Monday, October 29, 2007

Aidsand F. Wright-Riggins III

"He looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God." – Hebrews 11:10.

This was my third visit to South Africa. I first visited just after the end of apartheid immediately following the first democratic elections in 1994. I returned again in 2001 joining former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in constructing 100 homes in Durban as part of a Habitat for Humanity blitz build.

Today, along with other members of our delegation, I visited the office of the President of South Africa and met with his chief of Staff, Frank Chikane. We spent much of our time with him discussing South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

The TRC is South Africa's unique contribution to the world as it addresses wrongs suffered at the hands of others by righting those wrongs in the sand and affirming historical acts of mercy and fairness by writing those acts on stone. The TRC developed a process of dealing with the evils of 50 years of apartheid that avoids both cheap grace and retaliatory and debilitating injustice.

A phrase Rev. Chikane used in describing the work of the commission stands out for me: "We refused to use the past to destroy the future. While we had the capacity to obliterate each other, we had a greater desire to save the country we all love."

It seems that a generation of South African leaders has learned that their own suffering could indeed become redemptive. While others meant it for evil, these leaders emptied themselves of self and opened themselves to any alternative future.

I praise God for the relatively bloodless revolution that turned apartheid on its head. I pray that we too can open ourselves to a fruitful future by turning our backs on every painful past that threatens our life in Christ together.

Roy Medley - South Africa

Today we received an extraordinary glimpse into South African history. It began with a visit to a national shrine built by the apartheid regime to honor the voortrekkers- the Boer settlers who fled the British and pushed north into tribal lands. The monument celebrated these folk heroes and became a shrine to the permanency of apartheid, a ruthless system of segregation imposed in 1945 when the British ceded rule to the National Afrikanner Party.

Later in the afternoon we met with Dr. Frank Chikane who serves as head of staff to the president of the Republic of South Africa. In planning for this trip, I had asked that we be able to meet with someone who could reflect on the remarkable efforts at reconciliation in South Africa. Dr. Chikane, an ordained minister and former General Secretary of the Council of Churches of South Africa, had been active in both the freedom struggle and in the building of a new South Africa.

Many of the things he said shed new understanding on this volatile time in South Africa's history.
  • During apartheid, the dispersion of South Africans throughout the world gave them a valuable perspective on various political systems and international systems. Thus, there was an incredibly informed and prepared cadre of black leaders.
  • They were also gifted with a group of selfless leaders, such as Mandela, for whom years of imprisonment had not generated bitterness but a will to birth a new social order to benefit all.
  • They also had the benefit of learning from both the successes and failures of post-colonial African countries.
  • Unlike segregation in the US where a minority was oppressed by the majority, in South Africa it was the minority who oppressed and exercised absolute control through the police over the majority.
  • Afrikanners, unlike the British and others, had no other homeland than Africa. That meant their future was linked to South Africa's future
  • During the civil struggle, neither side was interested in destroying the country, therefore the infrastructure of the country was not harmed.
  • When the struggle for equality was won, both sides sat down at the table and counted the cost of what must be done to preserve the nation. This involved compromises such as keeping former president de Klerk on as a vice-president of the country because that was what was necessary for a smooth transition. The overriding concern was the good of the nation as a whole.
  • The Truth and Reconciliation process was envisioned as a way of holding accountable those who had been involved in apartheid while not bogging the nation down with a long judicial process which might effect strict justice but could never effect reconciliation. "We were not willing to sacrifice the future for the past," he said.

These were powerful words because Dr. Chikane had been targeted for elimination by the apartheid government. Their attempt at poisoning him was unsuccessful. Now, in his current position, he is charged with the care of retired presidents of the country including those who enforced apartheid and sought his death. Reflecting on the incredible ways in which the country and its leaders have sought to deal with former oppressors with grace, he said, "When our great grandchildren hear these stories fifty years from now they will not believe them."

As we sat with him in his office, which were the very offices from which apartheid had been conceived and implemented but now serve as the offices from which a new future for all South Africans will go forth, I was struck afresh by what a story of redemption this is. And I wonder, how do we apply these lessons in America where the offenses of the past and the problems of the present still keep the wound of race raw and bleeding? What can be learned from South Africa that can help reconciliation occur in Jena, La? Neither cheap grace (pretending as though no wrong has occurred) nor the demand for strict justice (the accused black students will not be found to be perfect saints nor will the accused white students be found to be utterly demonic) bring about reconciliation. There has to be a way that transcends either cheap grace or strict justice. There needs to be a way that the harm can be owned. As another has said, "without metanoia our only option is paranoia." And the injured must be free to forgive, for as Desmond Tutu has said, "Without forgiveness there is no future." This could become the sacred task of the churches of Jena: to assist that community to move to a new level in facing the dis-integration of their community.

