Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

Personal Grief and the Social Media

For us as family the past few weeks have been extremely difficult. For those who don’t know yet: My son, Erick, was involved in a serious car accident on 5 October in which his girlfriend (and according to all indications, his future wife), Thea, was killed on impact. The accident was caused by an approaching vehicle which tried to overtake a 22 metre truck without making sure it was safe to do so. Approximately 3.5 seconds after this vehicle moved out from behind the truck, he had a head-on collision with my son who did everything humanly possible to avoid the accident. (To put this in perspective: One needs approximately 10-11 seconds to overtake a 22 metre truck which is travelling at 80 km/h, and to do this without jeopardising any person’s safety, the distance between one’s vehicle and an oncoming vehicle needs to be at least 600 metres. In this case the distance was around 170-180 metres!)
After we heard the news of the accident, we travelled to the hospital where my son was being treated – about two hours away from our home. He had, considering the severity of the accident, relative minor injuries. After Thea’s parents were informed of their daughter’s death and after I had spoken to both of them myself, I had to make a decision: Should I post this on Facebook or shouldn’t I? I’m very active on Facebook with a fairly large number of “Facebook friends”. The question was whether I could consider them as close enough friends to share this deeply emotional news with? I eventually decided to risk this. But I made the decision, not only to speak about the accident, but to give the basic facts on what had happened as well. (I get frustrated when someone posts a vague message, saying that they are facing a difficult situation, without giving some form of context. “I am in need of prayer!” Why post something like this? All that it leads to is people wondering what had happened and commenting with: “What is wrong? Are you OK?”)
There are times when one wants to post something personal but, for some reason, one is not at liberty (yet) to give the context. Why then not write something like: “I’ve just received some bad news. I cannot give more details at the moment, but I promise to keep you posted as soon as possible”?
After posting a short message, I received many message expressing appreciation for giving some detail on what had happened. Nobody pushed me for more detail. They knew, if I had more to say, I would do so.
But I actually want to focus on the responses I had on my post. It has been said (and I’m one of those who said it) that Facebook is impersonal and does not constitute true friendship. In fact, there are many people who refuse to go onto Facebook for this very reason.
However, what I experienced was something totally different. Literally hundreds of my friends responded on the news. I read each and every message. Each message meant something to me. I realized that every person who had responded, had taken a few seconds or even a few minutes of their time to send this message. It was clear that some had spent a lot of time trying to verbalize what they thought.
What I probably appreciated more than anything else was that nobody tried to explain why this had happened. Nobody offered theological answers to a situation which makes no sense at all. Most just said: “I’m so sorry to hear this. I’m praying for you and Erick.” A number of my closest friends called. A few came to visit. But this episode taught me that friends on social media are indeed friends. They’re more than names and photos. Obviously it’s a different kind of friendship. But it’s friendship nonetheless and these are people that I have come to appreciate deeply.
I interpreted the responses I received as saying: “Thank you for trusting us with this deep pain that you are experiencing. We won’t make matters worse by trying to explain why this happened. We won’t try and give advice. But we will pray for you. We will bear some of the pain with you that you are now experiencing. Your burden has also become our burden.”
And isn’t that true friendship?

