Thursday, April 30, 2009

7pm Fort Wayne Time... 1am Buja Time


The low-flying plane gave us panoramic view of the city we grew up in. Downtown, our high school, our old neighborhood. Something about being in cities like Nairobi, Brussels, Chicago, that makes the announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome of Fort Wayne,” a bit underwhelming. But we sigh the sigh of total familiarity and gratitude, because it’s always there for you, your hometown.

Off the plane and through the terminal, and there they are. The ones who spent Christmas without us. And wrapped up in the reunion, the exhaustion of travel evaporates into clouds of celebration. The potential for time together sates our souls, and we know we have no goodbyes to say for a while. I’d love to go into deeper descriptions of the airport, my pleasant drive through the city in my car, and the rest of the afternoon, but those clouds are beginning to condensate again. It’s been a long trip, it’s been an emotional decathlon, and I’m toast.
But even as I’m trying to secure a bootleg signal in my mom’s living room to post these last two stories, I’m thinking about the Buj. It’s still there. It’s still going to wake up in a few hours even though we’re across the ocean. And our friends are going to keep spending themselves on behalf of it. It seems wrong to hope that you’re missed. But I do. Maybe because I just hope my own lament is reciprocated. Maybe it’s pure narcissism. But it’s sad to imagine Buja without me in it.

But that will have to be the dull ache in my spirit for the next few days. Because the hours of goodbye are over for a while. I’ve got a big week of hellos ahead. Off to bed. Goodnight.

1:45 Chicago Time, 2:45 Fort Wayne Time

“Welcome back, guys.”

Trina and Karri and I talked about this moment in the car on the way to the airport in Buj. Trina said that, no matter what her current opinions about our country, there was always this surge of gratitude and joy when the customs agent says those words. I didn’t know until today. But it feels pretty good.

Eight and a half hours on the plane from Brussels with my own private screen. For a movie junkie such as myself, no better way to pass the flight. I put some time in on other efforts, but come on. It’s a little screen built into the back of the seat in front of you! You could play Tetris with the remote built into the arm of your chair! Ridiculous. I’m flying over ice floes in Northeastern Canada and trying to squeeze the T piece into the space created by the oddly placed Z piece. What kind of bizarre world do we live in?

For my friends still in the Buj, you’ll appreciate this one. We land in Chicago and the fasten seat belt sign turns off. Everyone stands and collects their belongings, but there is no pushing. There is no climbing over seats. There is no unnecessary contact. We’re in the back of the plane and everyone is well aware that they are going to get their turn. Then we notice the gentleman behind us.

This gentleman in his sixties, maybe seventies, is dressed in a bright blue patterned dashiki and (how can I say this tactfully?) smells African. Like the cabs I would take every morning or the hugs from my dear Burundian friends that only lasted as long as they did because my love elongated my sensory endurance. He is clearly unenthused at the prospect of waiting for the plane to disembark. He has already posted up behind Karri, arm outstretched and boxing me out from entering the aisle in front of him, and is shifting from side to side, seeing if there’s an alternate route. Then the opposite aisle begins to clear out. This is more than he can bear. He wedges himself between Karri and the aisle adjacent to her, then excuses himself (AFTER this maneuver, mind you) and wriggles the rest of the way so that he can join the free flowing traffic. Karri and I looked at each other. It’s refreshing to know that here we are, on American soil once more, but some things just don’t change. Sorry if that anecdote goes over some heads, but that one goes out to my fellow fighters in the battle of the visa lines. Cheers, guys, and know that we’re still fighting the good fight here in the West.

One last jump to the homeland, and then we’re done. The chapter of our travels to Buja and back will end where it started. Our parents will be right where we left them, like they never left. I’ll have gained a drum, a goatee, and a slimmer waist. And then we’ll go… home? I guess so. But we left a little bit of home back there when Selius shut the gate the last time, a little bit when we left the arms of our friends in the airport, a little bit when our feet hit that staircase and left the ground. And there’s a little bit of home in that Philly apartment, a little bit traipsing around the globe with our Eastern friends. Maybe that means home just gets a little bigger, but the emptiness I feel by being separated from those people, those places makes me think that they are pieces of home, broken off the whole. And while I’ll never be depleted of home, I’ll always feel the phantom limbs that can never be replaced.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

6:30am Brussels time, 11:30pm Fort Wayne time


I don’t sleep well on planes. I think everyone who designs transport is shorter than 6 feet tall. But Brussels air tries hard to make you comfortable. Good food, nice blankets. I look longingly at the curtain to first class and the extra-reclining chairs with ample leg room and rub my knees.

I’m greeted by what appears to be the African version of Total Request Live on the screens at the front of the cabin. Women from Ivory Coast, Guinea, Senegal sway silently back and forth to the drone of the engines and the stirring of the cabin crew. If you’ve never been to Africa, then African music videos are probably just a glimpse into the past of video editing, with producers who don’t know better than to use whatever stock transition effects are available on the software they’re using. The four-corner split and spin. The page-turn from the left. The page-turn from the right. The spinning block. But when you’ve been to Africa, you see something a bit more. You see this familiar desire to be Western while slightly resenting it at the same time. The ladies amble out of a sports car, but the man is wearing a dashiki. The dancing still holds quite a bit of booty shaking, while retaining the swaying arm movements of their days in the choirs of their youth.

It’s familiar because you see this tension on the streets every day. Love 50 Cent, resent the West’s money. Love Obama, resent the US foreign policy. Love Dolly Parton (don’t ask me, but everyone does), resent the imposition of Western cultures and values. I can’t blame them. I live in that tension every day. I’m simultaneously someone abundantly comfortable in the West and annoyed and critical of it. It’s the real tension I’m wrestling with this morning. We’re about to land in Brussels. Who am I now? On the other side of these eight months, will that tension be tilted to one side or another? I have three entries to post. Will I be upset if I can’t connect to the internet? Do I deserve it? Is all that stuff in my suitcase just relics of an extended vacation into development-land? I’m about to set foot into the land of automatic soap dispensers. Who am I?

9:45pm Nairobi Time, 2:45pm Fort Wayne Time

We’re landed in Nairobi and waiting for the new crew to board our (let me check the pocket card) Airbus A 330. Then on to Brussels. My wife has been in that state of flux between trying not to cry and trying to stop crying since we last caught our friends in our arms and tried to renegotiate the goodbyes we knew we had to say. Now she’s wrapped in her cardigan, protected from the strangely novel air conditioning, and resting beside me.

I’m not sure why I don’t cry much. People say that you’re not in touch with yourself; your heart is hard if you can’t cry. I don’t think I’m out of touch or steely, but it’s just not something I do a lot of. Admittedly, I probably said less to our friends in the airport than I wanted to because of the softball sized lump in my throat, and rather than pushing through it to the inevitable choke and sniff, I cut myself off and gave a knowing nod. Does that make me a coward for not wanting to cry? I don’t know. But I got that same lump in my throat when we made that short walk across the tarmac and boarded the plane. It felt like saying goodbye to one more friend.

7:30pm Buja Time, 1:30pm Fort Wayne Time

I’m in the terminal of Bujumbura airport, reflecting on the massive emotional hairball that was the last 2 hours.

Our friend Paulin arrived first, bringing greetings from his family. He is an amazing, promising, enterprising, faithful young man with whom Karri and I have had the great pleasure of spending time. We sat with him, reflecting on the end of term and his hopes for the next year. Next came Samuel and David, the twins from our youth group and worship team, and two of the most affectionate, dear young men I’ve had the pleasure of working with here. I tried to draw a map of the States and explain where Fort Wayne was. It’s always amusing to watch Burundians who have never considered the size of the US realize how large our country actually is. Plenty of tongue clucking and whistling ensues. I’ll demonstrate for you upon request.

Then came Brandon, my fellow spiritual traveler and one of my closest friends here. He corrected my poor Canadian geography, and we discussed the books we’re reading. Finally, Trina came with the truck. The guys sprang into action, ferrying our luggage from the living room to the vehicles. A light rain marked our departure, and it felt slightly fitting. En route, we discussed with Trina the emotional sand trap of making friends in a context like this. Everyone’s leaving. It becomes easy to guard your heart and stay closed off. If you’re reading this, Trina, I’m abundantly thankful that your heart opened for us.

We arrived at the airport simultaneously with Isaac, Michelle, and Meg. These three, who along with Tyler made our community complete, have become fast friends to Karri and I. Michelle, while only here a few short months with many more to come, has proven to be inspirational and steadfast, and a gift to us. Meg came a few weeks after us, and as I said to her in a tearful embrace, brought us more joy than anyone we met here in Burundi. Isaac, however, was with us on the plane from Brussels. He’s been there from the beginning. And if I didn’t say it there, I’ll say it now. You’re an unbelievable person, Isaac, and we love you immensely.

