Monday, May 13, 2013

Now that’s sleeping in.

Our VBS, which had been scheduled for 9 a.m., was postponed until 3 p.m., so we all sleep until we feel rested. For me, that’s 9 a.m., which is absurdly later than my usual 5:30. Glorious.

I wander out to the kitchen, where a couple of team members are sitting silently at the table, staring. Since I had said last night that breakfast is on your own, people come and go, getting a slice of bread with jelly, boiling water for oatmeal, cooking eggs. I’m not a breakfast person, but I eventually poach a couple eggs and put them on a piece of toast. Not bad.

The toaster works, but not by itself; you have to hold the lever down. Fine if you’re patient. The egg yolks are a much lighter yellow than we’re used to; scrambled, they almost look like just the whites. Somebody cuts up a papaya—we have a basket with papaya, avocado and oranges—and we all have a bite or two. It seems sweeter than the papaya I’ve had in the States. The oranges look green, but they’re ripe; apparently they’re dyed for the American market? That’s what somebody claims, anyway.

We have to wash the fruits, except bananas, with vinegar water to clean them off before cutting them. If you think about it, slicing a fruit with a knife is a bad idea if the knife blade picks up corruption from the outside and just passes it through to the pulp. The bananas, obviously, we can peel without cutting. Nature’s perfect food.

By 10 or so, pretty much everybody’s around—even the boys have shown up. Some are reading, some catching up on chores, some journaling, some just sitting. It’s good to relax; for the first few days in a new culture, you feel tired all the time. Some of that’s from jet lag, of course, though we’ve done pretty well with that; I told them that the way to beat jet lag is to stay away from caffeine and sugar while in transit, and stay up until bed time the first night you arrive. I find it’s actually easier to adjust if you are sleep deprived when you arrive—you sleep solidly the first night, and the next morning you’re ready to go. For me that has worked in both directions, with time changes of up to 14 hours. (That one was Greenville to Saipan.)

But even beyond jet lag, you’re exhausted in a new culture, because of a general feeling of sensory overload from the unusual sights and sounds, and because processing the cultural differences requires constant attention and thought. It just wears you out.

Around 11 Gabriel, one of the college graduates, comes by, offering to talk to us about our plans for VBS. We jump at the chance. He tells us what they usually do, and we lay out our plans. He agrees that it all looks good. A number of national young people will be conducting the VBS with us, and to my mind that’s one of the most exciting parts of the project—our team members getting the experience of working with colleagues/peers from another culture, in another culture. I’ve already told them that they’re going to meet African Christians who are their spiritual superiors, from whom they can learn much; this, I hope, will be one of those times.

After an hour or so, while Abbie and Ellie are helping Mama prepare lunch, I offer to take the laptop over to the wireless hot spot in the chapel and let anyone who wants some Web and email time get some. Half a dozen or so take me up on the offer—I suppose their parents know who they are.

By this time lunch has arrived—more pressed vegetable sandwiches, some avocado and papaya, and the star of the show, a watermelon. It’s red and sweet, and we all enjoy it (Jon more than the others). And it’s really interesting to wash a watermelon with vinegar water.

Finally the central event of the day—a VBS program in a village where Faith is establishing a church plant. We load up the bus and pick up several college students—Simon, Gabriel, Janet—and drive northwest of Wa for several kilometers. The village is small, with concrete block or mud-brick buildings with wood and metal roofs. As soon as we drive up, people start noticing the bus full of nasala (white people), and a crowd of adults and children gathers. As we unload the bus, we realize that virtually no one there speaks any serious English. And in an instant, we’ve gone from a well-planned mission team to a bunch of Americans completely dependent on the Ghanaian college students to make this work. The Ghanaians take over, instructing the kids to line up for division into teams and for instruction on how the games will work. We try to assist as best we can.

After a few minutes of play, we pull the older kids over to the classroom where the church plant currently meets, for songs and stories, while the younger ones are introduced to the joys of “Steal the Bacon.” Sure. Have two kids run directly at each other at full speed. What could possibly go wrong? Surprisingly there are no injuries.

