbed wire, guards, dogs, keep people out. The emphasis is on building as many divides as possible between you and the dangerous things that lurk in the shadows. Peace Corps did tell us to lock our doors and not leave our bikes laying outside at night. But the thrust of the safety and security guidelines depended on friendship. “Your greatest security depends on the extent to which the community loves you and will rally to protect you.” We were taught how to integrate and gain peoples’ trust. Safety came by drawing people in, not keeping people out. While many missionaries live in constant fear, Peace Corps volunteers tend to be some of the most secure people around.

for this reason, the Malisawa family still has my back

3. Cultural exchange needs to go in TWO directions
            Out of Peace Corps’ three goals, the second and third goals address the bi-directional work of cultural exchange. Volunteers go to great lengths to link America with their host country, facilitating dialogue and greater understanding, serving as flag savers for the third world amongst the first. What would a missions presentation sound like if it included not just “What we’re doing on the field and how you can support us,” but also, “Here is an exhortation the Zambian believers have for the American church.” Missionaries, of all people, aught to use their platform to give the majority-world church a voice amongst the western believers to share the wisdom and insight that God has given specifically to them.

he has more to teach us than roof thatching technique

4. Think sustainably
If I had to choose one word that was drilled into me more than anything else in Peace Corps training, it would be SUSTAINABILITY. We were taught to work through existing structures, empowering local leaders to reach their full potential. This is a slow - and sometimes painful - but developmentally sound way of achieving lasting results. Missionaries are often too ambitious and/or too well funded to sit and wait for communities to mature, mobilize and proceed at a local pace. Chaos is often the unfortunate fruit as missionary-funded churches, orphanages, clinics and schools are “released into self-autonomy” when the missionary-led venture is handed over. Essential reading for any Christian working overseas: When Helping Hurts, which outlines the normal programmatic functioning for Peace Corps volunteers, but simultaneously calls for a radical adjustment in Christian missions.

give a pumpkin cake, feed for a day… teach to make pumpkin cake, and all kinds of good comes of it

5. Integration for communication’s sake
            The first thing the Peace Corps did with us as new volunteers in the country was to ship us off to remote villages to live with more seasoned volunteers and begin the process of learning about village life. Thrown in at the deep end, our process of integration began early. It was communicated over and over, “Your ability to integrate will determine the effectiveness of your message.” This is very different from the common missionary mantra, “I don’t have to become less American or more Zambian because the Bible is cross cultural!” In many ways, the Peace Corps takes 1 Corinthians 9:22 more literally than many overseas missionaries: “I have become all things to all men that I might save some.”

this is not just a wedding, this is seminary level learning

6. Accountability primarily to nationals – not just other Americans
            While many Americans are employed by the Peace Corps, all national offices must maintain a certain balance of ex-pat and national staff.  What this means is that volunteers are largely accountable to host country nationals. Volunteers account for their service, behavior – even attitudes – to people who know the nature of the field… because they grew up in it. They know what things cost. They know what projects will work. They know what is legitimately hard and what is just whiney. Many missionaries roam free, accountable to basically no one because their boards aren’t close enough to commentate or question meaningfully. Occasionally, a missionary needs correction or realignment, but the cheerleader-only support network back home isn’t in a place to respond. A mission will always suffer without appropriate feedback.

this man, still the most authoritative voice in our lives

7. Don’t be so afraid to fail
            The wonderful gift of the Peace Corps is that the American tax-payers are footing the bill for the whole thing. (Thanks guys, you’ve been awesome!) I never realized how important this was until after I joined Jeremy and together we started to raise funds. Suddenly, I was feeling all kinds of pressure to be impressive and produce results and not mess this thing up. This was exactly the pressure the Chile missionaries had warned me about, and they were right. We’ve witnessed as missionaries quietly sweep failures under the rug and stretch the truth just a wee bit, held captive by the fear of loosing donor interest and support. When a volunteer signs on with the Peace Corps, he or she is trained, equipped and sent out with this sentiment: “You’ve got two years. Here’s your canvas, go paint something.” And truthfully, most volunteers close out their service with a beautiful piece of art. I have to wonder what kind of creative majesty the American Church might unleash in its missionaries if it sent them out in the same way: “We promise to fund you even if things don’t go as plan. Go in the security that we will back you no matter what. God speed.”

the well cap totally busted. and that's ok.

