Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Tanzania Annual Conference

Leave at 6 am only to arrive home again at 10 or 11 pm pretty much sums up our experience of hosting the Tanzanian Annual Conference. Which is probably why so much of it was a blur, however of the parts I do remember it went pretty well. The Mara District, where we are, is the newest district in the conference, which means that we don’t have a lot of people or resources to pull off hosting 80 people for a 3 day meeting. Yikes! Yet, we received a lot of compliments from everyone attending. They enjoyed the choirs (video on Facebook), worship went well, the special guest showed up to opening worship, everyone got enough food, and we finished almost on time every night. Not too shabby considering it was not only our first time to host Annual Conference in Tanzania, but the first time for all but three people from our district to even attend an annual conference in Tanzania (Liz and I included).

The end of Annual Conference concludes the second chapter of a time where perspective is becoming increasingly important in my life. I am realizing that how big or small our view of our life and situation is makes a large impact on how we see and understand things. This was true during my grad classes as I was able to pull back from life in Tarime, TZ and look at the bigger picture of my call and place in my work (possibly more on that later) and it has been true during Annual Conference.

Perspective for our district. The churches within our district all sent people to help with Annual Conference. We had choirs from different churches, people to help cook and serve food, people to help with transportation of delegates, people to run the sound system, people to make sure that everyone had a place to sleep (a hard job when we had to arrange for almost 100 people to stay in hotels or in people’s homes). All of these people have been active in our local churches, some for years, some for a few months. Almost none of them had any idea how large the United Methodist Church is. They had never seen anyone outside of our 6-7 churches here in the Mara District. They had certainly never met anyone from outside of Tanzania associated with the United Methodist Church (except for us). As we wrapped up the meeting they were all tired from working so hard, but they were also all inspired by the perspective they had gained, that they are not alone, that they were part of a much larger organization, a much larger church than they previously thought. It was a shift in perspective of many of our church members who were present at Annual Conference.

Perspective for our work in the district. When I read out final numbers for our district report to the Annual Conference we got a round of applause. We don’t have large churches, only 549 men, women, and children between 7 churches. We can sometimes get frustrated with the 2 steps forward 5 steps back progress that we seem to be making with most of the projects or churches we are working with. What I was reminded of was that in 2011 when one person went to Annual Conference that she only had a report to give from one church of maybe 30 people. All of the others had either closed or had lost connection with the district because of a rash of bad leadership within the district. In just two short years the Mara District has made large leaps and bounds of progress, I just had to be reminded of that.

Perspective on our work as missionaries. No matter what you may think, I don’t like to be the center of attention, certainly not in front of that many people. I like talking about other people or other things, but under no circumstances am I comfortable talking about myself...or having others do so. I was fighting to not turn red in the face, and Liz lucked out as she was outside at the time when we received a large dose of needed encouragement. One of the special guests to Annual Conference was Joseph Mulongo from DR Congo. As still relatively new missionaries we can never be sure how well we are doing. Rev. Mulongo, a district superintendent of a large district in North Katanga Conference of the DRC was quick to assure us, in front of the entire conference, that we were clearly coming to our work in Tanzania as servants. That is a label I can wear with some confidence. A posture that we strive for, but can never be sure if we are achieving.

Overall Annual Conference, as tired as we were on Monday as all of the guests left, was a time of perspective as missionaries and church members alike gained a good perspective of the work of the church and our place in it.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Staying at the Table

Sooo, I am back in school. I mean, I knew it would come one day, but that doesn’t make it any easier. This week I started a three week intensive residency in Uganda, Kampala. Before the residency I had to read, write papers, read, and write more papers. Did I mention the reading? Because I am talking about over a thousand pages. After all of that preparation I am happy to be in residency, in class, and in discussion with an amazing mix of people. I am working on a Master’s of International Development and am sitting in a classroom with American’s working all over Africa, with a Congolese working in the USA, and with a Canadian, and of course African’s working in Africa, mainly Malawi. It has enriched the discussion and has brought a vast amount of experience and culture into one room.

What I have learned so far...stay at the table.

Our first class was on economic development. It was the class I was dreading the most. It has math, and graphs, and economic theories that have global impact, in differing ways, and scales, and... Does it sound confusing, because it was/is. What I found though was that I could get it, I could figure it out, if I stayed with the material and engaged in the conversation going on in the class at the time.

I have been in Tanzania over three years now and I am finding that I make a decent cultural translator. I understand the Tanzanian culture and can explain it to others. AND the other Africans in the room agree with me. Which means I am getting something right. That is only possible because of the dozens of conversations had, meals shared, tears shed, questions asked, and observations made. This may sound like a small thing, but it is kind of a running joke among Africans that interact with Americans about how much we tend to miss, misinterpret, and how many times we generally, unknowingly put our foot in our collective cultural mouth. In full disclosure, I have had my fair share of these moments over the last three years. We learn from our failures as much as our successes.

Through all of this I have learned that we need to stay at the table. In all of our discussion, we over and over again returned to relationships. Most of us, while we are studying international economic theory actually work in a small area, with small groups of people. That is where development really takes place. In all of our discussion about how to avoid patronage, how to attract buy in, how to lead in multi-cultural settings, how to do community development the conversation inevitably turned back to relationship building.

Relationship building is impossible if you don’t stay at the table.

When we don’t learn the language, when we don’t listen to the stories, when we don’t pause to build relationships with people outside of our socioeconomic class (deep relationships). We fail to stay at the table, we fail to do ministry, and we fail to BE the CHURCH.
So go forth, take the light of the Christ into the world, and park it at a table with someone you don’t know. It will be worth it.