U-C: What I See

Saturday, May 28, 2005

An open letter to my wife as I leave Kinshasa

Dear Kitty,

It’s dawn in Kinshasa, the last day of our trip. The birds awakened me early, as they have each morning here at the Methodist Presbyterian Hostel during the last week. If I had to choose a word to describe my feelings as I prepare to leave later today, I think it would have to be “ambivalence.”

That’s a dangerous word, because in our church and in our country I think ambivalence is too often associated with inaction. I hesitate to write about what I really feel, because I feel anxious that somehow my words will be taken by folks in the U.S. as permission to remain paralyzed by all the need that exists in the world. It seems like one of the highest values in our country right now is to have things presented in simple, black and white forms. We don’t tend to deal well with ambiguity, and there’s not a lot of patience with gray area. The difficulty here, as in all the places we’ve worked in Latin America – especially the U.S. border with Mexico - is that this is a country that specializes in gray area. The only thing that is absolutely clear here is overwhelming need. After that, things get a lot more foggy.

Maybe I should start with what I feel no ambivalence about. I’m convinced that we’ve made a good decision to spend our lives on the margin where contradictions abound and few things seem to be clear. God is here with the folks whose needs are so great, and I’ve discovered God again as I’ve spent time with the people of the DR Congo. God seems to love the messy ambiguity of hanging out with the people who are most at risk. My most difficult visit this trip was the one to the hospital in Mbuji-Mayi; a dirty, over-extended place where there are two to four women to every bed in the maternity ward, hundreds of people in the dirt yard out back who are waiting for care, and a staff of dedicated doctors and nurses who are over-worked and making a pitiful wage. I have a hard time being in a place like that – it makes me uncomfortable. It’s hard to imagine being desperate enough to send you or Teo there, or to go there for care myself. Even still, there is no doubt in my mind that God is there. Further, I’m pretty sure God calls us to dedicate our lives to being with people in places like that hospital.

I’ve always found it easiest to identify God, to know God, when I’m with people who have no choice but to turn to God. It makes me think of that song I learned in Nicaragua years ago that describes how God accompanies people in the difficult places where they are, red-faced and sweating with the Jesus who changes a truck tire beside the road on a hot day – the Jesus who works at caring for children when there’s not enough to feed them – the Jesus at work with folks doing the back-breaking work of the fields.

So here’s my ambivalence. The need is great, and the best way to respond is not at all clear. I think our principles about how our church does mission, and how you and I have always tried to do it as well, are pretty clear. We go attempting to be with people, to accompany them. We assume that we have a great deal to learn from folks on the margins. We expect to share our understanding of Christ’s love, even while we know that we are often surprised at all we have to learn from the way others have experienced Christ’s profound love themselves.

Here in the Congo, those needs are as great as in any place I’ve visited in my life. Perhaps more than any other place, the people of the Congo are not bashful about stating their needs. Though we have a strong and wonderful tradition of mission in this place, and in many ways Presbyterians have led the world in caring for God’s people here (and I’ve met some amazing retired missionaries who are visiting for the anniversary this week), in too many places I’ve visited the legacy of our mission efforts is a community of dependency that leads with asking the church in the U.S. “What will you do for us?” Even in our consultations with our PC(USA) partners, Church leaders have made it clear that their conviction is that if we simply make their desperate condition known, U.S. Christians will be compelled to send money and that money will make things better. Doug Welch, our regional coordinator for Central and West Africa, is told by our partners that he is one of them because he speaks their language, knows their customs, and is at home here. It is a heavy burden to bear however, because he is also told that he is responsible for the welfare of the church: that the weight of the great needs of our church partners here is on him. Even as they appreciate financial support in one area, they are already suggesting the next four areas where the need is great and it is the responsibility of the church in the U.S. to step up and do something about it.

I feel almost like a traitor when I write these words. Somehow, it feels as if I’m supposed to share only the joy and the excitement of the church here. There is plenty of that, too, and I’ve tried to share those stories as I’ve traveled this month. But I don’t think we gain anything by not talking about how hard it is to know how to do mission today. No matter how hard we work at being faithful to God’s call, there will still be more to do. No matter how faithful the people of God are in this place, the needs are likely to grow. In spite of our best intentions, mission is likely to remain a messy business in which the power imbalances will remain and the line distinguishing Christian service, fellowship and community from creating unhealthy patterns of dependency will be difficult to discern.

Still, we remain a people called to service because it’s a messy proposition, not in spite of it. God doesn’t allow us the luxury of isolation from need. Over and over again, the Bible calls us to be an adventuresome people who defy the borders of our own fear and complacency to reach out to others. And, as I’ve shared in my storytelling of the last few weeks, there are plenty of creative areas where we are accompanying the church here and can be a positive force for Jesus Christ and Christ’s values here in the Congo.

Of course, you and I have learned that we are most alive when we enter into the world of ambiguity. Though things are rarely clear on the margins, Jesus was quite clear that joy comes in service, in washing the feet of the disciples, in hanging out with outcasts, in healing the lepers everyone was afraid to be near, in caring for prisoners and orphans and strangers.

As I leave the Congo, I’m more convinced than ever that while the work itself is full of ambiguity and needs that will never be fully resolved, the invitation from God to spend our time doing this work is crystal clear. I feel lucky that we share that conviction, not just with each other but with our ever-growing community of friends around the world.

The sun is up now. We leave Kinshasa tonight at 9, and I’ll be home with you and Teo by late Sunday night. I’ve missed you both as I’ve traveled here, and I’m anxious to share stories and to catch up on your lives.

I love you,