Monday, November 3, 2014 Posted by | Theology | Leave a comment

First World Technology in a Third World Country

I’ve always been interested in technology (computers and anything related to it) and use this to the best of my ability, especially when I’m working in my office. As I’m away from my office fairly often, my cell phone has now become a handy device to check my email (and to do Facebook updates!) But as a missionary in rural Swaziland, where most houses do not even have electricity and not a single house has running water, modern technology has little use.
Last week I was visiting a lady in her primitive house together with one of the caregivers of Shiselweni Home-Based Care. She is in constant pain, has swollen legs and sores forming on her skin. The caregiver had enquired before whether the client was HIV+, but she seemed reluctant to speak about this. When I visited her, the client took out her “clinic record” card – a document each patient receives when going to a clinic for the first time on which diagnosis and medication are indicated and handed it to me. It’s not the first time it’s happened. I don’t know why they do it, but it might be because I’m white and that they think I am a medical doctor. I had a look at the card, but the diagnosis gave me no indication of what was wrong with the woman. Neither did I have any idea what the prescribed medicine was for.
And then I thought of a possibility. The Swaziland cell phone service does not allow me to go onto the internet with my cell phone. But then I realized that the area in which this woman’s house is located, is fairly close to the Swaziland / South Africa border. I changed the network on my cell phone and found that I could connect to the South African service provider through which I could go onto the internet. I Googled the name of the medication and immediately found that this was indeed anti-retroviral medication (ARV). It was the weirdest feeling, sitting in this primitive homestead, with someone who has absolutely no idea what a computer is, let alone the internet or Google and finding answers which will enable us to raise the standard of our care for this individual. One thing we will do, is to ensure that she takes her medication regularly as prescribed and also to ensure that she has enough nutritious food to eat.
I couldn’t help wondering where this could lead to in the future. We’ve already had situations where clients had severe wounds. The caregivers could take photos of the wounds with their cell phones and we then showed the photos to a pharmacist who helped us to decide on the best medication and method of helping each client. For people in Western countries, this may sound fairly primitive. In our situation, where doctors are scarce, public transport is expensive and where people are so sick that it is very difficult to transport them, this technology might, in the words of Neil Armstrong, be a small step for man, but a giant leap – if not for mankind – at least for the people in rural Swaziland.

Monday, June 14, 2010 Posted by | Africa, AIDS, Cross-cultural experiences, Culture, Culture Shock, HIV, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Hope, Mission, Swaziland, Theology | 16 Comments

My name is Nqobile

This is a testimony which was given by a learner in my wife’s maths class before the whole school, this past Monday. The girl gave me permission to publish it on my blog.
Good morning fellow teachers and pupils.
There are no hopeless situations. There are only people who have grown hopeless about them and in every storm there’s a story. We all go through storms in life, whether it’s a mental, spiritual or physical storm. There was a girl who like most girls had a happy family, a mother, a father and an adorable baby sister, but at the age of fifteen she was all on her own. ‘How?’ you may ask. When she was seven, her baby sister passed away. At age ten, her mother passed away due to a crack in her skull which resulted from a car accident they’d been in earlier. And just when she thought she couldn’t lose anyone else, her father passed away at age fifteen, due to colon cancer.
At that moment this girl started doubting there was a God, the worst part of it being she was alone in her house and in the world with no one to take care of her. She had family, but when she needed them the most, they were nowhere to be found. Then of course she sought help at social services but came back feeling worse than she had before, after hearing that the only help they could give her was to put her in an orphanage. When they told her this, she cried and one of the social workers told her not to cry because it wasn’t their fault she was an orphan. She was fifteen years old. She had a number of bad options: drugs, alcohol, suicide. But she chose none of the above.
Psalm 34:18: “The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
This girl had a name and it meant ‘Conqueror’. Many people may not understand its true meaning. This name means: Overcome, Defeater, To triumph over.
Its at this time where she had no one to talk to and no one to ask help from that she made a prayer asking God why He had taken everything away from her. She thought of all those children around her who often complained about their parents and how they were never satisfied. It was during this storm in her life where she gave her life to God and met Jesus and had a shoulder to cry on, realizing that God had never left her, for in Jeremiah 29:11 it says: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” She is turning eighteen this year and is strong and truly believes in God.
By the way, my name is Nqobile, but I’m better known as “Q”. My name means ‘Conqueror’, ‘To triumph over’.
Looking back from where I come and everything I’ve been through, I’m standing in front of you today proclaiming that from the impossible it is possible. No matter what you’re going through and how life seems at this moment, God has not left you. He is a mighty God who never fails us, a God of peace and a God of restoration. That was the storm in which I found my story.
Thank you.

