A Kenyan Pastor Reflects on America Mission Practice

You have an amazing capacity to resolve problems. Now it’s a great thing about Americans; the ability to innovate and to resolve problems. The downside of that is that when you come to our context, you don’t know how to live with our problems. you see our poverty. You see our need. You see the places we’re hurting. And you have a great compassion to come and solve us, but life can’t be solved that way. Many times well-intentioned Americans will come into our context and they try to fix my life. You can’t fix my life! What I need is a brother who comes and gives me a shoulder to cry on and gives me a space to express my pain, but doesn’t try to fix me. When Jesus comes into the world he does not try to fix all the poverty, all the sickness, all the need, the political situation. He allows that to be, but he speaks grace and he speaks salvation and redemption within that context because there is a greater hope than this life itself. Now this tendency to fix it has become a real issue so that some of the reserve we feel as Africans or as two-third worlders is so many people have come to fix us that O’ Lord, please don’t bring another person to fix us. We have been fixed so many times we are in a real mess now. Please allow us to be us. Allow us to find God and to find faith in the reality of our need.

Pastor Oscar Muriu from Mission’s Dilemma, quoted in We Are Not the Hero by Jean Johnson (p.12).

I suspect that these remarks are true of Western mission practice in general, not just Americans.

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4 replies on “A Kenyan Pastor Reflects on America Mission Practice”

Fantastic stuff. Have you ever read “No Handle on the Cross”? Koyama talks in very similar terms about how God gives invitation to relationship more than answers to problems. But more than that, he talks about how seeing God as an answer to problems is actually idolatry, turning God into a cosmic ATM dispensing goodness. What if Jesus doesn’t fix all the poverty, all the sickness, all the need, the political situation? Then what? If he’s the answer-God, he has to be at our beck and call when a problem presents itself; but if he’s the sovereign God, it’s entirely his right not to.

At Bethzatha there was “a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralysed.” Yet, Jesus healed only one man “who had been ill for thirty-eight years.” Jesus said “Lazarus, come out.” But he did not say “all dead, come out with Lazarus!” The Thai literary critic, Mr Kukrit Pramoy, once questioned why Jesus did not raise all the dead with Lazarus and why Lazarus later died his “second” death. In his view this indicates that the claim of Christian salvation is after all not ultimate. .. “A “comprehensive” God is an obvious God. The “obvious” god is an idol. Idols we can tame, but we cannot domesticate the living God. Jesus Christ crucified is the furthermost point from idols. Why? He at this point becomes most intensely “baffling”, “scandalous”, “mysterious”, “untamed”, “not obvious” and “not comprehensive”… Jesus Christ is obviously neither like Mary Poppins who straightens out a messy children’s room with a snap of her fingers, nor like a Santa Claus who is carrying a bagful of sweet answers for everyone. He is more interested in establishing a relationship than in giving answers.”

Great stuff indeed. The problem is, others have been saying it for 50 years at least. Do we have ears? Muiri may deal with another aspect of this elsewhere – that is that we appear to think that we know the answer. Myers says: “It is anything but sure that God endorses your particular concept of development”. He also writes about people “playing God in the lives of the poor”. It is worse than Muiri states. We not only do we come in to fix, we are certain that we know the right fix and that national leaders and local people do not.

This hits me at two levels. First, having lived in Nigeria for over 20 years and seen some of the useless or negative effects of “help,” I can appreciate the sentiments of the writer. Development is not simple or easy in any context, and is very difficult in cross cultural contexts.

On the other hand, this kind of attitude (“don’t try to fix our problems”) drives me crazy. One of the most common questions we get asked is, “What’s wrong with Africa? Why has it not made the kind of progress other areas have made.” That’s not a simple question, either. Although it’s a generalization, it think it is a more-or-less fair one.

I think one of the reasons for this failure is characterized by the author’s approach: “You can’t fix my life! What I need is a brother who comes and gives me a shoulder to cry on and gives me a space to express my pain, but doesn’t try to fix me.”

Mmm, OK. That’s valid in a way. But if that’s what is really desired, then please don’t ask people like me — an American doctor — to come to Africa. We want to fix things. We want to stop kids from dying unnecessarily because a corrupt government or church steals the money meant for water and vaccines. We want to stop the nurses from sleeping in the ICU while children die under their noses. We want to point out that killing someone of another religion is not right, but we get told “you don’t understand our culture.”

So if you want a shoulder to cry on, and only that, and you say you need someone who “doesn’t try to fix me,” then please seek a different kind of missionary or development worker. Start by looking for someone who has a high tolerance for failure rather than a drive to make the world better, and someone who is better at hugging than at confrontation.

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