8. Embrace holistic
            Fish farmers teaching about HIV, Health workers digging a garden, English teachers coaching soccer. Most Peace Corps volunteers choose to get involved in activities beyond their “specialty” because of the access it gains them to other areas of people’s lives. While many missionaries are involved in diverse activities, still many others finds themselves reinforcing a sacred-secular divide. We hear it often: “We don't do that humanitarian stuff. We teach the Bible, plain and simple.” While Bible teaching is obviously valid in its own right, the attitude that other activity is somehow “less spiritual” produces a false dichotomy. How much more fruit could be born in people’s lives if the preacher put down his Bible and picked up a hoe, set down the concordance and picked up ball. All relationship is positive development, says the Peace Corps. Church? Are we listening?

not a coincidence that church leaders came to a meeting in this building

 9. Go to church
            I remember giggling the first time I heard, “You don’t have to be a Christian to go to church.” I had never thought of it that way. Our trusted Peace Corps trainers advised us that church was important in the Zambian communities. If we didn’t go, people would find us off-putting at best, and label us witches at worst. It has always surprised me how many missionaries don’t go to church in the communities in which they live. Some travel to entirely ex-pat churches, many make excuses for not going all together: “Local church is hot/boring/incomprehensible/smelly/painful. I get nothing out of it. Did I mention that it’s boring?” It’s amazing to me that non-religious Peace Corps has the wisdom and the guts to say what many missions organizations do not: Go to a local church. Your testimony depends on it.

brother/sister-hood builds here

10. Gravitate towards the little guy

            Peace Corps is a grassroots organization. Volunteers are oriented to identify groups and individuals for whose social and economic position is crying out for investment. Engaging the “scraps” of a society is usually neither quick nor glamorous, but it is often just. Christian missionaries often feel the need to seek out the maximum impact, story-tell-able work, which, particularly in Zambia means gravitating towards the urban, mobile, educated and influential people. Even when work engages the young, sick, rural or marginalized, it happens on a broad scale, day trip-outreach activity, turning those individuals into a face in a crowd or number on a spreadsheet. When Christ talks about “the least of these” and “letting the little children come,” it should spur images of the one-on-one, Christ with his beloved, the sick and lowly, the unimportant and unflashy – just the kind of people that Peace Corps volunteers do well to buddy up with and help them take the next step.

not an elder in his church, not a leader in his community, but still an object of God's grace

Almost five years after my Close of Service, I am still learning how to love, serve and sacrifice well for the glory of God and the good of people. I gladly invite comments and observations stemming from other's experiences!

RPCV's or seasoned missionaries - anything to add?

Friday, February 21, 2014

redeeming the message behind the message

I love this. So very much I love it.

What am I looking at?

It’s Steven, and Bronwyn and the evangecube.

What’s an evangecube?

It’s a pictorial gospel presentation in the shape of a cube. Different flaps open and close and bend and fold in such a way that the cube morphs and different pictures appear as the story progresses.

Why is this awesome?

I’m so glad you asked, because my heart swelled as I stepped out the back door and found the two of them sitting there like this. I caught a glimpse of glory right here, and if you’ll indulge me, I’ll tell you about it.

The short explanation is that this is awesome because Stephen is sharing the gospel with Bronwyn. 
The neighbor boy is sharing the gospel with the missionary kid. 
The Zambian is sharing the gospel with the American. 
This image – simple and unknowing – speaks redemption to the race-based lies we encounter every single day.

For years we’ve been piecing together snippets of the Christian history in rural Zambia. Long ago, missionaries started pouring into this area bringing many wonderful things. Clinics! Schools! Anti-Slavery movement! David Livingstone is revered as a national hero and missionaries in general are spoken of highly. But looked at a different way, in addition to Jesus, the missionaries also brought all things new. New clothes, new food, new language, new homes, new definitions of poverty, new cultural expectations… new divides. 

All of these foreign ideas, having been brought by missionaries, were understandably linked with this new Christian religion. Still, people signed up for Jesus in droves – Grace and forgiveness? Health and healing? Forgiveness and love? Who doesn’t want that? And before long the entire country had officially said, “sure, we’ll take it,” to the white man’s God. But for many people we know, the racial and cultural associations of the faith communicated that this belief system is ultimately true for those who wear certain clothes and eat certain food and speak English and have white skin and live in fancy homes. We’ve heard it many times over, always in different words, “We’ll take it, thanks! But really, the gospel is a white-man’s gospel.”

One afternoon we were talking through the concept of repentance with a man in the village. He explained that his mother had always told him that he should NOT repent. Her reason? “The Americans killed Jesus, not the Africans. Let them apologize.” Though geographically inaccurate, it kind of makes sense. White gospel, white savior, white repentance.    