Thursday, May 6, 2010 Posted by | Africa, Death, Disappointments, Hope, Mission, Prayer, Theology | 11 Comments

Ending a Mission Partnership

One of my favorite topics that I blog about, is partnerships in mission. Almost three years ago I posted the following three essays on the topic of partnering in mission:
One of the reasons why I’m positive about a more formal “partnership agreement” is because it leaves room to end the partnership in an honorable way. In Swaziland, in our Shiselweni Reformed Church Home-Based Care, we have a number of “formal” partners and a number of “informal” partners. In the short term “informal” partners are good people to have around. They’re mostly excited about mission in general, they tend to follow a vision easily and they will often set great ideas in motion to support mission. The problem comes when the individuals who had driven the vision within their own church or organization lose the vision or move away. The support can then stop abruptly if there is no formal partnering agreement.
In the long term, a formal agreement works much better. Agreements are made beforehand. The partner may agree to be part of the mission project for a certain time (one year, three years, five years) after which the partnership comes to an end. Or the partnership runs for a year with an option to renew the partnership for another year, depending on certain criteria.
As we entered our new financial year on 1 March, I had concerns about three of our “informal” partners. Because we have no written agreement, I had no idea whether they were intending to continue their support. One of them told me a day or two ago that they have no intention of stopping their support. (Big sigh of relief!) After I contacted the second one, I was told that no decision was made to stop support but it seems that no decision has been made to continue either. So we’re still waiting to see what will happen. Which strengthens my argument. The third partner also made no contact with us, but I did hear via the grapevine that they are stopping their support.
If you’re part of a supporting church / organization / foundation or you’re an individual wanting to help a mission organization, the more formal agreement might in the long run be much more fruitful, both for those giving and for those receiving help.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010 Posted by | Home-based Caring, Mission, Support teams, Sustainability, Swaziland | 5 Comments

A modern Easter story

In his time, Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin was one of the mightiest men alive on earth. With a name like that, he was obviously from Russian origin. He had been part of the 1917 Russian revolution. Later he was appointed editor of Russia’s most influential newspaper, Pravda (which, by the way, means “truth”) and was also a full member of the Russian Politburo. He was the author of books on economy and politics which is still popular up to today.
In 1930 he undertook a trip from Moscow to Kiev. His task was to address a large audience on the topic of atheism. It is reported that he spoke for more than an hour, in which time he made the Christian faith totally ridiculous. He insulted Christians and gave numerous proofs to indicate that God does not exist.
When he was through, he looked at the audience, convinced that nothing had remained of their faith, except perhaps some ash. Then an old man stood up and went forward. He looked at the audience and they stared at him, wondering what he was going to say. And then he greeted them with the traditional greeting of the Russian Orthodox Church: “Christ has risen!” And with one voice the audience responded in a sound that resembled that of a thunder flash: “He has risen indeed!”

Sunday, April 4, 2010 Posted by | Celebration, Eschatology, Mission, Russia, Theology | 2 Comments

Enveloped by love

For the past few weeks I’ve been under extreme pressure, not sleeping nearly enough, working towards deadlines and eventually feeling more tired than I think I’ve ever been in my life. Last week we trained a group of 43 new caregivers for our HIV/AIDS home-based caregiving project ( www.shbcare.org ). I usually only attend the last day, when we have a celebration function at which time we welcome the newly-trained caregivers into our group and commission them to go out and serve their neighbors. This is usually a very touching ceremony, but on Friday morning, when I had to leave to join the new caregivers, I was so exhausted that I could not imagine how I would get through the day.
I arrived at the community in the Mantambe area and greeted the trainers who were waiting outside for my arrival. I then entered the community hall where the newly trained volunteers were singing in their typical Swazi fashion. But even that couldn’t do much to lift my spirits – I was just too tired to care. But I put on my smile and as the crowd was singing I started greeting them all with a handshake – the first one, then the second one, the third, the fourth and then the fifth one. And then, as I shook the hands of the sixth person, she let go of my hand, put her arms around me and hugged me. And then the next one did the same. And the next one. And the rest of the 43 new volunteers all did the same. This is not Swazi custom. Swazi’s are normally very reserved in the way they greet and even more so when greeting someone of the opposite sex. But as each one hugged me, I could feel my energy returning and the rest of the ceremony was a huge celebration.
That afternoon, after returning home, I tried to tell my wife what had happened. Failing to be able to share the emotion I had felt, I summarized it by saying that I had never in my life experienced so much love concentrated in one place. Nobody else had known how I had felt that morning, but as each one hugged me, it honestly felt as if it was God Himself putting His arms around me.
Feeling fairly revived on Saturday, I thought back to what had happened the previous day and realized that, as one starts serving others, this action in itself leads to advantages for oneself. This was probably an unique experience and I can’t expect to feel the same when next we train a group, but I will always cherish in my mind what had happened on this past Friday.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010 Posted by | Africa, AIDS, Celebration, Cross-cultural experiences, HIV, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Hope, Mission, Support teams, Swaziland, Theology | 1 Comment