All those emotions, all those remembrances, all those embraces, then through the looking glass and into the world of international travel. Checked baggage – no problem. But we’ve got a guitar and a drum to carry on. We thought we could get away with it. But first the drum got vetoed. $150. Then the guitar got vetoed. We fought, we persuaded. Our friend Noe from Turame came to see us off and advocated on our behalf. A woman who came to my music classes and works at the airport, Mirelle, won top marks in my book for her efforts. To no avail. $150. … On the upside, we don’t have to carry the instruments around the airport. A few people who have just said emotional goodbyes aren’t in the best psychological state to handle arguing over international baggage restrictions in French. C’est la vie.

Boarding. Goodbye, Burundi. I think we’ll see each other again.

3pm Buja Time, 9am Fort Wayne Time

We just said goodbye to Japan. He’s been this face we’ve seen nearly every morning, and there’s an appropriate finality to the moment. When we say goodbye to him, we say goodbye to the fascinating tension that is house workers. Don’t get me wrong, Japan is a great worker, but every expat is going to have opinions and stories regarding the people who work in their houses, and rarely are they 100% glistening endorsements. People struggle with everything from how much to pay to whether to give loans to whether to fire them for stealing or not. We had our frustrations with our staff, but still, when it comes time to give a hug and say goodbye, I can see in him a gratitude and friendship, and I hope he sees the same in me.

It’s been a slow, lazy afternoon, and we’re only two hours away from departing for the airport. It’s difficult to describe the physical sensations I’m feeling. The closest thing I can associate is the feeling of nervousness before a performance. I guess nostalgia feels like butterflies. Or maybe I just know this is the long stretch of anticipation before having to say goodbye to the friends we’ve been closest to here. They’re all coming to the airport with us, and there’s going to be a moment in front of the terminal. There’s going to be a moment when we have to look one another in the eyes. It’s that moment that is causing my stomach to flutter, I think.

I’ve been pacing a lot this afternoon. Mainly because the power has been off all day, and once my computer battery died, I couldn’t write my thoughts. I pace when I’m bored, and it drives Karri crazy sometimes. I think I just like feeling like I’m going somewhere. I’m not very good at sitting still, or focusing wholly on one thing, and pacing gives me the sensation of motion without the nasty auxiliary of purpose. But today, I’ve got plenty to think about: what we’ve been through, where we’re going, how we’re going to get there. Where is Japan going to go now? How will the new tenant treat Selius? Will we really keep in touch with our friends, or will they become the people who you run into by chance years later and have to decide if you’re going to ignore or not because you used to be extremely close and aren’t anymore, which makes it more awkward than normal. And where do those little ants end up after they’re done scavenging the bit of pizza crust and traversing the impromptu highway their relatives have created?

So I pace.

9am Buja Time, 3am Fort Wayne Time

Just finished packing. No matter how many times I do it, it’s always odd to see my stuff in suitcases. Feels like you’ve wrapped your life up in boxes and bags. I know your stuff isn’t your life, but it exists as a kind of symbol. There’s no denying what it means when you pack the shirt you’ve never worn, or find the most effective way to roll your ties. Those are not normal things to do.

Our kitchen table is cluttered with things we’re giving away. Some things, like spare shaving cream, we just don’t care to pack. Some things we’re giving to people. The bed sheets go to Jean Baptiste’s orphanage in Bubanza. The external modem goes to Michelle. The phone goes to Selius, our guard, whose pregnant wife lives in Kayanza a few hours away while he works with us in the city. He doesn’t know that he’s getting a phone yet. I wonder what he’ll think. I can only assume, because he speaks no English or French, and is a bit of a soft-spoken man anyways. But he’s a great worker, smiles a lot, and is staying on with the house for the next tenant. So his job situation is ok. We worked hard to make sure of that.

The voices of the kids in the schools next door are drifting over the walls of the compound. Shouts, repeated lessons, laughs, taunts, all in this language I’ve heard every day but understand nearly nothing of. Sometimes, while standing outside of the gate, the kids would play this game of inter-language peek-a-boo. A group of ten of so would notice us standing in the street. The boldest would try his or her hand at their most recent French lesson. “Bonjour!” If we didn’t respond, she’d simply try again. “Bonjour!” When we’d finally turn and respond in kind, the group would squeal and pivot and jump and run in the unison of a school of fish, until someone else in the group decided to try it himself. “Bonjour!” Response, squeal, next contestant.

Karri’s organizing the money we’re leaving behind, bonuses for Japan and Selius, tuition for a friend of ours who is going to a tech school next year, and extra Burundian francs to sell off to our friends. We’re bringing home a few of the bills just to show people and have as souveniers. Of course, we’re bringing back nice, clean bills, but they will hardly be a clear indication of the norm. Most bills, especially in the middle to lower denominations, are soiled and blackened beyond recognition by being rolled, palmed, passed, and crammed into dirty pockets. It’s a strange practice, keeping money. I feel like there would be few things that could feel more familiar, more indicative of our months here than those pieces of paper. I handled it every day. I worried about it getting stolen. I bargained with cab drivers to save it. People I didn’t know asked me for it. People I did know asked me for it. Those won’t be the memories that last, the momentous things that will be repeated ad nauseum for the next few weeks. But if I want to think about the steady stream of days that run into each other that tend to formulate the bulk of your time and the minority of your description, I’ll find it in the smell of those bills.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

6:00am Buja Time, 12:00am Fort Wayne Time


I rumble out of bed for the last time, untucking the mosquito net and trying to slide off the corner of the bed without waking my wife. I’ve been waking up earlier these days. Can’t seem to sleep past six. I head over to the coffee pot to get the daily brew started. No power. Figures. It’ll kick on in an hour or two. It’ll be strange to live in a place where the use of candles isn’t ubiquitous and you don’t have to try to finish your movie before 10pm because the electricity “leaves” (as you would say in Kirundi) every night at that time lately. I stroll over to the couch. Our neighbor has a rooster that has been crowing mercilessly every morning at just that hour when you have the delicious option of rolling over and getting that extra ten minutes. We’ve fantasized about exercising our inner Colonel Sanders. This morning he’s quiet. Maybe someone told him we were leaving.

There’s a rap on the gate. Selius, our guard, walks past the window to let our cook, Emmanuel (who asks that we call him Japan for reasons that are less PC than I’d prefer), into the compound. I live on a compound. This is my last day of life behind a gate. People who live behind gates in the West usually have Beamers or gardeners. I doubt I’ll ever be one of those people. But here, you accept life behind a gate. You accept a lot of things. You accept mosquito nets. You accept power outages. You accept roosters. How long will it take before I feel entitled again? Before I decide that the world owes me air conditioning and fast service at a restaurant?

Japan comes into the living room and says, “Good morning.” His English is good, not as good as his brother’s, but we understand each other well. I hear a little more in his greeting this morning. The tone of his voice says, “Yeah. This is it, isn’t it?” For me, I’m off to the States, a car, a bank account, a garage full of stuff. For him, this is the last day of his job. Best I can tell, he doesn’t have another one yet. Karri wrote him a letter of recommendation yesterday, and we’re going to give him a little extra money to help him out, but it’s tough to find a job like this. Working for a muzungu is a bit of a coup, and there’s always the fear that your next job (if you find one) won’t be nearly as good. Japan wants to get married. Japan wants to build a house. Japan wants to start his own business. I hope he finds another job.

Karri’s up. I know it’s going to be an emotional day, and so does she. I can hear it in her voice. Maybe the power will kick on soon, and I can make her some coffee.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Fund-Raiser – Part IV: The Western Pastor

Introductions were out of the way, and it came time for the message. I stood to begin, Jean Baptiste at my side, ready to translate. One learns quickly in a context where one doesn’t speak the language that there are good translators and bad translators. Good translators try not only to capture the language, but the inflections and ideas expressed. Jean Baptiste is the best translator I’ve worked with here in Burundi. He has translated for me as I’ve preached several times, and he goes above and beyond to try and communicate my ideas through the cultural divide, while maintaining accuracy, inflection, pause, and body language. Bad translators don’t do any of those things. They may not even translate all of the words. This is aggravating. But translators are necessary to preserve the atmosphere of hospitality. There are times where you might be the only non-Kirundi speaker in the room, as Karri and I were that day. The customs of Karibu would dictate that a translator still translate everything that is said for you. We sometimes find this awkward, and would rather let the gathering flow naturally in Kirundi than double the time and potentially limit the effectiveness of the communication by pausing constantly to interpret into another language. But a Burundian would be more uncomfortable than you, knowing you were their guest and were not fully “welcomed.”

Now, my family and friends know that I struggle with many things, but speaking loudly is not one of them. I trained my lungs to sustain prolonged volumes while I was still in the nursery of my church. I was delicately nicknamed “Screamin’ Jim.” It’s difficult to think about my mother in my formative years without the words, “Inside voices, honey,” being far from her lips. My beautiful wife still turns to me at times and says, “You do realize I’m standing right next to you, right?” So when it comes time to sing, speak, or do anything involving the vocal mechanism, I am rarely difficult to hear. But I’m comfortable when I’m loud, and sometimes it’s a gift. So I when I stood to begin the teaching, I felt no reservations about my voice being adequate to fill the room. That’s when a microphone was pressed into my hand.

