November 7, 2007

Giving by Bill Clinton

In a world with extreme poverty, environmental degradation and wars of genocide and terror, it is easy to lose hope and question whether we can have any positive impact in the world. Bill Clinton’s book Giving is both challenging and encouraging. Giving issues a challenge to each of us to look for ways we can give. Regardless of our wealth, we are all blessed with the opportunity to share and give to those who are in need.

Through the retelling of numerous stories of generous givers, Clinton demonstrates that everyone has the opportunity to play a role in dealing with poverty, environmental degradation and wars of genocide and terror and encourages us to look for ways we can give. As Giving explains, there are numerous ways to do so with money, time, things, skills, and even gifts of reconciliation and new beginnings.

It is easy to question whether we have to means to give when we hear about Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet contributing such large amounts of time and money. But Clinton also shares the stories of Oseola McCarty, an eighty-seven year old black woman from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who gave seventy-five years worth of savings to establish a university scholarship for poor African-American girls and McKenzie Steiner, a six year-old girl who organized a drive to clean up a beach in her community. Giving demonstrates that everyone can give: children, parents, grandparents; students and teachers; employees, managers, and CEOs; neighborhood communities, local governments and national governments; churches, synagogues, and mosques; high-income, middle-income, and low-income people. It is the sum of every small gift that we can give that will impact the world, not just the large individual gifts.

Giving provides us with a jump-start in looking for ways to give to the poor and needy in our own neighborhood and around the world. As Clinton states, “In America, many of us are besieged by more requests for help than we can grant. All of us need to decide between competing claims on our time and money…. [But,] that is a choice only you can make.”

Clinton concludes by explaining that we can find happiness in giving. Knowing that our gift, no matter how small, is changing another person’s life can bring a lot of happiness. Giving is a challenge to answer to the needs of people around the world in a way that can bring true happiness.

July 27, 2007

Living Stories: A Mosaic of God's Awesomeness

A friend's recent blog post reminded me of how often I forget about my surroundings. It's easy to become so absorbed in my own thoughts and not pay attention to where I am. More importantly, perhaps, it's easy to miss who is around me. This is something I thought about a lot while in Malawi this past June and something I have since then reflected on frequently.

During my trip to Malawi, our primary means of transportation was by vehicle, either in a minibus or cramped in a truck. On our many trips we saw hundreds of people on the side of the road: some were earning a little money by selling sugar cane; some were talking with others; and some were riding bicyclesby themselves, with a passenger or some other precious cargo. When I saw all these people I kept asking myself "I wonder what they are doing today? How are they doing? Where are they going? Whose lives are they involved in? How is God using them to change the world?"

As I write this, I am in a small local coffee shop. Watching the many people come and go is another reminder to me of two important things: how I am only one of God's many children, playing a small, but important and unique role in changing this world; and how big and awesome God is. First, the many people I pass by everyday are all living out their stories . Whether or not they acknowledge God as the author of their story, they are still an important part of this world. While I am living out my story, billions of others are doing the same, many of whom are traveling parallel to my path. Secondly, seeing the hundreds of people I see everyday reminds me of how God is intimately involved in this world, whether I am aware of it or not. The fact that God is working through the many people I see is an amazing display of how great and awesome God is. My mind is too small to grasp how God is able to be so intimately involved with so many peoples' lives. And this also serves as a reminder to me to be thankful for the many people I do meet and for the precious opportunities to hear and listen to their stories.

July 6, 2007

Concrete vs. Abstract

I have run into several challenges since my return from Malawi. However, it appears that my biggest challenge so far is helping others understand what our mission trip was all about. Today, the definition of the term "mission trip" often refers to a trip where some sort of building is done; that is, a church or house is built or painted. In this sense, the "task" that is completed is something concrete, something tangible. I often get a typical question of something like "Did you build a church or house?" And when I say "No, we learned more about the partnership between Pittsburgh Presbytery and Blantyre Synod in Malawi" I often get puzzled looks and comments that suggest our trip was not a mission trip at all.

This is where I redefine the term "mission trip". For me, mission trips are all about relationships. My past trip to Malawi was a mission trip where I met many Malawians and with whom I formed new relationships. In this sense, for many, our mission trip was abstract, not concrete. But for me, relationships are concrete. Indeed, in my opinion, relationships are more concrete than buildings since, I believe, they will last into eternity.

This idea/theme is connected to the South African idea of ubuntu. There is no literal translation for ubuntu, but Desmond Tutu defines it as this: "A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed." In sum, a person is a person through other persons.

Listening to others' stories and getting to know them matters more than building a church or a house. That is not to say these things are bad, but I think there is a common misconception that building the church or house should come first and the relationships later. I would like to transform the idea of mission trips so that it is the other way around: first the relationships, then the building.