But the implications of this sentiment go deeper than my what my simple words could ever unearth. The fiercest beast we wrestle down is the belief that the whites got the gospel first because they are somehow “better.” Our hearts shed unseen tears every time we hear self-deprecating words come from our neighbors’ mouths. I’ve heard three times this week already, “Because you know, we blacks, we’re not like you whites. We are… lazy… thieves… petty… (fill in the blank with some other overgeneralized, depressing description.) The abundance of “help” that the white men have offered “in Jesus name” has reinforced an inferiority complex amongst many Zambians who seem to always be on the receiving end of help and teaching and correction. Our fists clench every time we hear a sentence begin with the words, “we blacks…” and we want to shout from the rooftops, “WHO SPOKE THESE WORDS OVER YOUR LIVES? Who ever led you to believe that you were something less than.

We listen to that same sound track play over and over in this village and we wonder where it came from… but every so often we hear that sound track change accents and sound like people we might know and we make a painful connection. I’m ashamed of how many times we’ve heard missionaries talk about their work using White Man’s Burden kind of language. Baptized with Christianese, it doesn’t sound too bad unless you listen to the message behind the message that communicates,

“I don't know what they would do without me.”


“Praise the Lord we saved them.”


"Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase noble…"

I’m sorry, I stopped listening after the word ‘savage.’

The communication of racial superiority has too often left us head-in-hands kind of discouraged … and our neighbors? Finding their confidence and identity in tradition. Because the Christianity clothed in strange threads and singing unknown tunes and always telling people they need help from the white guy - it doesn’t always speak to the village, the Bemba, the African reality. And so in Fimpulu, Christ remains at the margin. Faith observes formality without the freshness of true life. Churches have a form of godliness, but deny its power. The preachers preach, but the message behind the message remains: that the fullness of God in Jesus Christ belongs not to “sinners such as I” but to those who are white enough to get it and western enough to apply it.

With fear and trembling we ask ourselves whether we too have been, or even still are, complicit in this damaging of brothers and sisters. Hoping the best, for our sake and theirs, we long so much to hear a better message.

And Steven preached it for me.

For by the grace of God, this boy saw it fit to sit on the ground with the white girl and tell HER what is True. It didn’t cross his mind - the thought that he needed to refrain or wait for her to get older, because obviously she’s smarter and she would then help him live his life and show him the way because she’s white and white people are better than black people. No. In his precious, unadulterated heart, he saw the pale child for what she is - no better than himself; and the cynical mind of the mother beheld a new hope as she saw Romans 3:23 get dirty the way kids do:

For ALL have sinned and ALL fall short of the glory of God, and ALL are justified by his grace as a gift.

Children, to whom belong the kingdom of heaven, have first hand experience with grace, and know that it is for sure, never, a second hand gift. Thank you Steven, for loving my daughter enough to show her the pictures. Even though she doesn’t get it yet, I trust she will one day, and you’ll be a part of her story. To the praise, and glory of the One and Only.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Bashi Winnie Changes Diapers, and my claim to fame

Mansa is our little shopping town, and as long as I've been frequenting there for bread and cheese and canned beans, I’ve never really had my own identity. When I was serving with the Peace Corps, I was just another volunteer, easily confused with other generic white girls and called Christina, Jessica, Bonnie, Kristin, Becky, and Elizabeth. Because all white people look the same so clearly I’m her.

After I got married, I became the one married to the guy with the Land Rover, which apparently made me very cool and all the gas station attendants wanted to be my friend. Everyone knows Jeremy – and the Land Rover – and so this became my own claim to fame. I rode far on that title, answering politely as people would start a conversation not with "how are you?" but with "how is Jeremy?" (He's stellar, by the way.)

And then, one day, it happened. I had been sent into the market to buy some dried fish or something and a bunch of ladies were all like, “oh hey, we know you, you’re the one married to the guy who changes diapers!” Beaming with pride and cackling as much as the fish ladies were, I accepted my new moniker. Hand on hip with head tipped to the side, I said, “yup, that’s my man.” 

After asking Jeremy where this one came from, I finally heard the story. One day he had been with Bronwyn in the market’s car parking "area" (calling it a parking lot would imply some kind of order - so, we'll call it an "area") and the babe needed a diaper change. So Jeremy, being  a confident and secure man, not to mention a caring and kind father, simply changed the poopy diaper. In the three minutes that it took to remove the dirty diaper, wipe her up and slap a new diaper on her, a sizable crowd of men had gathered to stare and point and wonder really loudly who is this man that changes diapers??? 