This brings me to one of my biggest frustrations with your normal, run-of-the-mill Burundian church. These are beautiful communities of believers, and I can only hope you will experience the sound of fifty naked Burundian voices and a paint can drum giving praise in your lifetime. Yet every single community I've encountered believes that what it is really missing, what, when lacking, is limiting the movement of the Spirit more than anything else in their worship, is a sound system. That’s right. A church of ten people that meets in a living room would still look at each other and say, “Wow. If only we had microphones, we could really see the Lord move.” I’ve been in church services where the worship was just stunning, only to realize that, the whole time, two guys had been trying to get the generator to work, and once they had, the snap-crackle-pop of the speakers came alive and all that raw sound was drowned out by a plugged-in, out of tune bass guitar and a synthesizer, using the most obnoxious horn sound it could muster and propelled by the internal drum machine. Never mind the REAL drum they already had, nothing beats the tinny, genre-specific groove that only Yamaha can produce. It just kills me, but I suppose I come from a place where those things are common, and the denial of them is postmodern-trendy. But still… come on.

But the Lord smiled upon me, and but three minutes into my talk, the generator died, and the squawky speakers that made everything sound like it was coming out of an outdated transistor radio fell silent once more. I quietly fist-pumped the air and cranked the old internal volume knob up to eleven. Now, I am loud, but I am nowhere near as loud as my fellow Burundian pastors. Apparently, spiritual things cannot be spoken of in anything less than what could be called a bellow. But I couldn’t very well accommodate this, especially that day. I had made a bit of an underestimation.

You see, the last time Jean Baptiste invited me to speak to his community, I over-prepared. I brought a teaching full of history and analysis, and found myself speaking to a living room of ten to twelve uneducated men and women who just wanted to know that God loved them. So when my friend invited me to speak again, I was ready. I prepped a talk about the Spirit of God being like the breath we breathe, and that “the Spirit calls to our Spirit that we are God’s children.” (Romans 8:16) It was a quiet talk meant for the dear people I had met once before. But here I was, in the middle of one of the loudest, most crowded rooms I had seen, and everything spoken to that point was easily on the “bellow” setting. What can you do? So I gave my talk. God loves you. Right where you are, exactly the person you are right now, God loves you. I didn’t bellow. I probably didn’t even hit eleven, if I was honest. But I tried to catch every eye in that room.

There are a lot of things you can say as a pastor, and hopefully most of them are true, kingdom-filled things that are necessary to the disciple-making ministry you are called to. But I have found no higher calling than catching someone’s eyes when they are really looking, their ears when they are tuned in just right, and saying, “God loves you.” Here I was, in a room full of people who would never see my country, maybe never leave their own. They probably didn’t even own their own Bible, much less spend much time pondering the cultural context of the Pauline epistles. Lots of pastors (and I, very often) use their pulpit to self-aggrandize, to flex their exegetical muscles, and reassert their place at the top of the spiritual food chain. I think sometimes we forget that the simplest truths are the most life-changing. Grace is still amazing. Joy is still contagious. Faith can still move mountains. Hope still springs eternal. Peace still flows like a river. And love? Love can still change the world.

Karri and I left soon after I said “Amen.” The celebration kept going, though. And the fund-raiser for Jean Baptiste’s church started that beautiful community on its way to a permanent place to stay. I wish they embraced a bit more the truth that God is much more comfortable in tents and wildernesses than temples (and that sometimes sound systems kill the mood), but I know it’s important to have a place to call sanctuary. And the things I saw there in that classroom, the potpourri of sights and sounds, of customs and theologies, of light and dark, of hope and joy, are what make the story real to me. It’s not a perfect church, but no church is. Surely, though, the Lord was in that place. And surely the Lord is always at work. May we have eyes to see and ears to hear. May we remember that generosity is the heart of God, that joy sounds like thump-CLANK-CLANK, that love wears a towel and washes unshod feet, and that sometimes, the truest thing we can know is that God loves us.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Celebrating Palm Sunday in Bubanza

Last Sunday (Palm Sunday) Jim and I were invited to two churches - in Kanyosha and Bubanza - by our friend Jean Baptist, so that we could share in worship with them and Jim could teach. The following are photos from our time in the afternoon with the Bubanza congregation.

Bubanza Landscape: The flat landscape is lush with vegetation and fertile for rice fields and other crops.

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Driving into the dense vegetation far off of any 'main road' the taxi pulled up and parked in front of a small church and mud brick buildings. We were immediately greeted by the glowing faces of children anticipating our arrival.

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This is a photo of the church congregation. However, before we were more than one song into worship, an incredible rainstorm came crashing down, suddenly ripping off the plastic tarp over the roof, washing down rivers of mud onto the congregation, covering Jim and Jean Baptist’s white shirted backs. Consequently, we were herded into a tiny room inside the mud brick building.

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However, mud didn’t stop the worship. It continued outside in the rain by a few committed members and then was transported into the small room. At one point I stood in the doorway of the room, peering outside, until I realized the water dripping down on me at the entrance was actually mud. The small building was melting onto my skin and clothes because it was made from unfired mud bricks. I began to wonder how often they had to repair this home.

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Once the rain stopped we returned outside. Everyone filed into the tightly cramped benches and listened as Jim began to teach, with our friend Jean Baptist translating at his side.

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After the teaching they led Jim and I and Jean Baptist back into the small room, where they generously fed us the best of their veggies, potatoes and chicken.

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The province of Bubanza was the hot bed of rebel fighting during the war. The evidence of this can be seen here, where the church has taken in over seventy orphans and has a congregation filled with widows struggling to care for their families. Following our food, they escorted in a large group of orphans and some widows. Suddenly we were standing face to face with a line of timid eyes looking back at us, none of us speaking. However, the tension was soon broken as we called them closer to us and they finally broke out in a call and response worship song, clapping and stomping their feet. Smiles were infectious.

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Jim was asked to share a few words with them, which is again, a difficult request. We were slightly uncomfortable with the blatant characterization of these individuals as simply "orphans" and "widows" - seeming to reduce them to two dimensions. However, the compassion and commitment to the 'least of these' as demonstrated by this church and our friend Jean Baptist assuage any concern that they are treated less than creations of the Divine. Jim offered the best words he had - reminding them of how much they are each loved by God. After taking numerous photographs, I told them I would take their faces home with me to share with my mom, family and friends, praying for and remembering them.

Jim and I were both overwhelmed. We were overwhelmed with their joy, their worship, their compassionate and generous hearts, the struggles they face. I also found myself overwhelmed with the spirit of God - feeling in a very tangible way that these children were deeply loved and cherished by a God I understand more after having looked into their faces. You find that when you encounter the Divine you are often at a loss for words.

As we finally stood to leave, a young brave boy asked something of me in Kirundi. My poor Kirundi skills being what they are, I had no idea what he said. Finally JB said he was asking for a pen. I pulled one out of my purse and handed it over - to the slight panic of JB, who quickly led me out of the room before I was mobbed with pen requests. Ah, he only wanted a pen...

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As we climbed back into the taxi, the smiles and waves swarmed us again, more brazen this time, full of energy and mischief and life.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Fund-Raiser – Part III: The Shod and the Shoeless

Once the last choir had resettled into the sea of multicolored material, the pastor returned to the pulpit to welcome the visitors, pastors and dignitaries seated with me across the front of the classroom. Jean Baptiste stood beside him and translated, first for his colleague, and then for the well-dressed gentlemen that rose from their chairs. Each pastor stood and greeted the community, sometimes with a simple word of introduction, sometimes with a mini-devotional idea to accompany their greeting, almost always with a healthy dose of “Hallelujah!” “AMEN!” I was the last to be introduced, mainly because I was the featured speaker for the afternoon, but also because a Western guest is a great honor to a community.

This deserves a bit of exposition, because there is a good deal of misunderstanding between cultures in this situation. Let me share another story as an example. Karri and I went to see a Burundian friend graduate from his Bible school a few weeks ago. We weren’t speaking or doing anything other than attending as friends of the graduate. As we arrived, the head of the program greeted us and ushered us to the front of the room. We explained, as politely as we could, that we wanted to sit with the rest of the friends and family. The gentleman looked slightly confused and urged us again to take one of the seats of honor. We then explained that we wished to take photos and sitting in the front would prevent us from doing so. He gave an understanding and relieved nod, and let us seat ourselves.