I firmly believe that relationships are the foundation for development. It is through our relationships that we bear such fruit as church buildings and houses. Because until we establish trust with one another, until we establish our common roots in Jesus Christ, building houses and churches can do more harm then good. Recently, I read an article about missions trip to Honduras. This article discusses how a mission team from America went over and built a $30,000 house. But for the Hondurans, this home was not very nice: it was too American and it was not built with Hondurans in mind. Indeed, the Hondurans could have built a nicer one, in their opinion, for only $2000.

The idea was good, but the method was wrong. This is typical of many mission trips today. Many times mission trips are one-sided: groups are sent abroad to accomplish a task which has been designed without input from those whom the group is attempting to serve. This is precisely why relationships need to come first. Trust is vital in order for the local people and the mission trip participants to communicate effectively. And relationships are the foundation for which the mission trip participants are able to share without belittling the local people or establishing a relationship of giver-receiver.

June 18, 2007

Traveling Malawi

As is the case with most of my international travel, it always seems that the trip goes by faster than I would want it to. I am back home now and still processing my thoughts and experiences. I already miss Malawi, but I look forward to going back again someday.

This entry is going to focus on the events of the trip in detail. I will begin to write out my thoughts and learning experiences in the entries that follow.

Wednesday, May 30: We arrived in Blantyre mid-afternoon and were greeted at the airport by several Pastors who are part of the Blantyre Synod, Pittsburgh Presbytery's counterpart in Malawi. We were escorted to the VIP lounge which was unexpected and interesting experience. We were introduced to several more pastors before we left for our lodging just down the road from the Blantyre Synod office.

Thursday, May 31: The morning was spent adjusting to Malawi time and culture. We spent part of the morning walking through the market. It was an experience that brought back many memories for me. The afternoon was spent visiting the Blantyre Synod offices. We learned more about the issues they are facing as well as about the many projects they are supporting. We learned more about the education program they have as well as the prison ministry team they have.

Friday, June 1: The day was spent visiting Mulanje and the Mulanje Mission Hospital. This was a truly special and unique experience. Mulanje Hospital is one of the best known in the country. It was good to hear and see what they are doing. However, it only has about 50 staff members and serves over 250,000 people. Despite the challenges, they are doing some great work and it is especially encouraging to see such symbols of hope. We were also able to see Mulanje Massif, the famous mountain in Malawi. I was especially excited to see the spectacular view because Malawians are extremely proud of Mulanje Massif, along with Lake Malawi. Since I saw Lake Malawi the last time I was there, it was good to see the other part of Malawi that Malawians are constantly talking about.

Saturday, June 2: The day was spent with my host family, Wiseman and Gertrude Kabwazi. This was a particularly perfect match as Gertrude has Master degrees in International Development and Communication. I was able to have some very good conversations with Gertrude about the problems facing Malawi and about development and what it should look like in Malawi. Gertrude now works for Action Aid, an internationally funded NGO. Previously, she worked for the Blantyre Synod Projects Office for six years. Wiseman works for ESCOM, Electricity Supply Company of Malawi. I was only able to visit with Wiseman briefly as he came back from a conference in South Africa late Saturday night.

Sunday, June 3: I attended the 7:00 morning service at Mlobwa CCAP (Central Church of Africa Presbyterian). I was an honored guest, seated with the elders at the front. The service was in Chichewa, the local language, so I was unable to understand most of what was said. However, it was good to worship with them and learn more about their church.

Monday, June 4: Our group met together and left Blantyre for Zomba Theological College (ZTC). The ride there was spent sharing our many different stories and experiences with our host families. After arriving at ZTC, we were placed with our host families. For the remainder of our time at ZTC, I was to stay with Rev. Joseph Mwale, a professor at ZTC.

Tuesday, June 5: We attended the morning chapel and were introduced to the students and staff at ZTC. Afterwards, we sat in on several classes with the students and took a tour of the campus. It was smaller than I imagined, but still very nice by Malawi standards. That afternoon we traveled to a rural village and visited an orphan care school. Once again, it was exciting to witness such symbols of hope. The children recited the ABC's and sang songs. The teacher thanked us for visiting, but we really owe them thanks for welcoming us the way they did.

Wednesday, June 6: The morning was spent visiting classes and interacting with the students at ZTC. In the afternoon, our group leader, Don Dawson, gave a lecture about Christianity around the world. It was a powerful lecture, with many stories of how Christianity is growing around the world. Indeed, I think Americans have a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters around the world.

