On a recent trip to Kenya my wife and I, and our Globe Leadership Team, visited a small tribal village on the edge of Kitale. For reasons of war and drought, a few Turkana people migrated here from Kenya’s northern desert regions over sixty years ago. Since then the tribe has lived in filthy squalor on the edge of the city. Today, they comprise over 3500 souls in a sprawling labyrinth of tin-roof mud houses.
By Western standards, conditions in Kitale’s “Kipsongo Slum” are dreadful. Dirt, trash, flies and stench permeate every corner of the village. Except for a few fortunate souls, no one has electricity. Access to water and toilet facilities are a community privilege, not an individual right. Unemployment and alcoholism (mostly among the men) is rampant. And few outsiders care, much less notice them, as they pass the village on the main road.
But for the Turkana people here, life is better than it has ever been. Their new mud houses and tin roofs are an upgrade. Until recently they lived in the cold, on the dirt under plastic bags stretched over a pathetic frame of wood and tree branches. Cheri Thompson, a veteran Globe missionary in Kitale, and a few others in the area, took the village into their hearts. They started by ministering to the children – filthy little urchins roaming about through the squalor – who were often abandoned by parents. Cheri started visiting the village every week. She made friends among the women, and built trust with the tribal leaders. Eventually, she found donors to buy wood and tin to build simple hut frames with tin roofs. The villagers gathered mud – there is a lot of it – and filled in the frames to make walls for protection against cold and rain. In time, others helped pour concrete floors.
When we drove up, the townspeople and their chiefs – a crowd of two hundred – met us. They danced and sang for us. They grabbed our hands and dragged us into the fray, insisting we join in. The best we could do was smile and lamely mimic their supple African moves. When the dancing was done, we gathered in a simple shelter and they told us their stories, with many references to “Mama Cheri” and how she had improved their lives and given them hope.
I turned sixty-one this year and have spent most of my adult life serving in global ministry. For fifteen years my family lived in some of Asia’s poorest nations. I’m not new to poverty, but poverty like this is never easy to experience.
Sitting among these simple Turkana people, I was reminded again how differently poor people experience religious faith. Like all humans, they have troubles. But, their concerns are not about lofty callings and grand ambitions and international impact. Jesus meets them on a different level. Their thoughts go to their next meal, or medicine they need for an infected leg, or to how to avoid being abused. Their men – and some of their women – drink too much, frittering away what little money they have. And, who can blame them? Hope is a rare commodity among the Turkana.
Yet, hope is not dead here. The Turkana expressed gratitude for a mud house and a tin roof and a concrete floor. They thanked Cheri for treating the villagers for chigger mites (that had infested over 60% of the population). The women were especially grateful to be given a chance to learn a vocation. Observing their skill in making simple jewelry with beads, string, paper and glue, Cheri helped them expand and market their products. One lady did so well with her jewelry business that she was able to stucco her mud house with concrete and install a small electrical panel.
The Turkana people are poor, they are simple, but they aren’t fools. They see the difference between informed help (from career people who live among them) and visitors who give handouts for photo opportunities or stay a few days and make naïve promises. Some Turkana manipulate such visitors; others get angry for being made into a spectacle. Stopping by to preach Good News isn’t a complete answer either; it is what missiologists call a “limited good.” Preaching will benefit some, but for many others the Gospel-of-words-only is like James’ indictment on casual Christians who say, “Be warmed and filled” and then continue down the highway to a more comfortable place.
Seekers go to an area and stay long enough to understand a problem in its context, and then work with the people to find a locally sustainable solution.
In his groundbreaking book, “The White Man’s Burden,” author Professor William Easterly observes that, after fifty years of big plans to rid the world of poverty (all of them from First World Governments), there is more poverty than ever before. He insists big plans never succeed. Easterly suggests there is only one answer for the global poverty challenge. That is through the work of “seekers.” Seekers go to an area and stay long enough to understand a problem in its context, and then work with the people to find a locally sustainable solution. Seekers identify one problem and offer a simple remedy – like a way to purify water or eradicate malaria. They improve conditions just a little, and seek to duplicate and expand the solution locally by empowering the people.
Parents understand this. There is no quick formula for child raising. It takes twenty years of personal investment to “build” a healthy, autonomous adult who can function in society. Why would we think any differently about solutions for poverty? Don’t kid yourself. The work of real transformation – from ashes to beauty – is a long journey.
Only career missionaries, who invest their lives in their host culture by learning the language and the culture, making friends, and building trust can “see” (through an inherent cross-cultural haze) what is needed for genuine change and empowerment to happen.
I’m making a case for career missionaries here. Only career missionaries, who invest their lives in their host culture by learning the language and the culture, making friends, and building trust can “see” (through an inherent cross-cultural haze) what is needed for genuine change and empowerment to happen. They cannot force it! They cannot do it! They can only offer ideas, suggest solutions, give a little aid and help the process along. Through copious measures of time, patience, and the gracious truth of the Gospel, invested in relationships with their host people, career missionaries help catalyze true transformation.
Everyone who “GOES” and every church who “SENDS” them, must come to terms with this reality. Not everyone is called to a career in missions. But SOME ARE CALLED! And, for the Great Commission to be fulfilled, SOME MUST GO! It will not happen any other way.
Globe appreciates short term missions, but we are looking for career people. We offer many Intern opportunities, from “Short Duration” (three to twelve months) to “Full Experience” (one to three years) to help people “Explore the Call” of God on their lives and see if a career commitment is a real option. After Internship, career-minded people begin to “Navigate the Call” by making thoughtful choices about how to invest their lives in another people and another place, to bring to them the transforming message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I challenge you, dear Reader, to consider what God might be calling you to do in His command to “Disciple all nations.” Let Globe, or another agency like us, help you start moving forward on this journey. A career in missions will not be easy. It will be the most challenging thing you could ever do. But, being a catalyst for change – like Cheri Thompson has been for the Turkana people of Kitale, Kenya – can also be the most rewarding thing you will ever do.