On Picking up and Putting Down

In the past 10 years, I have lived in 11 different places. I’ve lived in 4 places in Michigan, 5 in Illinois, one in Colorado, and now I’m living in Kenya. 5 of those places were with different families (6 if you count living here at Mount Carmel). During the last 5 years, I have also travelled to about 50 different cities across the American Midwest. Needless to say, this last decade has had its high points and low points.

Moving Box

Maybe some of you know what it’s like to practically live out of a box (or suitcase). Sometimes it can be quite exciting, like seeing new places and acclimating to different lifestyles, or becoming a part of someone else’s family and experiencing life with people you never met before you moved in to live with them. Having to adapt to different schedules, house-rules, and access to amenities certainly makes you more resourceful and flexible. You learn different ways of seeing the world, whether global or local, and you can learn a great deal about people by being exposed to so many from various walks of life.

You also learn a great deal about yourself if you move around a lot. You realize what your limits are (physical, mental, social, etc.), and what your weaknesses are as well as your strengths. You also learn what you can’t live without; what matters most to you. Spend enough time moving around and the list of ‘can’t-live-without’s becomes smaller and smaller. You also learn what you can’t live with, and that list gets bigger and bigger as time goes on.
For me, I have come to realize an item on that ‘can’t-live-with’ list: moving around. Almost 10 years ago I was living in Colorado for almost the same amount of time I will be living in Kenya. During the months I spent there I became more and more homesick. I was living in a place that was unfamiliar, I attended a church that I never quite got comfortable with, and I had friends back home whom I missed. Although some of the elements from that time seem similar to what I am going through here in Africa, I have been experiencing quite a different sensation during my time away from home.

Rather than being what I would call ‘homesick,’ I think I am at that place in my life where I can’t keep moving around anymore. It was fun for a while, and I am very proud of my ability to pack not just for a weekend trip but for a year. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m always unpacking with the mentality of “how can I unpack this in a way that makes it easy to pack again?,” or the constant mental process of doing what I’m doing now in such a way that makes the transition to my next life-station easiest; always focused on the next step (in fact, before I let for Kenya, I was already in the process of making plans for when I return to the States). Or, perhaps it’s because I’m tired of saying ‘goodbye’ all the time. I’ve gotten so exhausted of going through the ‘farewell’ process that I became pretty good at moving out either early in the morning, later at night, or when no one is around so that I don’t have to deal with it.

Maybe the reasons don’t matter so much as the fact I have come to realize: I am ready to stop moving around. I realize that God is ultimately going to put me where he wants me, and maybe that includes more travels, but I want to be able to move somewhere and not have to think about how I’m going to pack everything up again. I want to be able to invest in a local community long-term instead of trying to not get too involved because I know I’ll be leaving that place after a short time. I want to be able to continue building the friendships I already have instead of needing to start new ones. And, for crying out loud, I want to be able to open those new sets of kitchen and dining ware that’s been sitting in my parents storage room for almost 5 years!!!!

If I am even more honest, I want to stop keeping people at arms length all the time. When I first started moving from place to place I would try and get to know the people I stayed with and lived around, but quickly learned that doing so only makes the ‘goodbye’ even harder. Perhaps it’s unfair, but I subconsciously started to keep to myself more and more so that when the time comes I can leave wherever I am and move on with as little emotional impact as possible.

During my time here, I have learned a lot about myself. And I’ve been forced to look at things in my past and present that I have tried to keep out of my memory. It’s possible that some of that will make it into a future post, but for now the one thing that keeps nagging me is the realization that I’m ready to put down roots somewhere.

Huh… it seems my last few posts have been a bit negative. I didn’t plan that on purpose – I suppose it’s just a reflection of the sobering truths I am learning during my time here!

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On Inquiries and Rejections

I was talking a while ago with my friend back in the States about my time here in East Africa. We had been to this part of the world together on multiple occasions, so it is nice being able to talk to someone with whom you share experiences. In the course of our conversation, he was asking about how I was doing and mentioned that he was jealous that I have this awesome opportunity. But, I admitted something to him that I have found true during my time here: It is really difficult living here.

