Sunday, May 17, 2009

Musings on Missions

Musings on Missions… sparked by our trip to Robertsport in March…

While in Robertsport, the county seat of Grand Cape Mount County, about a 2 and ½ hour drive from here, we walked around some of the streets just sightseeing. Robertsport is an old town… settled in the early 1800s by some of the freed slaves ("AmericoLiberians") who came from the US in the 1820s and '30s. We walked by the Mount Zion Baptist Church, which was founded in 1837.

This was a mission church—founded with the support and help of Christians back in the U.S., who wanted to help evangelize Liberia and also to bring civilization and education to Africa. The kids climbed in through an open window and scoped out the place—it is an active church, with decent pews and a big pulpit Bible open on the lectern. Out back, there is a church bell that fascinated me.

It had a bold imprint on it stating that the bell was made by the Meneely Company in West Troy, New York in 1886.

I keep thinking about that bell… wondering how it got here to West Africa from its foundry in upstate New York. Two of my brothers attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, so I have pretty clear images of Troy—large mill buildings, old industry. Who arranged for the purchase of the bell, and how did they go about it? I know they didn't get online and order it with their credit card! Someone probably from that area was coming to Liberia to work with the church, rode to West Troy with their horse and carriage and purchased that bell to load on a ship along with their other belongings, possibly never to see home again. In those days the risks of becoming involved in missions to tropical areas were tremendous. Malaria, dysentery, and parasites claimed a majority of lives within a short time.

This bell is not a "typical" bell—I have often seen cast iron bells which might have been used on a farm or a small school. Such a bell would have rusted away in that seaside location long ago. This is a bronze bell, amazingly well preserved and still with a clear beautiful tone! (I told them not to ring it, but Jared just couldn't resist!).

[I googled "Meneely & Co" and actually there's quite a bit of info online about them… there are Meneely bells in churches and carillons all around the world, many listed and catalogued online… but I didn't see any of their African bells catalogued…]

As I continued to think about the Mount Zion Baptist Church, I thought about the motivations of those who planted it, those who constructed the building, those who purchased and brought the bell. They felt that they were bringing God's kingdom, and with it, civilization, education, and progress to Africa. They did not have the sense that some of what they met in Africa was good and should be preserved… that perhaps an African church should look like an African home or have an African style. They didn't feel that church music in Africa should sound African with drums and African harmonies. Their thoughts were simple—we are bringing church and God's word with us to Africa and we will bring it just as we had it in our home country.

Many of these thoughts have changed over the years, but in many ways here in Liberia the whole culture of church and of what it means to be a Christian was shaped so strongly by the approach of these early missionaries that you cannot return, you can't start over and try to do it differently here. At least some things have changed—we now have Africans singing beautiful songs they have written in their own local languages, and accompanied by traditional instruments. Back in the 1800s many missionaries would have said that, since these drums and instruments are used in traditional ceremonies involving idol worship, that we cannot use them in church. But gradually as native Liberians themselves have taken ownership of how their churches will be, those ideas have changed.

But I do find myself wondering… while we have accepted some of the outward ways of local people in our missions work, adopting the dress and music of Liberians as we work with them in missions, are we losing our appreciation for local ways of thinking, values of hospitality, visiting, etc.? These issues still confront every missionary who comes to a place like Liberia. Are we willing to dig deep enough into the culture, values, and issues of our Liberian friends to let their culture come out, to let it touch us? How about our culture? Are we willing to let our habits and values be changed as the Lord may reveal things to us? Or are we coming to Liberia with what we already know, pre-cast and ready to be shown and taught to people without allowing interaction and creativity to touch us and our work?

I sometimes meet foreign visitors who are coming to do Biblical teaching here. One day I asked one about their approach to witchcraft and other traditional beliefs. He told me "Oh, those issues are not a problem for our pastors—they have cast away all such superstitions." I'm sure this pastor was sincere, but he just had not dug deep enough to discover the true concerns of Liberians. Having lived here and met many sick, suffering people, I have learned that concerns and fears about witchcraft and other traditional beliefs are paramount in peoples' minds. These aspects of culture need to be addressed Biblically in depth, so that pastors and leaders we work with are ready to deeply counsel those they are discipling.

As my thoughts return to the beautiful bronze bell, crafted so well and so durably in upstate New York, 123 years ago, I have mixed feelings. Some things about our gospel must be like the bell—unchanging, ringing clearly over the centuries "God is love;" "Seek first His kingdom;" and "Jesus is Lord!" However, other things must be reconsidered and changed for every situation we find ourselves in, making sure to allow people to meet God and express their love for him in ways that are natural, heartfelt, and culturally relevant for them. We must be willing to address those unique cultural issues that people face openly and honestly in the light of God's word, which never changes and yet always illuminates every new circumstance.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Visiting Max at Dakar Academy

Last weekend I (Debbie) went to visit Max at boarding school in Dakar. I hadn't been there since Nov. 2007, when Max was a freshman living off campus with friends. I feel like I got a much better idea what Max's life at school was like after hanging around for a few days. I met his teachers, went to the spring musical performance, met his friends, ate in the dorm one evening, watched "Survivor" with them on Sunday evening, went out for ice cream after the beach. Dakar Academy seems like a great place to go to school- a nice community of kids and very involved, caring adults. Max has just a few weeks left of junior year- an AP History exam next week, a research paper due, some other assignments and tests and of course final exams.
I was there for the spring musical "Seussical". Pretty impressive what a small school (only about 30-40 students in each class) can do. Lively and colorful sets and costumes and great talent. Max was in the chorus and is in the back left corner.

Max was baptized on Sunday along with some of his classmates. That's Jacob Decker next to him- Jake was our neighbor when we arrived in Liberia in 1995, so he and Max go way back.

Looking through my pictures, I realized that it would have been nice to have more shots of the campus and dorm. Someday I am going to learn to see my life through your eyes and know what to take pictures of.

On the homefront, my husband said that having me gone 5 days made him appreciate me. Guess that's a good state of mind for him to be in since Mother's Day is tomorrow. :) Happy Mother's Day to all my fellow mothers.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

ELWA Roadwork

We're getting new roads! Layers of laterite (that's African red clay) grading, rolling, and rumor has it, gravel. Right on the ELWA campus. The campus has been hosting the Chinese road construction company (they've built their own little housing compound in one corner) and as part of the deal, they are working on our roads.

This is the road up to the studio from the Academy. The original road is to the right of the trees (the path to the football field is going off to the right). The new road is to the left of the trees and as you can see, a new culvert and bridge is being installed. The new route will be a great improvement, because there are a lot of rocks and washouts on the original road.
This is the new road from the hospital to the main highway. I was standing right in front of the hospital (around the OR area) when I took this. At the end of the road on the left is the new ELWA market building. The road is nice and wide and has no housing (and small children running into the road) along it.

These two pictures were taken right in front of our house. The grader took down a few of the pine trees (two were dying) and some branches, but better roads will be worth it. Only problem is, the road might be so nice that the cars will go too fast. Our trusty traffic cops, Brady and Coco (our dogs who like to chase cars that are going fast) may get themselves run over.

So that's the latest from the ELWA campus....... Debbie

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

How do you spell R-E-L-I-E-F?

Caleb's Science Project is due tomorrow... and just a few minutes ago, about 10:40 pm, he completed it!!!! What a relief.... He's feeling pretty good about it. He made a passive solar desalinator... and I guess we discovered why passive solar is NOT the technology used in the real world for this... we had pretty poor output... 1/2 tsp in a day!!! But it's proof of concept anyway.

Here's the proud science student with his display.... We love ya buddy!