A former colleague of mine once made the rather cynical remark that he would always remember Swaziland for the disappointments he had experienced. This sounds very negative and I have to say that this wasn’t his normal attitude – it was the response to something that had happened. But the fact is that we have to cope with many disappointments. I’m not sure if it is really worse than in a “normal” church, but it may be that we realise that in many mission churches there is a high expectation for people to live differently from others who are not yet Christians and when they fall into a trap, the pain is usually very difficult to cope with.
Shortly after I arrived in Swaziland, a young Swazi man, who had just finished studying at a theological school in South Africa, joined our team, together with his lovely young wife. We were so excited to have them on our team. But shortly after he came, rumours started going around that he was involved in a relationship with one of the female church members. Not long afterwards it was confirmed that the rumours were the truth and after long discussions with him, we had no choice but to ask him to resign as church leader. Although we tried to maintain contact with him, I never saw him again and do not know where he is today.
This pattern was repeated time and time again. Each time it happens, there is so much sadness and harm that has to be dealt with. But the problem of infidelity has now acquired a new angle. At one point we appointed a young man (unmarried) to help us at a certain place. A year or two afterwards rumours started going around that he was sexually involved with young girls in the area. Eventually he also left the church, but shortly after we heard that he was sick. Nobody spoke openly about the sickness but when he died a few months later, we all knew that he had died of AIDS. Another strong leader in our church (married) followed the same route. I visited this man shortly before he died, a shadow of his former self, covered in sores and literally skin and bones. Two days later he was dead.
I have a feeling from what I observe that the problem is not really worse in our case than in other (more Western) churches. I have friends serving as ministers in Afrikaans-speaking churches (normally a fairly conservative sub-culture) who are trying to learn to cope with the same problem. Perhaps, due to larger congregations and perhaps also because of a better ability to cover things they are ashamed off, the effects seem to be smaller. But regardless of the effects, every time something like this happens there is so much disappointment and guilt: Did I, as leader, fail to give enough support to this person? Could I have done something differently to prevent this person from falling into trap? Should I have spent more time with him to monitor and coach him?
I hope that I will not one day look back and only remember the disappointments I had to cope with. But that these things do have an extremely negative impact on the kingdom of God, cannot be denied.