From the Westerner’s perspective, there is an awkward tension in constantly being seated in places of honor. Most of the expats I know in Burundi are here to serve the Burundian people, to stand beside them and give them dignity and value. When we are paraded to the front of a gathering, we feel separated, scrutinized. We feel that we are being singled out for our status, our wealth, our education, at times even our skin color, and these distinctions carry negative connotations in our cultural framework. We don’t agree with elevating the rich above the poor, the educated over the non-educated, and the white over the non-white. So we fight against these distinctions on the battleground of the seating order. We cluck our tongues when asked to sit in the front, and refuse to participate in this discriminatory cultural practice.

But as we have processed this with our Burundian friends, they find our refusal to sit in front just as offensive. As I’ve said before, their customs of “Karibu,” of welcome, mandate that a guest receive the best the host can offer. This includes food, drink, seating, and anything else the host can provide. Receiving a guest is a tremendous honor for a community, and a guest who has traveled far to be with them especially so. When we refuse to accept this hospitality, we are ignoring their cultural practices and robbing them of the opportunity to honor their guests. So when Karri and I reframed our refusal to sit in the front of the graduation by indicating that we would be more comfortable and more accommodated by sitting where we could take pictures, the host immediately understood and accommodated our request.

It’s also quite common to be asked to stand and introduce yourself in a Burundian church, so if you have the chance to visit, be prepared to say a few words of greeting, no matter where you’re seated. There’s a standard portion of a Burundian church gathering where all guests are invited to stand and introduce themselves. Some churches do this for all guests, some only for more “important” guests. This brings me to the caveat in my explanation. I wanted to make clear that there is some legitimate cultural value in the practice of seating dignitaries and important people before I talked about the dark side of that practice.

Burundians deeply value authority and title. While this is appropriate in the sense of respect, it becomes a source of conflict and exploitation at times. Many will fight (sometimes dirty) to obtain and to keep authority, and once they get it, they wield it with vigor. And the community has a need for these roles to be defined, who is higher, and who is lower, so they encourage these distinctions to be drawn. Some westerners are seated in places of honor because they are seen as above everyone else. (That or the community wants them to be seen, that it might bring honor to their church or their pastor in the eyes of others.) This perpetuates a thinking that has been in place since colonialism, that come people are higher than others, that might makes right, that money means power, and power should be elevated. It perpetuates a thinking that the normal Burundian is low, unimportant, like sheep without a shepherd. And many Burundians see this classification of lowliness as a security blanket. They don’t have to think for themselves or stand up for themselves. They’re slow and unimportant, so they leave those things to the people in the seats of honor.

Now, the one place where this should be turned on its head is the church of Jesus Christ. We follow a Rabbi who reached out to the lowest, most marginalized people around him. He touched lepers, spoke kind words to prostitutes, redeemed tax collectors, and exalted little children. He talked about foxes having holes and birds having nests, but not having anywhere himself to lay his head. He took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed the feet of the people he was leading. This servant king then spoke these words,

“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.” (John 13:14-17)

The servants of this Jesus should be the ones who wash the feet of their neighbor. They are ones who know that the great must be like the servants of all, willing to shed their garments and dirty their hands for the people they lead. Jesus’ way is the path of descent, the upside-down Kingdom, where the one in the seat of honor is the least among you.

As I stood to introduce myself, I looked out at the people squeezed into the school desks. Shirts with holes, hand-me-downs from the affluent West, covered undernourished and thinning torsos. And I’m sure if I could see and count their feet, I would not count the same number of shoes, maybe not even half as many. Then I turned to look at the well-dressed gentlemen who had already stood. Over the top of their copious bellies, they wore suits with the sheen of a televangelist, tags bearing Western name-brands still sewn into the sleeves of the jackets like badges of merit. And one each foot was a well-polished, patent leather dress shoe.

I don’t know these pastors personally, so I’m not sure how they lead their communities. I do know many pastors here who simply joined the ministry so they could wear suits like that while they told the shoeless people in front of them how to live their lives. As I sat back down again, I wondered to myself, would they take off those shiny, tagged jackets, scuff their European shoes, and wash one of those unshod feet in front of them? Would I?

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Fund-Raiser – Part II: The Show Choirs

Jean Baptiste ushered us into the schoolroom with a wave of his hand. “Karibu,” he said, which is the Swahili word of welcome used here. Welcoming is a very important custom here. If you visit a Burundian friend’s house, you might hear “Karibu” once when you enter the gate, once when you enter the door, and once when you sit down. There were several chairs lining the front of the room, facing the benches. These seats are for the speakers and guests of honor. I’ll explore that custom a bit later. I was preaching that day, so I was given one of these seats. Karri was seated in a bench toward the front and center, and was quickly sandwiched between four or five Burundians all trying to fit onto a piece of wood that would only sit three in the States.

Americans have ideas of privacy and personal space that are quite different than here. In the States, if we want to be alone, we go to our room, or find a quiet place. But in a community where your entire extended family and probably several friends are all living in your house, that kind of privacy is rarely possible, or even desired. This is why you will see buses full of Burundians perfectly content to be practically sitting on top of each other. Where they find their privacy is in their thoughts. Asking a Burundian’s opinion or feelings about something is invading their privacy to a degree, and they may feel rather violated. So we’ve learned to be slow to ask opinions and quick to give grace when someone pushes up against us on the bus.

The gathering commenced soon after we were seated. Jean Baptise’s partner and fellow pastor at their church (the name escapes me) stood to greet the congregation with Jean Baptiste translating. “Hallelujah,” he said. “Amen,” the body answered. “HALLELUJAH!” the pastor shouted. “AMEN!” the body replied. Knowing when to say “Amen” becomes second nature in Burundian gatherings, as the pastor will prompt one almost constantly, and without context. “It’s good to be with you all today. Iman’ashimwe! (Praise God)” “AMEN!” “IMAN’ASHIMWE CANE! (Praise God a lot!)” “AMEN!!!” “Please move forward to make room for others. Yes’ashimwe! (Praise Jesus!)” “AMEN!” Getting people to say “Amen” is basically pastoral filler. If you aren’t sure you’re making sense, if you want to make sure people are still engaged, or if you just don’t have anything better to say, just drop a “Hallelujah” and you’ll be greeted by an enthusiastic response.

Once the pastor had greeted the congregation, the visiting churches and the pastors seated at the front beside me, the singing began. Now, there are two different types of singing at Burundian churches: congregational singing and choirs. We began with a congregational song. This normally involves someone starting a chorus, and then everyone joining in. The sacred musical catalogue of Burundi is fairly wide, but doesn’t change that often. So everyone will know every song, because it is probably the same song you’ve been singing since you were a child.

There is only one volume setting in a Burundian church: deafening. Everyone sings at the top of their lungs, in full harmony, and sustains that volume for the entirety of the gathering, which may last for hours. The volume is supplemented by drummers. In our gathering we had three drummers, because several churches had gathered. Burundi is known for their drummers, and this tradition is nourished in the churches. In the churches I’ve attended, the drummers are generally women, and use foot-long sticks on metal canisters covered by skins to create a “Thump-CLANK-CLANK” underneath the roaring ensemble. The drummers also change frequently; everyone has a different take on what rhythm best suits a particular song. As each drummer plays, their faces screw with exertion as they combine with the congregation to give new meaning to the musical idea forte.

Once we had shouted and clapped and Thump-CLANK-CLANKED through two choruses, the pastor invited the first choir to come and share. A single voice rang out from the crowd with a melodic invocation. It was answered by a drummer and ten voices in unison, repeating the same melody, as the choir rose from their seats and began to process to the front of the room. Now, Burundian choirs are a distinctly different tradition than congregational singing. They have a sort of liturgy all to themselves. They begin with this processional, a call-and-response song to facilitate the choir wading through the mass of humanity to the open floor. They have a simple, choreographed step to do as they walk, a combination of steps forward and backward with basic arm motions, that is unique to each choir. They align themselves into a rehearsed formation at the front of the room and finish their processional song with a THUMP from the drummer.

Next, the choir begins their main piece. The drummer sets the rhythm, at a more moderate volume usually, and after a measure or two, the choir begins to do their dance. This dance exists somewhere between a gospel choir’s sway, sign language, and a hand-jive. It sometimes mirrors the words they sing, sometimes simply exists as a unified motion, but whatever its purpose, all choirs will dance. After a few moments of establishing the choreography, they begin to sing.

Burundi is an oral culture. In schools, lessons are taught by speaking the information over and over. Theology, however, is taught mainly through song. Burundian choir songs are expositions, concepts set to music to be repeated and remembered. Sometimes they are Bible stories, sometimes they are cautionary tales against drunkenness or debauchery, sometimes they are simply accumulations of spiritual ideas, but they become creedal statements in the Burundian church. Unfortunately, not all of these songs are based on sound theology, and since learning through rote produces memorization, but not comprehension or critical thought, a bad theology can be perpetuated simply because a song is written about it. This is a pervasive problem in the church of Burundi, where faulty understandings of the Kingdom of God are pounded into the basic understandings of the faith, like bottle caps that are simply stepped on until they become part of the Bujumbura sidewalk. Pastors wield enormous formative power over the theology of their people, and many misuse that power. But again, I’ll say more on that later.

