“Moloweini!” That’s good morning or hello in the Xhosa language of the Transkei region of South Africa. As most of you know, I recently returned from a mission trip to South Africa.
This whole thing began when Kelly Kosky asked me to come and teach at the Gatyana Bible School in rural Transkei. This little Bible school was established by Kelly and his team to train leaders and pastors to serve the Xhosa people.
I have to confess, I resisted, but as I prayed about it, the Lord laid it on my heart that he wanted me to go. I had no idea what to expect. As I prayed about what I was to teach, the Lord laid Psalm 24 on my heart. Not Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd”, but Psalm 24. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and all who dwell in it.” Psalm 24:1
It wasn’t until I arrived and met the students that I began to understand. The earth is the Lord’s. I traveled 11,000 miles and over 30 hours to the other side of the world yet as I stepped up to the front of that little class room of young adults, it was as if I had been transported back in time 40 years ago when attended a little Bible School in north Seattle called Lutheran Bible Institute.
There in front of me were 20 students. When I asked them, “Why did you come to Bible school”, they gave me the same answer my classmates and I had given 40 years earlier on the other side of the world. “We want to know more about God and what he wants us to do with our lives.”
We had an instant connection. Just like my classmates decades before, some were preparing to be pastors, some teachers, some just to know and serve God better where ever he called them.
It was soon evident how much these young students loved the Lord. They didn’t just want to know about Jesus, they wanted to know him, to worship him, serve him, share about him with others. They were hungry to learn the Bible. Their joy in the Lord was infectious
The same thing happened when we journeyed out into the rural countryside for what they called an outreach. An outreach is an evangelism meeting in one of the 1000’s of rural communities that dot the landscape of Transkei. Rather than towns, there are the clusters of huts that dot every ridge. The roads for the most part are gumbo trails that wind through the coulees and across the hillsides.
The people are open, friendly and eager to hear the Gospel. They have no money. They live on what they raise in their gardens along with their few chickens, sheep, goats. They remind me of my grandparents 80 years eking out a living in the plains of eastern Montana.
On Saturday we piled 15 students into the back of Kelly’s Land Cruiser and headed out across 4 hours of broken roads to a tiny community where one of the native pastors had set up an outreach. There we and 50 local people crowded into one of the round huts. The students led the singing and the local pastors and I preached. We prayed for healing and a number of people made decisions to follow Jesus and invite him into their hearts.
One of the biggest lessons I learned was the mission is not something we do FOR others, it’s what we do WITH others. Whether it’s here or on the other side of the world, it’s easy to have a welfare mentality about mission. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the Lord has sent us to rescue, or save, or fix these poor people and make them like us.
When we do that we exalt ourselves as if we had it all together, as if we were the Savior, not Jesus, and we rob the people we’ve come to help of the dignity God has given them. Kelly pointed out shells of empty church buildings and medical clinics that well-meaning mission groups had come and built for the people without ever getting to know the people or respect them enough to listen to them, love them or suffer with them.
I asked Kelly, “How can we at Christ Lutheran Church support the work you are doing here?” He listed 3 things. 1. Relationships. 2. Prayer. 3. Finances and other support.
Then he said, “I’ve learned I have to list financial needs last because this is the first thing most people want to do. But when this is done first, our most important needs are abandoned.”
“The first thing we need is relationships, friendships, partnerships.” By “we” he meant himself as well as the Christian community, pastors, teachers, believers that had grown up around him. I learned effective mission doesn’t begin with opening our wallets. It begins with opening our hearts!
Kelly said, “We need to know we are not alone. We are very isolated. We need to know you are praying for us and we need to be able to pray for you. We need letters, emails, care packages from your Sunday School kids to ours. We want to know we are part of a greater community.”
I asked him about the other mission organizations that must be working there. He said, “There are none.” I asked about the congregations in the large cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town – he said “They aren’t interested in the Xhosa people, we are invisible to them.”
Why is that? Part of it is residual from racism of apartheid. Part of it is because many people are unwilling to stick it out in such an isolated rural place. Pastor Todd and his wife Jeana who were my partners down there grew up in rural Montana. Kelly said, “It’s so wonderful to have you guys here because this rural environment doesn’t threaten you.”