Thursday, June 7: My host, Joseph Mwale, asked me to speak to his class about my vision for international development and about what I hope to do after I graduated with my Masters. I talked about development as partnership and about how I see development through the book of Nehemiah. In addition, I discussed how development starts with relationships and that relationships at all levels need to be transformed so that development can take root. After my talked, our group visited Chancellor's College and toured the campus. It reminded me a lot of when I was in Ghana in 2004 at the University of Ghana. While different, it had some similarities too. As it happened, our guide was from Ntcheu, where I worked last year. After we talked some more, we realized that I visited his church several times last year. He remembered me, but I only had vague memories of him. It was actually quite fun to meet up with someone from Ntcheu. It was also encouraging as I was able to give him some letters and pictures to deliver to my host family and friends in Ntcheu. The afternoon was spent visiting Domasi Mission, about 30 minutes from Zomba. Domasi Mission is the second mission founded in Malawi. We visited the hospital there, which my church in Pittsburgh helped build. We also visited the school and fortification unit, which fortifies maize with nutrients and supplements. We also saw the irrigation system that was put in place. And we learned that a project is underway to bring water from natural springs at the top of a local mountain down to the many villages surrounding the mountain. All this is being done for free by a man from Sewickley, PA. This trip too was an amazing experience as those kind of projects are exactly what Malawi needs. And it is another reminder of hope for development in such a poor nation as Malawi.

Friday/Saturday, June 8/9: We spent a couple days at Chiguni Hills in the southern part of Liwonde National Park. We took a canoe ride and saw many hippos as well as a spectacular sunset. On Saturday we got up early at 5:30 for a 6:00 hike which last 2-3 hours. We saw elephants, waterbuck, bushbuck, impala, deer, baboons, warthogs, and many different species of birds, including the African Fish Eagle. In addition, we met several other travelers, some of whom are currently doing some development work in Malawi. It was once again a great experience to learn about income generating projects and how people are becoming more involved with development.

Sunday, June 10: I was asked by two other group members if I would be willing to video-tape the partnership ceremony between their church and their partner church in Malawi. so I visited Mbedza CCAP. The service was long, as was to be expected for a partnership ceremony. I was glad I could witness the partnership's beginning as I believe that such partnerships have an important role in development. Being able to record the service also gives me an opportunity to share with others the importance of such partnerships and the vitality of worship in Malawi and Africa in general.

Monday, June 11: The day was spent traveling up Zomba Mountain and seeing the Zomba Plateau. It was a beautiful sight!

Tuesday, June 12: We returned to Blantyre and visited Soche Church, Shadyside's partner church in Malawi. Since I was unable to visit them the first Sunday I was in Malawi because of communication issues, it was nice to be able to see what Shadyside is doing in Malawi. It was also good to meet the pastor and to talk with him about the new church that was built. We had a farewell dinner with the Blantyre Synod Partnership Committee that evening which was a good closing for the trip.

Wednesday, June 13: We departed Malawi, again receiving VIP treatment at the airport. We were seen off by a choir from the Church of the Nazarene and many Pastors from the Blantyre Synod.

May 25, 2007

Adrenaline Flow

As can be seen by the fund-raising meter on the right, I have raised the full $2900. I am grateful for the providence of God and the generosity of family and friends. And the prayer support gives me gives me confidence that I am in God's hands. Thank you, family and friends, for your encouragement and support.

It is hard to believe that it is only two days away. The adrenaline has started to flow as the departure for Malawi draws closer. I have just finished packing (for the most part) and just have to go through my checklist two or three more times. As is normal, I am also experiencing a little anxiety and nervousness. But I am also experiencing a lot of wonder: what is God going to show me through the people of Malawi and through my group? how is he going to use me? what am I going to learn? how am I going to grow? I am excited to learn the answers to these questions. Most of all, I am excited to participate in the story God is writing for our group's trip to Malawi.

Am I ready? I think so. I have always said that we need to balance our perspective in regards to preparing for international travel. On the one hand, you want to be aware of where you are going: the cultural behaviors, geography, and health issues. But, on the other hand, there is only so much you can prepare for: there will be some cultural aspects that you can only learn of through experience; the geography might be different from any other kind you have witnessed before; and it is impossible to control whether you get sick or not. There is also the danger that while we are trying to prepare we shut out the possibility that our experience might be different from what we are reading or hearing. It is easy to put too much stock in what others says. So, there needs to be a balance: preparing in any way you know how, but also remaining open to the possibility that things will be different than what you have learned during your preparation (I like to call this "tempered expectations"). This, I think, is where trust comes in. Since there will be experiences for which we are unprepared and thus a limit to our preparation, there is no limit to the trust we can have in our Maker. The worries and fears that we may experience before departure are all part of preparing ourselves. But so too is the act of tempering those fears and worries with a complete trust in God to guide us, protect us, and use us for His glory.