The choir swayed, signed, and sang through their story-song, their drummer underneath them all the way. Once finished, they did a recessional song just like the processional, a call-and-response number where the choir shuffles and sways their way back to their seats. Once their recessional ended and they had retaken their seats, a new voice soared out over the room, and the sequence began all over with choir number two. Choirs compete with each other in a way, trying to please the crowd and earn the approval of the pastors. Sometimes, a pastor might invite a choir to sing again, which is the closest thing to victory in this musical competition. And choirs can take it quite personally if they “lose.”

It reminds me of my days at show choir competitions in high school, the singing, the dancing, the muted animosity against the other musicians. I’m not sure I love the idea of that level of competition mixed into worship in the body of Christ, but it’s a part of Burundi’s ecclesial heritage. Every rural church will have a choir, sometimes several. They can be all older ladies, or all children, as I once saw, or a mixed bag of men and women of different generations. And there is one more thing that is common across the rural choirs and churches I’ve seen. They are passionate in their worship. They give all they have to singing and dancing for God. They might not comprehend complex theological ideas or have the opportunity to sample from the rich global banquet of faith traditions like I do, but they understand joy. There’s something beautiful and right about the ear-splitting praise we heard in that room. Widows and orphans, poor and hungry, when that drummer starts to Thump-CLANK-CLANK, they throw back their heads and sing like the hope-filled believers they are.

Next: Part III: The Shod and the Shoeless

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Fund-Raiser - Part 1: The Rent Party

Two weeks ago, Karri and I drove out with our friend, Jean Baptiste, to the neighborhood in Bujumbura where he was born, called Cibitoke (pronounced CheebeeTOHkay). We were on our way to a gathering/fund raiser for his small community. You may remember this community from an earlier post, one that talked about Sandrene, the widow and mother of five who is HIV positive. This community of less than twenty people met in living rooms for many months. A few months ago, they found a school willing to rent them a classroom for their gatherings. This was an answer to their prayers. But recently, a community ordinance has been passed where churches can no longer meet in schools. No one has been able to explain to us the reason for this ordinance, but this puts many, many churches out of their worship space. There are three other churches who meet in that school alone. Yet, this kind of hardship is simply a fact of life in neighborhoods like Cibitoke. And there are traditions in place to deal with these kinds of problems. And Karri and I were on our way to this classroom, to witness and participate in one of those traditions, the African fund-raiser.

Now, to understand this gathering, a little cultural exposition has to take place. In the US, we have expressions like, “He’s a self-made man,” and “She pulled herself up by her bootstraps,” and “I never asked nothing from no one.” This demonstrates a cultural value we Americans hold, that asking for help means admitting weakness. The main reason this value evolved in the West is the ample opportunity for self-improvement without much fear of discouragement. An immigrant off the boat could be a tycoon in five years if she simply had the gumption to see it through. In the same vein, asking for help from a friend made you not just weak, but a needy friend. We have ideas like “Never lend money to friends and family,” because, at the root, we don’t like the feeling of being asked for money. And we are extremely cautious and systematic when we do give money, because we expect debts to be reimbursed. If they are not, the result is a broken relationship.

In much of Africa, the idea of a “self-made” person is totally foreign. Individualism is viewed as the plague of the West. There’s a high dependency on one’s community, friends and family. This evolved from a history where poverty, hunger, and destitution were always just around the corner. You may have enough for today, but tomorrow might be a completely different story. I could spend pages detailing the ways this perspective fleshes out in everyday life, but one main outcome is the pervasive norm of asking for money. As an African, you expect to be asked for money, and if you have it, you are socially required to give it. This expectation exists because you expect to be the one in need tomorrow, and the community must support you in your need in the same way you supported someone else in theirs. Refusal to participate in this give and take results in expulsion from the community, and expulsion from the community could mean starvation. Another facet of this idea is the nature of friendship. You are not a friend with someone if you are not financially indebted to them, and vice versa. Indebtedness shows solidarity, and to a certain degree, paying off all of your debts to someone is a way of communicating the end of your relationship. So family members and friends are the first people you would ask for money, and you would never be expected to repay that debt, except in the form of supporting that lender when they were, in turn, in need. And aggressive extension of your network of friends isn’t just due to amiability; it’s creating lifelines for survival.

Now, we in the West might look at this and say, “But it’s so exploitative. That’s not a real friendship if there’s an expectation of money.” But Africans see their communities as beautiful webs of support, and see Western friendships as purely self-serving and isolated. This is also why it’s incredibly difficult for Westerners and Africans to have meaningful relationships. Most Westerners become quickly aggravated by constant requests for money by their African friends. And even if they weren’t and were happy to give to anyone who asked, the African would know there will be no circumstance where the Westerner will need to ask them for money, so there’s no reciprocation, no solidarity. It’s a deep cultural rift and my expat friends and I frequently discuss if there is a way to bridge it.

So the gathering Karri and I were about to attend is something done by many churches. As Jean Baptiste put it, “We invite all of our friends to come and pray for us.” What this means is, an invitation is extended to all of the contacts Jean Baptiste has made over the years. These pastors and leaders then bring their church communities with them to a huge blowout, an African rent party. And, as I’ve learned, in the Burundian church, “prayer” is often code for “donation,” as in “Please pray that we might find be able to buy a sound system,” which I heard even this week. So this church is in need, in this case, of a building to meet in. (The actual reality of that need is something I struggle with, but more on that later.) So these “friends” (who westerners might simply call acquaintances) gather to “pray” (what westerners might call donate) for the needs of Jean Baptiste’s church.

Again, a westerner might say, “Ugh! How deceptive and exploitative!” But the churches understood this for exactly what it was, and they came anyway. They came in the tens and twenties. So when Karri and I arrived for what I thought was another quiet afternoon with Jean Baptiste’s church, with Sandrene and the other seven or eight people gathered in that living room, what we found instead was a buzzing schoolroom, packed to overflowing with nearly a hundred Burundians and even a church from neighboring Congo. They squeezed into school benches, stood in corners, peered through windows. They talked, laughed, sang, and clapped, and they all came prepared, hands clutching their wadded bills, ready to drop them in the basket when the time came. I suppose they knew that next week, when it came time for their rent party, Jean Baptiste, Sandrene, and friends would all be there for them as well.

Next: Part 2: The Show Choirs

Friday, February 20, 2009

'Round The Table at Jim's Birthday!

Demonstrating the "No-Smile Smile"

"Glad you were born. Keep it up." - Actual SMS sent from Meg Lavery

Christy : Miriam - Happy : Chillaxed

Wendy as a pirhanna

Isaac and Wicke were asked to look happy.
Isaac went for "Soutern Belle Receives Unexpected Gift From Suitor"
Wicke chose "Oops, I swallowed some of my tobacco juice."

Allison and Meg made me promise not to use their attempt at the "No-Smile Smile."

It's my birthday.

Brad and Jo win for "Handsomest Couple,"
since the contenders were Picture 1 and the following entry.

Trina, Seth, Brandon's tongue, and Brandon

Lizzie and Amy were abandoned by their husbands.
Of course, Simon was watching the kids and James was in the States.
But it's my birthday.

Tyler. Pumped.

February So Far – Part III: The Birthday

The final installment of my recap of February involves my birthday, which fell on the tenth of this month. Those who knew the actual date of my birthday have been asking how I celebrated. Those who didn’t (or at least didn’t until they saw it on Facebook. Come on. Admit it.) probably had no idea and are now thinking, “Shoot! Can I still say happy birthday without being exposed as one of the second category?” Nope. But I won’t hold it against you… this year.

My day started off with breakfast from my lovely wife. The standard regarding birthdays in our marriage has always been less focused on gifts and more on events, with the caveat of being able to have any request granted (within reason.) I was pretty simple this year, simply wanting a good dinner with friends. Karri, as is her overachieving nature, organized a terrific dinner and a few extras through the day.

Since it was Tuesday, I spent my morning preparing for youth group. We’re working through the book of Mark, and talking about the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached. When I got to youth group, I got some shy “Happy Birthdays” and a lively debate about how old I was. The low vote was 22 and the high vote was 40. I find that Burundians tend to look much younger than they are. I thought our guard, Selius, was 19 or so, until I discovered he was married and in his mid-twenties. So being thought to be 40… questionable.

As the group assembled, more and more kids disappeared into the kitchen. They, of course, were all crowding around the birthday cake that one of the students made for me. As Karri brought it out, the overeager kids started singing “Happy Birthday” in the kitchen. Alas, as the candles were flickering rapidly, the pace of the walking didn’t quite match the pace of the singing. So after an awkward silence between the end of the song and the arrival of the cake, I extinguished the candles and surrendered my prize to the salivating horde seated around the porch.