A Modern-day Parable for the Church

There was an ambitious businessman in a certain city who had built a huge grease factory. People from all over the world came to view this factory once it was completed and in full production and the ambitious businessman was only too pleased to show the visitors the entire process, from the point where coal was offloaded from ships to the point where the grease was eventually pumped into huge tanks.
One day a visitor arrived and asked whether he could be taken on a guided tour through the factory. The owner of the factory escorted the visitor to the outside of the factory where coal from a ship was being offloaded, making use of enormous machines. The coal was then placed onto conveyor belts running on thousands of rollers. From there the coal was dropped into a mill where the large pieces of coal was broken up into smaller pieces. From there the coal ran on lengthy conveyor belts, once again supported by thousands of rollers to the next process and from there to the next and then to the next. The visitor marveled at the conveyor belts crisscrossing throughout the factory with millions of rollers on which these long belts ran.
He also marveled at the huge machines used to break the coal into increasingly smaller particles and the other chemical processes used to eventually convert the coal into usable grease and he marveled at the size of the tanks used to store the grease. He had never seen anything like that in his life. It was mind-boggling.
Afterwards, having a cup of coffee with the owner, the visitor was however puzzled by something. “I’ve seen how the coal is offloaded. I’ve seen the processes through which the coal had to go until it finally became grease. I’ve seen the tanks into which the grease is pumped. The only thing I haven’t seen is your facility from where the grease is dispatched to the consumers.”
“You clearly don’t understand,” the ambitious businessman answered him. “Didn’t you see those huge machines and the millions of rollers on which the conveyor belts run? They need to be greased often to keep them running efficiently. We don’t have any grease left to dispatch!”

Monday, March 15, 2010 Posted by | Church, Mission, Theology | 6 Comments

Making a stand for righteousness

My son recently started sharing something about his journey as a child who grew up in Swaziland, later attended school in Apartheid South Africa where he became increasingly racist and then later, after school, becoming more convinced about the sin of racism. I want to link onto his second story – about his experience at school: “White kid in a white school.” In this story he refers to me taking a leading role in the fight to get the schools my children were attending opened up for all races.
A few things happened in the late 80s and early 90s (I can’t remember the exact years) that will always remain in my mind. A colored child (meaning a child born of mixed Black / White parents) wanted to attend the Whites only high school (which is the school which my own children attended and where my wife was also teaching on a temporary basis at that time and where she is now a permanent teacher.) A group of parents were up in arms (literally) about this. They confronted the headmaster armed with revolvers and pistols (I saw this with my own eyes) and demanded that the child be taken out of their school. The headmaster refused, but the effect was that this poor boy had to sleep with a bullet-proof jacket (he was living in the dormitory at school) with a policeman on guard outside his door and even during schooltime, a policeman had to be on guard outside the classroom to ensure that nobody attacked him. It was a terrible time.
As all South Africans knew that the first democratic election was inevitable (it was eventually held in 1994), plans were made to lessen the impact of the elections. One was to try and ensure that no “non-White” children would be allowed in the “Whites only” schools. The only way in which this could be done was by combining different Afrikaans schools, from the first grade to the twelfth grade, in one school. The school would then be filled to capacity. Knowing the real reason behind this, I decided to speak up against this decision at a parents’ meeting where the decision had to be approved.
On the evening of the parents’ meeting there was a lot of tension in the air. There were probably around 500 or 600 parents gathered at, what we know as a “primary school (Grades 1 – 7), mostly there to ensure that their school would remain “White”! I had done my homework and had determined that the government had put a moratorium in place which actually prevented schools from combining. And I decided that this would form the main part of my argument. These people would not be convinced on sentimental or ethical grounds. The discussion started and it was clear that the feeling was unanimous that the two schools should combine. When the floor was given the chance to respond, I raised my hand and was eventually given the chance to speak. Although I knew that I was right, my knees were shaking as I faced the hundreds of parents and said that I disagreed with the proposal. I can’t remember all the arguments I used, but the hostility that I encountered as I spoke, I will never forget. I started stating the reasons why I thought such a decision would be wrong, while listening to angry noises being made by the rest of the parents. Halfway through, the principal stood up and ordered me to sit down. I was told that I could put my arguments on paper and hand it to the governing body.
Deeply humiliated I took my seat. And then, in my anger, I decided that I was up to the challenge. A few individual parents met me outside and told me that they supported my viewpoint. That evening I went home and wrote a document stating all the arguments and emphasizing that lies had been told to the parents, as the governing body knew well about the moratorium. (To his credit, I have to mention that the principal called me the following day to apologize for his behavior the previous evening.) What happened after that, I do not know. The possibility of combining the schools was never mentioned again. I received no answer from the governing body. But I knew that I had done the right thing.
Today, almost twenty years later, I can hardly believe that this had taken place. The schools in our town are mixed and the pupils seem to get along quite well with each other. Nobody ever thanked me for saying what I had said and frankly, I don’t think much would have been different if I had not done what I had done. But it is good to know that I had been put into a situation where I had to make a stand against a 99% majority and that I was able to overcome my fear in order to say what I believed God wanted me to say. That I won my case was definitely an added bonus!