Timothy tells me to come with him. We walk 100 yards or so to a large shade tree where three men are sitting on a low wooden platform. Timothy introduces me to the central man, who is the chief. I lower my head in respect, I suppose due mostly to the old judo days, and tell him that I am privileged to meet him. He speaks no English, so Timothy translates. Timothy tells him that I was his professor when he attended university in America. I tell Timothy to tell the chief that I said that Timothy was a good student. He translates, and the chief laughs. He tells us we are welcome in his village. I manage to say the one Waale word I know—“barakah!” (thank you! [I think that comes into Waale from Arabic, “blessed”])—and the chief laughs heartily. We seem to have hit it off. I ask Timothy if it would be appropriate if I asked to take a photo. The chief laughs and lines up with Timothy and his two friends; then, after I take the photo, he invites me to come join him, and Timothy takes a photo. We shake hands, and Timothy and I head back to the group.

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As we return, Timothy explains to me what just happened. This church plant has been meeting in the school classroom, and its members have begun to construct their own building. Two other churches (not gospel preaching) have pressured the chief not to let them build. Our showing up and playing with the kids is a gesture of good will, and our visit to the chief is intended to personalize our presence in the village. It appears to have gone very well; the chief said to us, “You are welcome in our village.” So maybe that’s that.

I think we can also provide something of a theological contrast in this heavily Muslim area. In Muslim theology, Allah does not love his people. If you do enough good works, you can persuade him not to eradicate you, and maybe get a fairly enjoyable afterlife. But the concept of a personal, loving relationship with Allah is foreign to Islam; he really doesn’t care about us, his transcendence far outweighing his immanence. So we show up representing a God who loves them, and we get to illustrate that love with them in small ways, by playing games, treating even the children with affection and respect, shaking their hands, hugging them, laughing with them. The contrast is tacit but stark.

When we arrive back at the field, they’re in the process of swapping the two groups, pulling the older kids back out for more games, while I, the pied piper, lead all the little ones over to the classroom.

I move around the whole area, watching the team and their peers work, watching the children play, taking pictures, enjoying ministry. I note that the field is surrounded by adults; virtually the whole village has turned out. I walk over to a group of about 5 men sitting on the ground. I offer my hand and smile, and they all shake. One of them says a couple of words of English to me, and I engage him in conversation. We talk about the village’s two wells (“boreholes”) and where they came from (the first one from the government, the second from a Catholic charity), and what life is like in the village. He asks about my children, and I ask about his: three sons. He motions toward the field. “They are out there.” He pauses, then looks up at me from his seat on the ground. “Thank you for coming today. Thank you for doing this.” Makes my day.

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Around 5:30 we tell the kids we’ll be back tomorrow and call it a day. Abbie, Ellie and Joy have run the games for the younger children; Jordan, Auria and Heather have worked with the older; and Will and Robert have worked with both. Inside, Simon, Gabriel and Gina have done the hard work in teaching and leading the songs, with help from Catherine and Jon for both the younger and older kids. Katie and Angel have told the Bible story to the younger kids, and Keri to the older. Everybody has played a role and done it well. The team is maturing into a real operation.

We break out a lot of water sachets on the way back. It’s been a sunny day, and everyone’s been running. We’re thirsty.

At supper (Mama J made peanut butter soup!) we talk about what we’ve learned. An obvious lesson is the grace of God in prospering our way, even when many of us didn’t have much of an idea of what was going on under the surface, and we were not prepared to minister effectively on our own. It’s also obvious to the team—I was hoping for this—that the Ghanaian college students are their superiors in both spiritual maturity and ministry effectiveness. I’ve wanted them to see for themselves the futility of “Great White Hope” missions; we are not in some way spiritually superior by virtue of our Americanness or our whiteness. The African believers are strong, knowledgeable and spiritually mature. We are learning from them—and that should not be surprising. This is a university class, at least partly because we expect the students to be more learners than teachers. Americans as a whole are fairly isolated culturally, and we tend to think of the American way of doing things as the right way; for many of us it is the only way we have ever known. American tourists have a reputation abroad, usually well deserved, for arrogant ignorance. I’m thrilled to see these students humbly learning that they’re not anybody’s Hope.

Devotions after supper, and a little strategizing for tomorrow’s VBS: how can we build on what we accomplished today? Then it’s my usual late evening tasks—write the journal entry, upload it, and take that glorious cold shower.

Tomorrow is scheduled to be another day just like this one. We’ll see.

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Dan Olinger

Chair, Division of Bible in the BJU School of Religion.

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