I also received an oversized birthday card, bearing the message, “Happy Birthday, Jimmy Boy.” Inside were notes of encouragement, such as, “You’re a good teacher. Don’t get bad. Happy Birthday.” Clearly, I’m held in high esteem by these young people.

After a message on the miracles of Jesus, (You’re curious, I know.) we headed off to dinner. Ok, let’s be frank. I didn’t know the name of the restaurant, and I still don’t. When I requested it to Karri, I said, “The one with the really good enchilada that smells like cats.” That’s right. Here in Bujumbura, you take the good and the bad together. This place has some of the best food in the city. It also smells like feline urine. Such is life.

We sat at a table with twenty dear friends and shared a meal full of great stories and laughter. The couples present each told their marriage proposal tales, and two people nearly died from discreetly placed peppers in their dishes. I’ve started a tradition of writing birthday limericks for my friends here; I’m composing one right now for my friend Brandon’s birthday today, in fact. (Many happy returns, Brando.) Karri led a toast with a three-stanza birthday limerick she composed for the occasion, and naturally, rose to the challenge, simultaneously declaring her love for me and teasing me for liking comic books and having a fear of plants. (A quote taken totally out of context and mercilessly repeated by those dearest to me, by the by) Then we were off to home and bed.

Twenty-seven in Burundi. Thanks to everyone who made it memorable, even the thronging Facebook well-wishers. I wish I could have shared that table with more of you. Have a beverage appropriate to a meal we might share and lift it high, I’ll lift one here on this side of the world. Cheers.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

February So Far - Part II: The Retreat

I’m in the process of fleshing out some narratives that have been mentioned in the past few posts here on the blog. Today’s installment regards the January 30th blog about my teaching/preaching schedule. I made a passing allusion to being invited to speak at the World Relief Retreat. Well, that retreat was from Tuesday, February 3rd to Friday, February 6th, and indeed, I was the main speaker for the week.

The retreat was up-country, in the considerably cooler climates of Gitega, attended by the full World Relief staff in Bujumbura, Nyanza Lac, and Gitega. All in all, around eighty people gathered at a well-hidden Catholic retreat center with a view stretching over the hills and valleys of Burundi to meet with God and talk about the Kingdom of Heaven. Our country director, Ngaira, and I got things rolling on Tuesday evening.

We focused mainly on the idea of Shalom, the Hebrew concept of peace, and its threefold meaning to the Rabbis and Jews of Jesus’ day. The Kingdom of Heaven is the reality where that Shalom is in complete unity. We spent a day on each part. On Wednesday, we looked at our Shalom with God, whether we are in right relationship with our Creator. On Thursday, we looked at our Shalom with each other, and how Scripture insists that if we say we love God and are at odds with each other, we’re liars. On Friday, we looked at Shalom with the world, and how the work we do here at World Relief is part of putting God’s good creation back together again.

It was fascinating to watch people struggle with these ideas, because, to be frank, many people here have not made the connection between their job and their calling in the Kingdom. Many people on staff here at World Relief Burundi come to work every day for a paycheck, not a vision. They work because they have to feed their families, because they need to survive, because they are always one step away from being without. But when that is their primary motivation, the bar is only as high as is required to stay employed.

So, for example, the staff is asked to perform self-evaluations occasionally, to assess strengths and areas of improvement. Most of the time, the staff members will give themselves perfect scores, with no areas of improvement. This isn’t because they’re arrogant; it’s because they are afraid that if they admit deficiency, they’ll lose their jobs. They often refuse to admit mistakes or ask for clarity on assignments that they don’t understand, because they believe it will cost them their job. Their concern isn’t primarily executing their job well for the glory of the Father, it’s keeping a steady stream of income.

I wonder how often this is true about us in the States, as well. We do our work, even if it doesn’t square with our citizenship in the Kingdom. We many times work not for the benefit and healing of the world, but for the paycheck, the status, the security. Maybe our work is even going against Kingdom values, promoting greed or deception or consumerism, and we just haven’t connected Sunday to Monday. When you connect what you believe on Sunday to what you do on Monday, things start to take on new meaning.

This also has profound effects on unity in the staff here. These people, in impoverished mindsets, desperate for job stability, hungry for influence in a culture that exalts authority, haunted by tribal divisions that still exist but are rarely acknowledged, can become extremely vindictive, bitter, even out-and-out aggressive toward one another. Despite being professing Christians, World Relief is plagued by slander and gossip, aggressive power-plays, and even threats between staff members. Some play on governmental ties to tilt the scales to their advantage. Some spread rumors to undermine their coworkers. Then they sit together in devotions and praise a God who insisted the world will know His followers by their love for one another. And because, in Burundi, you don’t address conflict face-to-face, all this goes unmentioned for weeks, months, years.

So when we talked about Shalom with each other, those ideas were pushing against some serious wounds in that room. When we talked about how your work is restoring the Shalom of the world, we were asking people to seek first the Kingdom, and let God worry about the rest. And all of that works together to heal our Shalom with the Creator, Lover, and King. I’m not arrogant enough to think that everything changed from four days. But I believe the Kingdom is like a mustard seed. It’s like yeast working through dough. I can trust in that.

I was honored to share with this community. But my favorite part of the week was when the community responded and asked questions. People were really wrestling with the ramifications of the scriptures we were working with, and I was so thrilled to see new ideas start to seep into the fabric of this community. And it wasn’t only the well-educated and important who were asking the questions. The guards, the ladies who clean the office and bring tea, the drivers, the people at the bottom of the World Relief totem pole were asking questions to the white, western male who had been put in a position of authority. That simple fact was an incredible breaking-down of societal delineations in Burundi, a breaking-down that I think is right in line with the upside-down Kingdom we work to bring.

I’m now greeted by “Shalom” whenever I walk into the office, and I can only hope that is because Shalom is starting to become a reality there.

Tomorrow: Part III: The Birthday!

February So Far - Part I: The Big Question

So let’s be honest with each other. I owe you all a few explanations. If you read the blog regularly, there have been some promises and allusions I’ve made which deserve fulfillment and exposition. And because things have been moving so quickly these days, I’ve been letting them stay where they were, as sentences in previous posts. But now is the time! Charles Mingus is yelling in my ear, and I feel the gravity of the blogosphere tugging! Let the updates begin!

In January, we asked you all to pray with us about when exactly we should conclude our stay here in Bujumbura. We were struggling to make the numbers work financially, and we were hearing more and more stories from home about lost jobs, lost savings, lost hopes. We didn’t want to take on unnecessary debt, and yet we also didn’t want to miss on opportunities God might yet have for us here. We considered coming home at the end of February and asked you to pray with us for a week.

Firstly, thanks to all of you who did pray. Your encouragement and support was an enormous blessing. We heard God through you.

Now, obviously, we haven’t made clear the result of that week of prayer and searching. I’m still receiving emails and questions that want to know when we’re coming home. Well, I’m happy to tell you that we are staying through the end of April, as originally intended. This came as a result of several things.

One, we were hearing a consistent theme from many of your encouraging emails. You were affirming to us that there would be right reasons and wrong reasons to leave, and fear would be a wrong reason. You believed in us and in the God who clothes the lilies. We were lifted by those words.

Two, we were praying that God would give us peace about things at home, and He did. We completely believe that, even as God is going to supply our needs, He is going to supply yours. We stand with you in your difficulties, friends and family, and we entrust you to the hands of the Father and His body here on earth. We know the Fellowship community is showing amazing unity and brotherhood in these dark times, and if you’re not a part of a faith community, live in Fort Wayne, and have need, go see what God is doing there!

Three, we were praying that God would establish the work of our hands for these coming months. In the days as we were praying, new opportunities for ministry appeared for me in music and preaching. New affirmation came for Karri in her work at Turame. God seemed and seems to be pouring us out on this community. Indeed, it seems it has taken these first four months to prepare us for the work we will be involved in for the final four months.

Four, we were praying for clarity about how to spiritually, emotionally, and practically address the issue of financial support. We received an overwhelming vote of support and confidence from World Relief HQ and our volunteer coordinators, Lorelei and Caroline. (Massive thanks to both of you!) They made it clear that financial support should be the last reason for us to end our time here. We received new support from many of you, and we are sorry for our tardiness in sending personalized thank you messages to you, but they are coming! All in all, we still welcome any support you all have to offer, and we are completely confident that, as God clearly still has work for us here, we will find manna on the ground each morning.

So, we will return to the States at the end of April. Even now, God is preparing new things for us to look forward to upon our return to the States. We’re in conversations with people who have exciting possibilities to consider for both Karri and I. Since we know that each life is a story, and any good story has to carry a little bit of suspense, we’re still working through exactly what the next season is going to look like. J.J. Abrams tells us that any episode with a big exposition has to bring a new question into the story, so we’ll just leave the narrative there for today. We’ll be in Buja until April 30th, and then on into the future.