Saturday, March 6, 2010 Posted by | Comfort Zone, Cross-cultural experiences, Culture, Mission, Racism, Swaziland, Theology | 4 Comments

Patrick Lencioni: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

One of the questions that I’m frequently asked when people hear about the work of Shiselweni Home-Based Care in Swaziland, is: “What’s the secret of your success?” Although the question might be flattering, my standard answer is: “I really don’t know.” (And this is not false humility!) God has been extremely gracious towards us and this, more than anything else, has been the major key to success. But then I do know that we also did certain things “right” which contributed towards our success. Through a number of – mostly negative – experiences in my life and more especially in church ministry, I decided many years ago that I’m not going to follow the leadership hierarchy approach in my ministry (or, in more Biblical terms, the shepherd / flock model) where everything that needs to be done in church has to be channeled up the hierarchy to the top in order to get approval and then channeled down again. In church the result of this approach is usually that the pastor is totally overworked as he / she tries to control everything happening down the line. I opted for the “body of Christ” model where I consider each church member to have certain gifts which they can and should use in service of Christ. And regardless what the gift is, if it is important to God, it is important to the church. This, I think, is the only way in which church members can fully function as a team. This does not make the role of the leader redundant. There are times when tough decisions need to be made and there are times when someone has to take responsibility when the buck can no longer be passed, but within a team approach this happens much less often than within the strictly hierarchal model.
The truth of this was further confirmed when I did some training on personality testing many years ago and realized that most business companies would probably be able to function far more productively if every employee was encouraged to use their strong personality traits (spiritual gifts and talents in the church) as part of a team, rather than one person making all or most of the decisions while the employees sit around waiting for someone to tell them what to do.
When a friend recently advised me to read Patrick Lencioni’sThe Five Dysfunctions of a Team” I had mixed feelings about it. (Raise your hand if you enjoy hearing how and where you are dysfunctional!) But I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I love his writing style. The book is written in the format of a fable, taking a real-life situation which is all too commonly experienced in the corporate world (as well as in the church), and applying certain principles in the fable to better help the reader to understand where things could be improved and what the best method would be to do so.
Lencioni goes out from the premise that there are basically five things which can cause a team to become dysfunctional, (with the actual problem causing the dysfunction in brackets):
  1. Absence of Trust (Invulnerability)
  2. Fear of Conflict (Artificial Harmony)
  3. Lack of Commitment (Ambiguity)
  4. Avoidance of Accountability (Low Standards)
  5. Inattention to Results (Status and Ego)
Through the fable, the reader gets the opportunity to fully understand how and why the problem leads to the specific dysfunction and obviously methods are explained and demonstrated through the fable on how these dysfunctions can be addressed – even to the point of having to fire someone who, although that person might be an excellent employee, does not serve the interests of the team any longer. The book ends with a more formal discussion on different methods that can be used to improve on the team’s productivity.
This is a book I can recommend to anyone working with teams and I would especially want to recommend it to any church leader, as many churches still fail to understand how to make teams work.
As I finished the book, I mentally evaluated Shiselweni Home-Based Care. After more than four years as project manager of this team, I still have to find a more dedicated and loyal team of volunteers to work with. Honestly! The problems we have are mostly minor. Through the grace of God, more than through my own wisdom, the team is functioning well. But as I thought about what Lencioni had written, I could see potential cracks. For one: Within the Swazi tradition, conflict is usually avoided. But gossip is not avoided! And gossip leads to a lack of trust. As I plan to start using this book with our twenty two coordinators, we will have to plan for a session on conflict management – and the only way to do this will be to teach and allow them to speak openly about frustrations they may experience with each other. But I’m excited to take this group of dedicated people up to an even higher level of productivity by focusing on still greater teamwork.
A great book that I absolutely enjoyed reading with great potential to make a bad team function properly and to make a good team function even better. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010 Posted by | Book Review, Building relations, Church, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Leadership, Mission, Swaziland, Unity | 2 Comments