The fact that I am nervous, however, it is a good thing. The way I see it, every trip abroad is a new experience. I honestly don't see how it can be the same. Nor do I think that I would want it to be; it would be boring if it was. And if I was not nervous, I would probably be worried about that as I would see that as a sign that I am thinking it will be the same as the last time I was in Malawi. But it won't be. This time around I am going on a mission trip, far different from the semester abroad I spent in Ghana, West Africa in 2004 and from the internship to Malawi in 2006. The semester abroad was with 16 other students and our program director and his wife. The internship was all by myself. This mission trip is with 7 other people, all of whom are from very different backgrounds and walks of live. I've learned from my past experience in Ghana that diversity within the group can be a great thing. And I am looking forward to learning with my fellow travelers and participating in a great opportunity to reflect God's glory towards others.

I think that one reason that I enjoy traveling abroad so much is that it is a microcosm of what my life as a Christian is like. I am a participant in God's story in which he is working to bring his Kingdom to earth. I am both a human being in this world and also a citizen of the one that is to come. And just like Jesus did, I am called to love mercy, seek justice and walk humbly with my Father. Traveling abroad involves living in a country that is not your own. And while we are there, just like we work for God's glory the world over, we are to bring Shalom to those we meet along the way. We are to seek justice, love mercy and walk with our God. I hope this trip will give me the opportunity to do this while teaching me more about that that means.

April 14, 2007

Preparation Through Reflection

As the mission trip to Malawi draws closer, I have been preparing myself through reflection of my previous experience in Malawi as well as catching up on news and events. One big theme, or idea, that has been stuck in my mind is how my last experience in Malawi (and even my experiences in Ghana in 2004) created in me a sense of how small I really am. And, conversely, how big God really is. It is so easy to get caught up in our daily lives and lose sight of the bigger picture. The obsession with time and the need to get as much done in as little time as possible leave little rooms for reflection on what is happening in our local environment, muchless in the global community. My trip to Malawi last spring really opened my eyes to what God is doing in other parts of the world. I was able to witness amazing events in Malawi, while hearing stories of God's work in India, Honduras, and even here in the U.S. What I saw, heard and felt (in Malawi and from around the world) made me realize that who I am and what I do is pretty insignificant compared to God and what he is doing. This is not a novel idea. But how often do we stop and think for a moment about what God is doing while we were sleeping?

In some ways, I think that is part of why I long to return to Africa: to renew my vision of the bigger picture; to see, hear and feel the powerful stories of what God is doing. That is not to say that I cannot do this at home in the U.S., but rather that I become more aware of these sights, sounds and feelings while abroad. God doesn't need me to know what he is doing in order for him to do it; nor does he need me to bring to completion what he has in mind. But he offers me the opportunity. He says what I do on my own is insignificant and doomed to failure; but with him, I can move mountains. What greater gift and opportunity is there than to be offered a part in the greatest masterpiece of all: bringing a piece of God's Kingdom to earth. Every time I travel abroad, I return to these thoughts of how I am a part of such an amazing story and reflect on what I am doing and the responsibility that I have to my Creator. It is my responsibility to play my part to the best of my ability (with the guidance and sustenance of the Holy Spirit and God's word). What an awesome and humbling opportunity!

This brings me to something that I have been thinking about for the past week or so. Last Friday I saw the movie Stranger Than Fiction for the second time (read a good review here). Near the end of the film, after discovering and meeting the author who is narrating his life, the main character reads the ending to his life as the author has written it. After reading it, he returns the manuscript to her saying it is beautiful. I think this particular scene is a perfect picture of what I am supposed to do as a Christian: give my story to God and allow him to write it. Because even though I do not know the ending, I do know that the way he has written it is perfect and beautiful. It is an act of humility to do this and takes a lot of courage. But like I said earlier, it is an honor to be invited by God to participate in the story that he has written. I could say no; but then God will just complete the story without me. Why rob myself of such an opportunity because of selfish ambition?

Part of working in and visiting places around the world is adapting to and dealing with change. I like change. Change allows me to see the things that I would not otherwise see. Change makes life exciting. Change is often the next sentence in God's story. Ultimately, continuing forward means accepting change and giving the manuscript to my Maker, trusting him to use me for his glory. I hope the change I witness in my upcoming trip to Malawi will renew my understanding and vision of God's story and my part in it while renewing a sense of humbleness, gratitude and awe for being offered the opportunity to be a part of such an amazing thing. I hope and pray that God will prepare me for what I am about to see, hear and feel.

March 19, 2007

Prayer and Financial Support

In order to keep track of the support that I am receiving for my upcoming mission trip to Malawi, I have created two meters and posted them on the right-hand side of my blog. The meter on the right represents the financial support I have received; the meter on the left represents the number of people who have pledged to support me through prayer. I will update both as I get more support in both areas.

If you are unable to support me financially, but would like to support me through prayer, please let me know either by email or by posting a response on this blog. As with any endeavor in life, prayer support is vital and I truly appreciate and value your prayers.