Where the future is, what it will hold, and for how long is still in pre-

Tomorrow: Part II: The Retreat

Friday, January 30, 2009

Last Weekend

I had a busy couple of days last week, and I realized that the things which were occupying my time had not been properly represented on this blog. So, in an effort to keep you, my dear reader, abreast of my current activities, I shall give you the basic itinerary of my newfound responsibilities.

Thursday, 3:00pm – Worship Team Practice

A few weeks ago, I had a brief meeting with our dear pastor Emmanuel Ndikumana to discuss my future involvement with the worship team at PTI, our church. Motivated by our looming departure, he extended an invitation to take over the worship team for the remainder of our stay here in Bujumbura. In his words, his intention is to “squeeze me for all I’m worth.” What experience and knowledge I have accumulated from my years of leadership in music and worship, he wants the church to absorb and apply. Now, I was hesitant to agree, because it had been almost a year and a half since I had last led worship, and I was hesitant to impose my cultural tendencies onto this community. But this was during a week where Karri and I were asking God to reveal if He had work for us to do here for the next four months. This seemed to be an answer. And with Emmanuel’s assurances that my cultural tendencies were welcome, I agreed.

So last Thursday, I went in early to practice to meet with some members of the team and finish selecting our pieces for the gathering on Sunday. I then spent the afternoon hopping around like a lunatic, banging on the piano and waving my hands in the air. Let me tell you, it’s not easy leading a group of musicians through a language barrier. And when it comes time for you to rehearse the song with a Congolese beat and a Kirundi lyric while shouting directions in French, your brain tends to feel like it is being drawn and quartered. But I love these musicians. They’re eager to try new things. And as I always said back at FMC to my other beloved group of musicians, I’ll take a musician who’s willing to try something new and blow it over a musician who won’t try something new at all any day.

Friday, 8:00am – World Relief Devotions

On Thursday morning, I was approached by David, my colleague in Church Mobilization at World Relief. I had a feeling of what was coming. “Good morning, Jim. Are you ready for to bring us the preaching tomorrow?” The answer to that question, of course, was “No. Was I on the schedule?” Yes, I was. No one thought it prudent to inform me of this fact, however, and now I had an afternoon to assemble a teaching for the next morning. I cobbled together some thoughts from a lesson I shared with our youth group students a few days earlier about the Kingdom of God, about what it looks like and what it means to be priests of this Kingdom. The next morning, I arrived a bit late (because you can never really predict Bujumbura traffic.) No sooner had I found a chair on which to place my coffee cup than Sophonie, my supervisor, smiled and said, “Jim, are you ready to share with us?” I guess I had to be! “Good morning, and sorry to be late. Let’s open to Mark 1.”

At the end of my talk, (which included teaching the staff the Hebrew word T’shuvah, a word which was repeated to Karri and I for the rest of the day, regardless of context) Ngaira, the country director of World Relief and my other supervisor, gave the benediction. Included in that benediction was the announcement, prefaced by “I haven’t discussed this with Jim, but I’m sure it will be alright,” that I would be expanding this teaching as the main speaker of the four day retreat scheduled in two weeks. I guess I’ve got some more preparation to do.

Friday, 4:00pm - Music Workshop

I had been thinking for a while how to handle the increasing requests for music lessons I was receiving. My ideas came together in a music workshop, hosted by our church, PTI, and made available to any and all who would be interested in coming. I announced the class to the World Relief staff and our church family, and invited them to bring any and all who would be interested in learning more about music. I held an organizational meeting on the Friday previous, and I had twenty people there, eager to learn. This last Friday was the first class, all about music theory. I printed thirty worksheets and ran out quickly. I have no idea where many of these people came from. But they are hungry to learn. Well, maybe they aren’t so hungry to learn what the A major scale is as much as how to play the A major scale like Jimi Hendrix. But enthusiasm is enthusiasm, and I’m excited to teach what I can.

The experience ranges from complete beginner to experienced musician, but even the experienced musician has little to no knowledge of why music works the way it does. These people have tremendous ears, and can replicate many things, but they have no idea why what they are playing makes any sense. To see the lights turn on for someone is one of the more satisfying sensations you can have as a teacher, and I saw lots of lights turning on last Friday.

Sunday, 8:00am - Sermon at PTI

Not only did I get to lead the team in worship on Sunday morning, but I was also scheduled to give what is known to PTI as the exposition. What this meant was I stood in front of a mic singing for the first thirty minutes of the gathering, and then a different mic preaching for the next forty-five. I expressed my distaste for this to Emmanuel, but he simply laughed and told me not to worry about it. So I got myself good and sweaty playing guitar and piano in that frenetic way that you FMCers know so well, had a brief moment to compose myself, then took the pulpit.

We’re working through the book of Mark, and my text was where Jesus calls Peter and Andrew to be fishers of men. I walked through the relationship between a Rabbi and a disciple and gave the historic context to the story as best I could. I finished the talk with an invitation to be a disciple of Jesus and change the world. What’s great about PTI, though, is that once the sermon is through, the congregation is invited to ask the speaker any questions the talk may have raised right there on the spot. So once I had finished and Emmanuel had prayed a blessing, the mic went around the congregation and I fielded a few questions about the historical setting of the text. I’m realizing that this kind of understanding of the Bible is quite novel to most Christians here, and they are hungry for more. Emmanuel assured me that I would be back to teach again soon.

So, friends, if you've read this far, you can percieve that God has been bringing new opportunities to us in the last few days. We'll write a post about the sum of our prayers and conversations regarding our return date soon, but you can see that God is clearly continuing to demand our time and energy here. Hopefully that doesn't mean I'll have many more weekends like this one.

A Picture

This is what happens when someone who doesn't speak your language very well asks you to explain the US economic crisis.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

New Year Update

Friends –

Happy New Year! I hope this letter finds you all full of new dreams for your world and new visions for how to bring the light into the dark places you encounter each day. We are writing to you because we want to invite you into some tension we are feeling and some prayers we are praying. Our hope is that you would join us in this tension and pray with us through the upcoming days as we seek God’s good and perfect will for the remainder of our time here in Burundi. We hope you forgive the length of this letter, because we have much on our hearts we want to share with you.

We have been so excited to hear your stories from back home, pregnancies, weddings, good news of all kinds. We hope you know that we are celebrating with you. We wish we were there to jump around and shout and embrace you in these times, and we are definitely doing so in spirit. We are also hearing a great deal of bad news of late, relationships breaking, friends passing away, heartaches of all sorts. We hope you know that we are grieving with you. We wish we were there to sit beside you in these times and mourn, giving our support by our words or possibly our absence of words. We feel greatly connected to these stories, and they enrich our lives whenever we hear them, drawing us close to you, our brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers.

But one story seems to be coming up over and over, and that story is shared by countless people across the country. We are steadily hearing how the economy is siphoning the jobs, indeed the hope and joy, away from so many of you. We are hearing about choices to go without, changes in living situations out of a lack of resources, the inability to provide necessary repairs or health care because of ever-tightening budgets. We are hearing about deficits in giving to churches all over, not just to Fellowship, our church home, and it is becoming clear that many of you are simply not in a position to give.

Firstly, we want to say how much we are hurting for you. These stories break our hearts, and we many times wish nothing more than to return home and shoulder these burdens with you. You are our family, our community, our fellow citizens in the New Jerusalem. We are bound together with you. Please know that we are interceding on your behalf at the throne and we believe that our God is a God who hears the cry, no matter how weak or small.

Secondly, we want to thank you. We want to thank you not just for giving to us and praying for us, those of you who have done so. We want to thank you for standing beside each other. I’m sure there are some of you familiar with the African concept of Ubuntu. This is a sense of interconnection to teach person. It is gratitude expressed on the behalf of humanity. It is seeing someone serve their brother and approaching them, despite the fact that you personally received nothing physical, and saying, “Thank you. You have helped put us back together by doing that.” So, in that spirit, we want to offer up gratitude to those of you who are giving generously in any way, especially to those who give even out of their lack. Like the widow of Jesus’ parable who gives her last, these are the sacrifices that stir the heart of the Father and the souls of each of us. We are so thankful, those of you in the FMC community who gave to the Christmas Eve offering for peacemaking in our neighbor Congo. You cannot know the light you shine by standing for peace when the conventional wisdom would simply chalk up another thousand marks under the cynical phrase uttered by many, “AWA,” meaning “Africa Wins Again.” You are part of a church, a body, a people who are standing up and saying, “There is already sufficient blood shed for all on a cross two thousand years ago. But if more blood is needed, you can have some of mine.” You are being broken open and poured out for these people who need your hope. We thank you for that.

Thirdly, we want to invite you into our tension. We are at a profound crossroad about how to approach our remaining time here in Burundi. Again, we are keenly aware of the struggles so many of you face financially to provide for yourselves, and we know that many others of you are giving more than ever because there are more needs around you than ever. It is becoming increasingly difficult to ask for support from you, our community, because our hearts are bent to give, not to receive. We wish nothing but restoration and wholeness for each of you, and we don’t wish to take anything from you that would diminish that.