Do we in the American Baptist Churches have the courage within our own fellowship to own the fact that we have no other place to go and to deal more forthrightly with our future as a racially diverse community? Can we do the same with our theological diversity? Can the work of reconciliation within us become a light to others even as South Africa has become a symbol of worldwide hope?

This visit has placed within me a desire to bring a group of ABC folk to South Africa to explore these issues with our sisters and brothers here for we have been entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation, God making his appeal through us. (II Cor 5:16ff)

Friday, October 26, 2007

Reid Trulson - The Holy Spirit At Work In Zambia

The Spirit of God is like the wind, says scripture. We do not know where the wind begins or where it will end. Nor can we control it. But we do know when the wind is with us for although it is unseen, we experience its presence. So it has been with missionaries Charles and Sarah West, serving in Zambia with the Baptist Convention of Zambia.

Sarah leads a weekly Bible study with several women who have found themselves in various ways snared into prostitution. One woman who has now opened a prayer chapel in her home was HIV positive. But like the wind, the Spirit moves in ways beyond our understanding or control. This woman is now HIV negative. And she has her prayer room open 24 hours a day for the praise of God and for ministry to others.

Recently Charles was asked to serve as the preacher for a series of annual meetings held by associations of churches around the country. It was a grueling schedule: preaching twice a day for five days in succession, then moving to the next association to repeat the pattern.

As Charles puts it, while preaching at one of these locations in the north of Zambia, "the Holy Spirit fell upon us."

At the conclusion of his preaching, Charles asked if there were any present who wished to give their lives to Christ Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. One after another, people stepped forward to speak and pray with local pastors from their own language groups. The prayer and counseling went into the night. The following day, 147 men and women were baptized in public witness of their commitment to Christ. Similar things occurred elsewhere where 40 or more people became followers of Jesus. Charles says emphatically, this is not because of anything special about him or his preaching. It is the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit.

All those who have made professions of faith have been brought into contact with the local pastor and church where they reside. Young children, who expressed a desire to follow Jesus, have also been placed under the pastoral care of local churches.

Among those present to hear Charles preach were people who had walked three days to the event. In a show of appreciation for Charles and his ministry, some villagers presented him with a goat. Others gave him a chicken. Both were gifts that Charles received with deep gratitude and joy.

The Spirit is like the wind. Come, Holy Spirit, blow upon us today!

Reid Trulson - On this rock...

It is a scene that we have observed in the D. R. Congo and again in Zambia -- women or children seated alongside the road breaking stones into smaller building stone or paving gravel. Hammers or pieces of iron are pounding tools for some. Others may have no tool and must simply break one stone upon the other. This was the case for six orphaned children that I met today. The oldest of the children cooks for the younger, and an impoverished aunt does what she can to help. But the pile of gravel and the yet unbroken stones in front of the children's mud wall house testifies that this is the work that provides the small income for the children.

Yet in the midst of this deep poverty, one can see a sign of the kingdom. The Kabanana Baptist Church makes regular visits to these children bringing assistance out of their own meager resources. The congregation located in a township on the outskirts of Lusaka, is a member church of our partner, the Baptist Convention of Zambia. Pastor Joseph Sabala and the members of the Kabanana Baptist Church believe that God has called them to care for the wellbeing of their whole community. They seek out those who are vulnerable, attempt to keep family ties intact, and bring what resources they can to promote wellness in the name of Jesus. They conduct community classes for these children, all of whom are too poor to pay school fees, buy books and uniforms that are required in order to access "free" public education. The church wants the children to have basic "three R" skills to equip them for survival.

Who is to say how many of these children may grow to become followers of Jesus? Caregivers to others? Leaders within the community? Bearers of the good news to other towns, languages, or nations? Upon the rock of confession that Jesus is the Anointed One of God, Lord and Savoiur, God is building the church. Among the women and children breaking stones into piles of gravel, one can see the power of the Rock of Ages and signs of God's kingdom.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Reid Trulson - Vital Partners

One of the joys of today (Oct. 19) has been the opportunity to meet and talk with three men from an order of German Brothers who are serving alongside our missionaries in Vanga and Lusekele. Brother Reinhart had worked in Afghanistan before coming to Congo. He spoke of the priviledge he felt has been given to him to be able to assist the American Baptist mission in Congo. He said that the Brothers' first priority has been evangelization. They have learned, however, that understanding the needs of people and working in very practical ways to meet those needs is in fact the pattern of Jesus' own ministry. Brother Reinhart said the holistic approach through which our missionaries are working is an embodiment of that "Jesus pattern" and a reason that he is so pleased to have a part in the work.

Brother Friedrich is 71 years old and was among the first of the German Brothers who came to Vanga some 27 years ago. He assists in the medical work. Some have speculated whether the time is coming when he will need to leave Vanga to enter retirement. He has been heard to say that when he leaves Vanga he would prefer to enter into heaven.