Winnie baby, you are also awesome, and I hope you do not feel too exposed.
I've asked all my Fimpulu friends and they all say the same things: rural Zambian men CANNOT change diapers. It’s not possible. The child can sit in his poo until his mother returns. Or grandma can do it, or the big sister, but not the man because that is way too beneath him. If ever there were something on which to slap the label “women’s work,” it would be diaper changing. I only found one or two fathers who have ever changed a single diaper, and for them, it was a very humbling experience and under severely extenuating circumstances. So the fact that Jeremy, the Land Rover driving, barbed wire hauling, greased hands, man's-man – the fact that THIS GUY publically and unabashedly was found changing a diaper in the middle of a macho-guy infested public place… well shoot, that sealed it right there. Bashi Winnie is the new diaper changing celebrity. And I, proudly, am the diaper changing celebrity’s wife. 

I think of the American women of my generation who are fighting tooth and nail to establish their identity and leave their individual mark on the world and staring down the constant threat of being known merely as wife and mother. I understand the fight, but  I can honestly say that I’m content that hardly anyone knows my real name or my personal awesomeness. I’m rather quite honored to be connected to such a man of enviable fame who is talked of near and far because of his guns of steel and baby powder softness. 

Because after all, it takes a rather special woman to snag such a hunk of a diaper changing man. 

Eat your heart out girls, he’s mine. And Happy Valentines Day babe.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

black hair

Black hair. I feel like I should stop this post right here as there is NO WAY I can do the beauty and complexity and culture of black hair justice. Whatsoever. I think its pretty safe to say that many (most?) white folks have never been introduced to the hair culture within the African American community. How many of those reading this have ever…

a) talked with an African American woman about hair and identity,
b) can recognize a weave when they see one
c) could participate in on a conversation about hair moisturizers or part fatigue
d) have seen the Chris Rock documentary Good Hair   (ps, not endorsing, just saying)

The reality is that most white women will never know anything about black American hair unless a black sister opens that door. If you are still scratching your head and wondering, what is the big deal?,… there’s too much to say in a simple blog post, and besides, its better heard from an actually black woman with actually black hair. Which is not me. I pray pray pray that my readers have a diverse enough friend group that learning about black hair is as simple as asking the friend you already have, while sitting together at the next lunch date you already have planned.


The thing that has always stood out to me about hair in this culture is that the braiding of hair EQUALS female bonding. After field work, in the post-lunch lull of the late afternoon, you’ll always find pods of women gathered under a tree braiding each other’s hair. The braider is usually sitting on the ground and the braid-ee rests her head in the braider’s lap with neck all crooked – but she’ll stay there for 1-3 hours until her hair is complete. As the women sit and braid, they chat, share gossip, laugh and enjoy each others’ company. Girls being girls, women being women. From time to time I crash a braiding sesh. I’ve tried to be a good sport and endure the yanking and pulling, and praise the good Lord my neighbor ladies decided for themselves that my hair is just not braidable. Instead I just sit and listen and make a really big fuss about how fabulous the girls look and make them laugh when I say that their husbands best come home and tell them they look mighty fine.

When Bronwyn was born, people commented on her hair more than anything else. Its color, texture, length. Even still, I frequently hear comments on how long her hair is getting, far more than comments on her clothes or skin or chub. I’ve wondered how she would feel when her girl friends all started braiding each other’s hair. Will she want me to corn-row hers too? Will she feel left out? Will she feel less girly if she sports "boring" braids and her friends have beads and colors and all kinds of pizzaz? Or will she merely learn to appreciate the differences of how God has made us? Kinky, straight, dark, light. I’m thankful that she seems to be getting in there just fine. 

This is Bronwyn with Beauty, whom Bronwyn calls Booty, bless her heart. Beauty might be the most patient six year old on the planet because she sat right there FOR-EV-ER and let Bronwyn flop her cotton braids around and look really intense and act like she totally knew what she was doing. It was precious. 

look that that face. love it.
It was also the first time I had seen Bronwyn really notice hair like that, and it gives me hope that she is heading down a path of enjoying the hair culture right along with her Zambian peers. There is a part of me that hopes that she will one day be an amazing bridge builder as she sits with Zambian - or American or Haitian or any other nationality black women, and in all her blonde-ness, can still dish about styles and products and hair issues. But most of all, I hope she uses the context of hair to learn to love herself and love her sisters well – braids, buns, bobs and all.