The reality remains, however, that we are still badly behind in our support. At this point, we are already indebting ourselves to World Relief, who has generously given beyond our raised support to keep us here in Burundi, that we might continue the work God is doing through us. We have cut our proposed budget nearly in half, and still lack badly at the bottom line. Now, please hear us. We are not asking right now for belt-tightening or pocketbook-opening. We are asking you to pray with us. Our prayer is simply for the ability to discern the will of God for our time here. Our desire is to stay until the end of April. Prudence would be to leave at the end of February. Even in the latter case, we would still have an outstanding deficit with World Relief. However, we believe in the miraculous provision of God. We believe that if, indeed, God’s desire is for us to remain here for the entirety of our intended stay, God will provide in a way only God can ordain. If our work here is the best use of time, gifts, and resources for the Kingdom, we trust that God will make a way. But we need discernment to know if that, indeed, is the case. If we stay simply because it is what we want, we will lose much. If we leave early because we desire to stand beside you all in your struggles, and God still has work for us here, the Kingdom loses much. If we capitulate to fear and fail to trust in a God who sends enough for today and no more, we lack much faith.

We hope you hear our hearts in this. We could not simply ask for support again. We had to invite you all into this tension, because we believe that wisdom comes from the body as well as from the still, small voice of the Almighty. So please, pray with us and give us your discernment. We will join with you and together, we will find God’s good word for today and tomorrow. We will continue to share stories and pictures on the blog, and we cherish your comments, emails, prayers and ideas. Again, our contact list is only so long, so please share this letter and our story with anyone you feel might want to partner with us in prayer. We long to be with you all, and we carry you with us into the streets of Bujumbura every day. May the God of peace bring you your daily bread, and may you trust that He will do so again tomorrow.

Grace and peace,

Jim and Karri

Friday, January 2, 2009

a blog from the wife who never posts...

Jim and I tend to be a-typical in many situations. We’ve learned to both accept and value this as a unique aspect of ‘us.’ When we were warned of the ‘terrible’ first year of marriage, we had the most delightful first two years of our lives. Our cooking, cleaning and social habits have also proved a-typical, and again, we embrace it, in spite of advice that would presume otherwise.

When we arrived in Burundi we encountered new friends that were at a variety of places in their culture adjustments. Many love it here, some are frequently frustrated, and others are struggling to adjust – all perfectly normal emotions. And so, in our a-typical fashion we began wondering how we would adjust and find our own way here. When asked how we were doing two months in by an older woman, I replied that things were wonderful. To which she replied, “Enjoy it because it is the honeymoon phase. It will get a lot harder.” So, okay, I appreciate advice, especially from someone with experience. But that was not exactly constructive or encouraging. I suddenly felt like everyone was placing ‘bets’ on when we would crumple into a puddle of culture shock and despair. Yet things continued to be exciting for us and have become even more enthralling and enjoyable as we form new and deeper friendships with both Burundians and ex-pats from around the world.

So, if you couldn’t see it coming, I write all that to lead into, of course, our first real emotional struggle with the culture of Burundi. For the holidays we traveled with two friends to Uganda to both relax in a big city and also raft the Nile River. The trip was incredible. Not only were the adventures amazing (yes, I rode a motor bike taxi for the very first time – in a city with traffic that resembles Baltimore!) but we made amazing new friends with a young woman working with widows in North Uganda (where the LRA – Lords Resistance Army - has ravaged the people and stolen the children for years) and a guy drilling wells in South Sudan. There is nothing more thrilling that when you connect with someone’s spirit and passion whom you have only just met. The German woman whom we met on a bus who left her job for a year to travel Africa and work with street and orphan children also rocked my world.

However, this incredible trip ended with a bus ride from… well, you know where. Needless to say the 18 hours we spent on the bus – which did not get us all the way home – left something to be desired and brought up emotions in me I never thought existed. (Namely frustration, impatience, anger, judgment, ethnocentrism, capitalism… need I go on?) The bus trip, for us, ended with Jim, our friend Meg, and I, grabbing our things, jumping off the bus at its millionth stop for the drivers to do who knows what, and running to a taxi, desperate to see the bus disappear in our rear view mirror. The taxi ride, racing to get to Bujumbura city before the military roadblocks were erected at 5:30pm and forcing us to sleep in the taxi, proved to be a test of God. The neck-breaking speed and mountainous curves and passing semi trucks forced me to leave a permanent finger imprint on the back of the driver’s seat. We made it through the last check point, which was already up, with a few coy smiles and shouts of ‘Merry Christmas.’ Our delight to be ‘home,’ sleeping in our own beds and not on a bus with people that had driven us crazy, was paired with a deep sense of frustration towards the entire culture. We thought perhaps we could sleep it off. To no avail…

The holidays were quite enjoyable with friends and missionary families. However, this dark cloud of cultural resentment towards Burundi as a whole lingered throughout the next few days for all three of us. For me personally, little things like a small shop not having the product I wanted, a taxi driver trying to charge us too much for fare, children and adults alike staring and calling us ‘muzungus’ all left me brooding and resentful. Yet none of this was a new experience. A bus ride to the beach proved to set us all on edge again as the driver crammed 5 people into our 3-4 seat row. My mind raced to Uganda, which has tightened traffic laws. Buses can only fill the bus to its occupancy. If they attempt to slide an extra individual in, the passengers actually complain and retort that they paid for their ‘seat’ and are not going to share it. Suddenly I was comparing Burundian culture not only to the US but also to Uganda, finding it lacking on all counts.

I chastised myself for these thoughts but they were so deeply rooted in something I could not identify that I failed to shake them. And then, yesterday, New Years Day, Jim and I went to church. He preached there for the first time. But prior to his sermon, the senior pastor asked if anyone had a short testimony to share about God’s provision during the previous year. Everyone was silent and then a woman, clearly from a poor community on the edge of town, raised her hand. He called her to the stage. I faced the stage and waited, wondering how long this would take. And then the sharp, sweet joyful tone of her voice filled the church as she burst into a traditional song walking up to the stage. Traditional ‘praise’ music in Burundi is ‘call and response’. Jim and I have seen it in many contexts before but our church, usually translated in only French and English, does not reflect a ‘typical’ church. The congregants responded to her Kirundi song, softly at first, as if to say “Do we do this here?” and then with increasing volume. In that moment, when her song met my ears, I felt a complete release in my heart of all the tension I had been feeling towards Burundi. My heart seemed to whisper, ‘Ah yes, this is why I love Burundi.’ I had just finished praying during the worship time to be free of this new ‘culture shock’ I was experiencing and with one voice of a poor woman it was gone.

Her testimony touched my heart as well. She was grateful for healing and health in her family. Then she spoke of the recent storm that had just come through. My mind flashed back to Jim and I sitting on our second story porch watching it crackle and blow all around us, heavy cool rain pouring down. She said that they had been praying for rain for their crops. (It has been very dry this rainy season, hurting many subsistence farmers.) But then the storm was too strong and the metal corrugated roof of her house was lifted up by the wind. In that moment she cried out to God and asked that he not destroy her house, not now, not at the beginning of this New Year. And then, though already lifted from the house and ready to blow away, the wind released the roof back down in position. And she praised God.

Her story reminded me of my own small perspective on the world – both here and at home. To me, in my sturdy strong house with vegetables I bought at the market or store, a storm is just something of wonder, to watch and enjoy. Which it is. But for others it means food, it means another month without hunger. And still for others it threatens to destroy the only shelter they have for their family. It is capricious and could take all they have inside their mud brick walls at any minute. The woman said there was still other damage to her house after the storm but a friend quickly came by and offered to fix the home for her family.

And so, I left church yesterday different than when I came. And I praise God my battle with cultural resentments and culture shock and ethnocentric mentality was not an enduring phase. I learned from it though. I now understand that, though not the nightmare predicted by some who assume Jim and I to be ‘typical’, I am not above raw uncontrollable emotions that can judge another culture as ‘inferior’ because it is outside of my concepts of ‘logic’. Save for the grace of God, my heart is bent towards separateness, towards judgment and superiority. And yet I have been called to follow a Rabbi, the Savior, who implores me to love my neighbor as myself, to see Christ in the eyes of each that I meet, to live in the humility and knowledge that I live and breath and exist on the grace of God alone.

So, to the passengers on a bus that seem to have no concept of time, I must say grace and peace. To the man who puts 17 extra people in my seat so that his profit margins slightly increase, I must say grace and peace. To the grown men who think it appropriate to yell ‘white person’ at me everywhere I go, grace and peace. Because I serve a God who created us all, who calls us to live out a kingdom where we stand beside those with whom we think we have nothing in common and choose to love anyways. The upside down kingdom also appears ‘illogical’ to those outside it. I serve a God of grace and compassion who hears the cry of a poor woman and commands the wind to put back the roof of her home….a God who knows my arrogance and self-righteousness and continues to love me just the same.