I do not say “difficult” as a slant against the people I work with. The people here are wonderful, and there is a lot to be admired from the way East Africans live. I say “difficult” because you have to almost completely change you way of life in order to function here.

For one, you have to completely alter your standard of living. Unlike how that expression is normally used, I am not implying that one has to move from a higher to a lower standard of living (or vice versa). What I mean is that you have to completely change how you operate from day-to-day. You have to pay attention to things you aren’t using to paying attention to. You have to forego any familiarities with life ‘back home’ such as food, fashion, driving style, road manners, and interpersonal communication among basically everything else.

It is true that on a short-term mission trip you are exposed to all these, you really only interact with them on a superficial level; you are an outside observer performing some interactions with the local culture. At the end of the two weeks, however, you return home having only tasted life abroad. But, as is the case for me, the changes in lifestyle are not applied only on the surface. You have to take them on yourself entirely.

The way people here think, which can be quite different than the way people think in the States, has to become the way you think. There are expectations that are placed on you that you are not use to, and you have to learn how to adapt in order to meet those expectations (and it’s another thing entirely to know which expectations you should and should not adapt to). Overall, there are many challenges to living – rather than visiting – a culture that is foreign to your own. If I can be honest, there is one main challenge I have been struggling with ever since I arrived here.

It’s the way I am treated simply because I’m white. I would say “because I’m American” but a friend of mine who is also American lives here and is black, and he is treated like a normal everyday African even though he is still trying to learn some basic Swahili.

America

Sometimes it’s not that big of a deal, and I even find it flattering in some cases the amount of attention I get because of my skin color. When attending a soccer game I may be the only white person in a crowd of hundreds or thousands (besides the team coaches), so I like being called out and recognized as special because I am cheering for the same team as everyone else. What I struggle with, however, is when people assume that simply because I have a United States visa I have personal connections with people in high places who can supply jobs, money, and transport to the U.S.

At first I let it slide off my back whenever a random stranger would come up to me and ask for employment, or money, or what have you. But not too long ago I suppose you could say I reached my tipping point.

I was at church, a place I like to think of as one where I can let my defenses down a little and just enjoy being with my Spiritual Family, where there is neither African nor American, rich nor poor. A man was there, and talking casually with other people present. Then he saw me, and came up to engage in conversation. I’m not averse to meeting new people, so I obliged. After sharing about some of his life’s difficulties, I could tell where the conversation was going. When he got around to asking if I could supply him with a job, I politely told him I’m not in a place to do so. He became a bit frustrated and then asked me for money. Again, I politely told him I could not and made up a reason why. Then, he kept looping his requests until I just stopped responding. I think that was the moment when it became too much for me, and I couldn’t handle being treated like a stereotypical rich, connected, all-around better citizen of the world because I’m white.

I remember lying in bed that night, still frustrated by the whole experience, and deciding not to fight those ideas anymore:

“Fine, I have more money than you do because I’m American.”

“Okay, I have personal connection with the president of the United States and the owner of British Airways.”

“Yes, my life will always be better than yours in every conceivable way.”

“Of course, you can’t do anything right on your own and need us ‘white saviors’ to come and do everything for you.”

Although I completely disagree with the above statements (and their presuppositions), when you frequently receive these messages in some form or another throughout your stay and some people even outright say these things to you, it can be tedious.

That is just one example of what I have been learning about myself (and long-term missions) while I have been here. I could talk about more, like how I always have to be careful about what I say regarding Kenya’s politics, leaders, international affairs, lifestyle, etc. whenever I am around other people because I do not know what will offend and what will not; or how the rate at which life flows is simultaneously wonderful and frustrating; or how difficult it is to suppress my ‘Americanisms’ almost all the time. But, hopefully this should suffice to get my point across: life in a foreign place is difficult.