I thought about the rural congregations across Montana who struggle to find pastors who will serve them, love them, value them, treat them with dignity. Too often pastors come in and try to ‘fix’ them, change them, to become like themselves. When it doesn’t work, these well-meaning but mistaken missionaries and pastors give up and move on.
I asked Kelly why there wasn’t any larger church organization working in Transkei. He said, “We are invisible to them. We have invited them, begged them to come. When they have responded they have given us a whole list of what we have to do to qualify or fit in with their way of doing things. But those things don’t work out here. So they give up on us and go away. We are currently working with LCMC. We hope that their organizational model as an association rather than a denomination will give our people the freedom they need to build their church in the way that works best for them in this place.”
As a result of my heart to heart with Kelly, I decided to email him every week to send an encouraging word and get prayer requests from him. This week he responded, “It is good to hear from you. You are seriously missed here. Everyone is asking, ‘when will you return’.”
It’s fascinating to observe what has happened in this Christian community over the last 30 years. It’s like reading the book of Acts. It began with Kelly and Kathy Kosky and their 5 kids living with the people, loving them, treating them with dignity as children of God, and sharing Jesus with them. Kelly started by taking the Jesus film out into the rural communities, befriending them, praying with them and the conversions began to happen.
From that came the need to train the new converts to be leaders and pastors to their own people. That led to a little Bible School, and Bibles in the Xhosa language. Other needs began to surface. A preschool for kids living in the shanty towns and most recently an outreach to abandoned children living in the garbage dumps outside the larger cities.
Half the population of Transkei is infected with AIDS, but this isn’t the result of sinful behavior. So an education ministry was created to teach people about the changes that needed to be made in some of the cultural customs that were passing on the infection.
Outside the Christian community, life is harsh. There are few jobs, little economic growth. Men don’t work. Women do all the work including building the house, gardening, raising children. Men consider women and children as property. A man has absolute power over his wife and children. He can beat them, even kill them as he sees fit.
Changing this is not a matter of writing or enforcing new laws. Hearts must be changed and only Jesus can change human hearts. Only Jesus can soften hearts filled with selfishness and greed and enlarge them and fill them with peace, love, joy, and selflessness. This kind of ministry doesn’t happen through a program. It never comes from the top down.
Because of their history with apartheid, when a white man shows up the Xhosa people put their hands in their pockets, look down at the ground and back away. It takes time together to overcome these deeply ingrained patterns.
It takes time created mutual respect, dignity, and love. But without these things, even the most sincere attempts at mission simply become a form of welfare that doesn’t nothing to change people’s hearts – for the giver as well as for the receiver.
Our hearts are empty until Jesus come and takes over the throne. Empty hearts are hopeless hearts, and hopeless hearts easily become violent hearts. We will talk more about this next Sunday.
The amazing thing, the only hope of the world is this… Jesus changes us, he enlarges our hearts. He makes us more like himself. Through the sharing of the Gospel, Jesus builds a community of mutual dignity, respect, and love out of which flows hope, joy, peace in the midst of a world filled with despair, selfishness, fear.
During my 10 days in the Transkei, I learned that effective mission doesn’t begin with opening our wallets, it begins with opening our hearts. It’s about relationships. That’s true in our Vacation Bible School, Shepherd’s Hand Clinic, our mission trips, with our neighbors, with the Xhosa people in the Transkei, and Lutheran refugees in South Sudan.
Kelly asked me, “In order to enhance our relationship, what if Christ Lutheran listed me in their bulletin as an unpaid deployed member of their staff, their resident missionary?”
Great question! I asked Pastor Jordan Long, who was here last Sunday and shared the devastating story of what is happening in South Sudan, “What if we were to list you in our bulletin as an unpaid member of our church staff?”
He lit up like a light bulb! “That would be incredible!” Then he said exactly what Kelly had said, “Our greatest need isn’t for resources, it’s for relationships. We need to know we are not alone.”