My black heart

When I arrived in Swaziland in 1985 as young missionary, I had a lot in my favor. I had a passion for God, a passion for the church, a passion for teaching and a passion for building relationships with the people of Swaziland where I believed God had called me to work. (Although I still had much too learn, God graciously kept that reality hidden from me until after I had moved to Swaziland!)
I was fairly naive in believing that all missionaries desired to become one with the people they are working with. But with time, I was shocked to hear that this was not the truth. Stories were told of local Swazis arriving at homes of missionaries where they were told to wait at the gate until the mFundisi (pastor) could see them – outside!. We heard stories of tea being served in tin mugs (reserved exclusively for the use of the Swazis) to people who were not allowed to enter the home of the missionary. In fact, a few days after arriving in Swaziland, a well-meaning White man who was also a member of the missions committee that supported me, came to visit us and informed us that the house which we occupied will be sold and that a new house will be built for our use. Surprised about this news I asked him the reason for this. And the answer was that my office was within the house and it was unacceptable for me to receive Swazi guests in my house. The new house would have an office outside where I would be able to meet with the Swazis. (If you want to read how we struggled with culture shock in this time of our lives, you can read my post on Our Experience of Culture Shock (which, by the way, is still one of my most-read posts.)
Fortunately there was never any money to build a new house and my wife and I made a decision to immediately start inviting Swazis to visit us – within the house! This caused a number of outbursts amongst people who disagreed with us, but by that time we were getting used to not being very popular!
As missionary it is always difficult to know how far one has to go to demonstrate your acceptance of the local people. The life story of Hudson Taylor was well-known to me, who had gone to China and clothed himself in the same attire as the local Chinese in order to become like one of them. In Swaziland things were different. Although the Swazis have traditional clothing, very few modern people will wear them except at traditional celebrations. And so I decided that I would probably not be able to do anything outwardly to demonstrate that I accept the Swazis, but hopefully, through our actions, people might be able to see our attitude. (The way in which this led to a crisis-point in my ministry with extremely positive results, was told in a previous post: Three steps towards successful missions
As time went on, I developed a deep love for the Swazis and started spending more and more time with them, listening to their stories, trying to understand their culture and learning from them. I also became friends with a number of the men so that we would regularly visit each other and also spent time to speak about our different backgrounds so that we could learn to understand each other better.
And then, one day, while one of my greatest Swazi friends was visiting me and we discussed my attitude towards the Swazi people and also how we as family had often been rejected by people from our own culture, he looked at me at one point and made the remark: “Do you know what your problem is? You’re white on the outside, but your heart is black.” I don’t know whether that man, till today, realizes the compliment he had given me on that day. What he was trying to say was that my skin was white, but on the inside, I had become like one of them. This was a breakthrough moment in my ministry.
I’m still not able to do much about my outside. I’m still as white as I’ve been since the day I was born. But I’m hoping that the Swazi people I work with can see through the outer layer right into my heart and sense the love I have for them.

Monday, February 15, 2010 Posted by | Theology | 6 Comments