Because I have chosen to live in Kenya and work with the church during this time, some people have assumed that I am planning on being an international missionary. While I have seriously thought about it, I have also learned that I am not gifted or graced to perform such a task. I do not know how the missionaries here do what they do, and handle with such grace and humility the situations in which they find themselves.

I thank God for the people he has called to build his kingdom overseas, because it’s certainly not something I can handle.

On Missions and Selfishness

A few days ago, I was talking with one of the missionaries at the compound here in Kenya. The topic of missions came up, and we began to discuss the frustrations faced by missionaries when mission teams come and give almost no thought to how their presence, words, and activities affect the local people. In fact, we concluded, many times the mission teams leave the field more damaged than how they found it (wrongfully assuming that their purpose was to ‘fix’ anything in the first place).

DSCN5177

This conversation reminded me of something that took place many months ago at a Missions in Action chapel service at Olivet. During this particular service, members of mission teams from the previous year were on the stage and some shared their experiences with the collected student body. As it turns out, Twitter can be quite a menacing mistress, as dozens of tweets started flying around talking about how ‘full of themselves’ these mission-trip members were, or how ‘holier than thou’ they seemed. Not only that, but many of the tweets were downright ridiculing international missions…

“What’s the point of going overseas when there are so many needs in our own area?”

“Missions trips do more harm than good.”

“They’re talking about this just to make us feel guilty.”

Etc. etc. etc.

While there were certainly tweets that were more pointed than that, and cause quite a stir between some people who were quite argumentative, there was one tweet that still sticks in my mind: “The only thing these people are talking about is what they experienced. Mission trips aren’t about you!”

It was a tweet meant to bash the people on stage who were sharing their thoughts, but it struck a chord with me that resonated with the conversation I had with the missionary a few days ago. It has me wondering if we sell missions and ministry on a faulty platform.
I think we tend to view mission trip experiences as an exercise of our holiness, or at least an event that facilitates our sanctification. We see them as avenues towards building a better tomorrow for us and the rest of the world. But what if the purpose of missions isn’t for us at all? What if the purpose of mission trip experiences was to sacrifice any benefit toward ourselves for the sake of helping those to whom we are going to minister?

I think we have bought so much into the mindset that missions is about making an investment – which out to provide a reasonable rate of return! – that we forget that the whole point of mission (and, by extension, ministry) is to give ourselves away, to forego any expectation of a reasonable rate of spiritual return, and to simply offer ourselves as servants (not workers, who at least get paid) for the Kingdom.

It irks me to no end to see members of mission teams come in and neglect even the basics of doing cross-cultural work. Sure, some mistakes can be understandable, but when ‘veteran’ workers come and even the locals become annoyed with attitudes and insulted by words and actions, it makes me wonder why on earth such people do missions work in the first place.
Taking this more to heart, I have begun to wonder if I have taken the same approach to ministry. Do I administer my ministerial duties for the sake of building my reputation? Will I commit to certain programs and themes in my future church in order to rake in more potential members, or make people feel more comfortable in my church? Will my style of pastoring be based on who I am and what I need? Or will I be the pastor who offers himself to his people regardless of any amount of personal benefit?

Before I came to Kenya, I was asked by a few people the following question: “How will going to Kenya help you be a better pastor in the States?”

I think I have the answer to that question: I am not here in Kenya to be a better pastor in the States. I am here in Kenya to be a minister in Kenya. The purpose of my time here is to love the people here, and to be obedient to what God desires of me here. I am not here for the purpose of becoming a better pastor, or to become more spiritual. Will I learn a lot that can help me as I pastor in the States? Sure! But that’s not the reason I’m here.

I am wondering, what is the reason we do what we do in the lives of others? Is it to generate a ‘God-moment’? Do we treat people like stocks, where we keep depositing our time and energy just so we can get a nice return on our investment? Or do we invest ourselves in the lives of others for the sake of others, and letting that be enough?

When we treat people like shares, and the Kingdom like the stock market, all we do is make a fool of ourselves.

Would it be okay for us if we never see the results of all of our time, energy, and resources? I think the answer to that question would reveal to us quite a lot about ourselves.