Saturday, February 27, 2010

a deeper hunger

Tata Maka is one of my favorite people in South Africa. He is a faithful member of Harvest Time Ministries in the location of Mandela Park, just outside of Mthatha.

After services, he openly shares his insights with me.

Tata Maka's prayers for regular employment were finally answered several weeks ago. He now works at one of the many Spar grocery stores in town. His job is to bring bread out from the bakery and into the salesroom. He reports that the bread disappears into the hands of eager shoppers as soon as he wheels it out. Some days he runs back and forth, in and out, all day without rest. One day in the process, he heard the voice of God telling him that the people's desperate hunger for bread was but a sign of their deeper hunger for God.

Just today I also read these words from Kenneth E. Bailey in his fine book on the Gospels, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Describing an experience in the Sahara Desert in which the author and his company went for a day and a half without water, he writes,

"As I staggered on, my mind turned to this verse and I knew that I had never sought righteousness with the same single-minded passion that I now gave to the quest for water" (Bailey, 2008: 77). The verse, of course, was the beatitude of Jesus: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled" (Mt. 5:6).

Bailey concludes: "This Beatitude makes clear that the bless-ed are those whose drive for righteousness is as pervasive, all-consuming and recurring as the daily yearning to satisfy hunger and thirst. Hungering and thirsting for that righteousness can only be satisfied by God" (pg. 81).

Tata Maka would agree.


Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2008).

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


I had written two weeks ago about my frustrations with trying to empower people who may not want to be empowered (whose decisions?). Specifically, our committee was not willing or able to stand up for the decisions that they had made but, as soon as any dissent arose, they came back to "pleading" with us for new decisions. I went into our committee meeting last week prepared to come out feeling even worse about the future of the school.

But when the issue of decision-making arose on the agenda, our chairperson made a speech in which he apologised for the manner in which the issue had been brought to us and said: "the committee appeared as people who do not stand to their word."

I was touched. I was thrilled. I was humbled. I was hopeful. This was a committee that we could work with. A committee that wanted to "stand to their word."

The discussion went around and around and when all facts and details, thoughts and opinions had been laid out, the committee decided that the decision taken in November was still the one that would serve the most people the most faithfully. Everyone weighed in, consensus was reached, and the committee committed itself to defending the decision to the people.

We move on in hope.

Tata Gumenke, committee chairperson


Friday, February 19, 2010

"good news to the poor"

Earlier this month we passed the four-year mark of our time in South Africa. One of the issues that is ever-before us is poverty and how to respond to it. Neither romanticizing those who are poor, on the one hand, nor condemning them, on the other, will do. Amidst all of the confusion that comes with working to empower the unempowered, inspire the uninspired, give hope to those in despair, I find my way in the proclamation of Jesus' simple words--words of love, words of challenge, words with power.

The so-called "prosperity gospel" is one message which speaks to the poor. Regardless of whether one finds it unsavory at best, blasphemous at worst, one cannot deny its large following. To this we may simply say that the way of Jesus was never meant to be popular--"the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Mt. 7:14); and after all is said and done, it may come down to that. Even so, we can also ask whether we have done all we can do, said all we can say, to proclaim a message that gives hope to the poor.

I have posted a short essay on this theme on the website of the Anabaptist Network in South Africa.



Tuesday, February 9, 2010

whose decisions?

For the most part, things went very well with our conference this weekend. The teaching was well received, attendance good in spite of recent conflict, the singing as beautiful as ever, and the people as warm. And yet, there was one incident that has made me question our entire ministry.

While our purpose here is to build up church leaders through biblical and leadership education, one desired outcome from this building up is Christian leaders who take over the running of the school and no longer "need" the missionaries. One of the ways that we have worked at this is to work very closely with a committee of ten elected students in making all decisions related to the school. Our hope is that these students will take responsibility for the running of the school and will grow in capacity to run it themselves.

Our final conference of the year is in November and this is the time when major decisions are supposed to be discussed at the committee level and taken to the annual general meeting for discussion and approval or rejection. In November, we proposed a new teaching schedule that would make better use of our resources and would allow students to finish their certificates in 4 years instead of 6. It would prove a slight inconvenience for those few students with jobs who would probably need to finish in the original 6 years. The committee assured us that this would not be a problem and later told us that the general student body had approved it.

Our first conference on this new schedule was this past weekend and the new additional Friday teaching went well. We had good turn out and were able to spend more time on the topic than normal. Everyone seemed very happy.

But the next day, when the students were in discussion groups, the committee said that they wanted to talk to us. They had had complaints about this new schedule and wanted to change it. We asked them to understand the implications of their new proposed changes and also the implications of running an organisation that makes decisions in this haphazard way.

The incident has been haunting me ever since. I think that what bothers me is the committee's failure to take responsibility for their decisions. We had naively believed that they were fully empowered and knew that the decisions they made were the ones that were implemented. And yet, as soon as someone complained, they were more than happy to bring it back to us and ask us to make changes. They had passed a proposal that they wanted to change by the next time we met. We told them it wasn't our (Joe's and my) decision but OUR (the whole committee's) decision. But it ultimately comes down to them believing that we are the big bosses. Which we are to an extent.

And that's the other part of it. We are the ones paid full-time to run the school--so we are the big bosses. We are trying to empower a committee of volunteers who have their own lives and work. Why should they take responsibility for the running of the school? It seems to suit everyone fine to have the missionaries make the decisions and run the school. We are the ones who are trying to be democratic and empower the students. That is not their goal but ours.

These are perpetual questions. I can't let myself be dejected by the lows as I can't let myself become overly optimistic by the highs. We carry on in faith all people are "crowned with glory and honour" and have been given "dominion over the works of [God's] hands" (Psalm 8:5,6) and we are all living ourselves into this glory.