Brother Kurt, from Switzerland, rides a bike over the deeply rutted road between Vanga and Lusekele each day to assist with the agricultural ministry alongside Ed and Miriam Noyes. He said that few men were entering their order at present. That raises concerns over the ability of the German Brothers to sustain the level of participation in this shared work in the years ahead. However he said the most important thing is to give attention to what the Lord wants us to do here and now rather than to divert attention to forms and functions that God may only have intended to serve the present generation. Perhaps God's surprise for the next generation is something new, rather than an exact continuation of that which the German Brothers have known and loved in their time.

These three men are dearly loved and respected by the missionaries and local leaders alike. They are providing indispensible assistance out of their love of Jesus and out of their deep desire that the Congolese people may also experience the love of God and the joy of walking in the ways of the Holy Spirit

It was a great honor to meet with the German Brothers and to thank them on your behalf for their dedicated and sacrificial service. For 27 years they have shown themselves to truly be vital partners to the glory of God.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Roy Medley - Hospitality Of The Poor

Traveling to Vanga, Lusekele and Kikongo reminded me anew of how rich is the hospitality of the poor. In every setting we were greeted by large groups of pastors, students and hospital staff who gathered by the airstrips. In some places they had waited for hours for our delayed arrival. But in each place we were treated as honored guests and were greeted by songs, cheers and official proclamations drawn up for the occasion. The welcoming Spirit of Christ is rich among our brothers and sisters in Christ.

I was also reminded of the power of the universal church. What encouragement both the churches here and our missionaries have felt through this visit.

Thus, we have been doubly blessed as your delegation. First we have been showered with love not because of who we are but because of you whom we represent. And secondly we have been blessed to be able to offer encouragement on your behalf to the church in the DRC.

Words and even pictures are but poor vehicles to communicate our experiences: the glory and beauty of our worship together; the tragic limitations wonderfully-trained hospital staff face in treating the injured and ill; the heartwarming dedication of pastors serving isolated rural villages; the hope the church represents in the urban community, and the challenge of being one in Christ across tribal loyalties and divisions.

The church in Congo, like the church in the US, both transcends and is a product of its culture. In the midst of that dynamic tension the church seeks to grow in wisdom, love and service. Let us pray that God will bless their biennial meeting which is now in session and the decisions it will make.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Reid Trulson - Remembering Family

This is our first full day (Oct. 17) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C.). This morning we met with the Executive Committee and pastors from the Convention of Baptist Churches in the Congo (CBCO). Our meetings took place on the grounds of CBCO headquarters located on a hill overlooking the portion of the Congo River known as Stanley Pool. Here is where Henry Morton Stanley assembled boats for use in the upper portions of the Congo River. Stanley is familiar to most Americans for the newspaper reports that chronicled his feat of “finding” David Livingstone who was presumed to be lost in Africa.

Pastor Kembo, CBCO’s General Secretary, and I exchanged public remarks about our respective organizations. This was followed by a brief question and answer session. I was struck by the fact that American Baptist International Ministries is still primarily known here as ABFMS--- The American Baptist Foreign Mission Society---which of course is our legally incorporated name. Most importantly, the use of ABFMS recognizes our historic ties with the Baptist movement in Congo reaching back to the start of our mission service here in 1884 when American Baptists were invited to take over the ministry begun by the Livingstone Inland Mission from England. Repeatedly the leaders and pastors of CBCO spoke of CBCO and American Baptists as being one and of the role of ABFMS in helping to birth their movement.

Later in the morning we celebrated the remembrance of more of our family ties as some of our group met for discussion in Sims Chapel, the historic place of worship built by ABFMS missionary Aaron Sims. Others of us visited other buildings on the CBCO grounds. When we entered Pastor Kembo’s office, we saw portraits of Aaron Sims and Henry Richards (see photo above) on the wall. One Congolese leader immediately began telling how Richards had been sharing the gospel with little response from the villagers. Then, one day, a villager pointed to something Richards owned and asked for it. This was followed by others who did the same until Richards was left with a completely bare house. Dejected because the villagers had stripped him of all his belongings, Richards decided that he would need to leave the Congo. The next day, however, people began to return his goods. They had concluded that he was truly a man sent from God and that they should listen to him. People began giving their lives to Christ in such large numbers that the movement became known as the “Pentecost on the Congo”.

I was able to contribute part of the story that was unknown by the CBCO leader telling this story. Namely, that Richards had been translating the gospel of Luke and then gathering the villagers to read and discuss each newly translated passage. When he came to Luke 6:30 he hesitated. That text says, “Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again”. Richards feared that the people might take that verse literally and he had to confess that he had never literally obeyed it. Finally he translated the passage and read it to the villagers in spite of his fears. That text is what motivated the villagers to test Richards to see if he could obey its command. His response to being stripped of all his goods led to the villagers’ response of faith in Christ.

Of all that I have experienced today, the most profound has been to reconnect with our family in the Congo---family consisting of our missionaries past and present, and family consisting of Congolese brothers and sisters in Christ.