On June 24th I came home from Africa, again. I went for the first time in 2000, when I went to teach in a small Bible college in Cape Town. I was privileged to take my family on that trip. I thought I fell in love with Africa then, but I realized later that experience with Cape Town is a pretty narrow introduction to the continent.
I began taking student teams to Africa several years later. I’ve taken teams to Kenya and South Africa (2007), Zambia and Kenya (2010), Ghana and Tanzania (2013, 2015, 2016) and just Tanzania (2014). And this summer, for a change, I took a team to Ghana for 3 weeks, brought it home, and turned right around—24 hours later!—and took a different team to Tanzania. That cut the cost in half for each of the participating students, and it also did wonders for my frequent-flyer miles, but it also just about killed me. More on that in a minute.
Like every other time I’ve returned, I have thoughts. Unlike those other times, though, this time I’m going to share them.
1. Africa is unique.
Yeah, the animals are unique, of course. Elephants (the variety with huge ears) and lions and giraffes and wildebeests, and on and on it goes. (But, to the surprise of many, no tigers. Except in zoos.) But Africa is unique in other ways. It’s a remarkable mixture of traditional and modern, of tribal and national. Villages of thatched-roof huts with 5 bars of cell service. Cultures that are at once similar and noticeably distinct.
I suppose Africa is stereotyped, and inaccurately so, more than any other continent. First, there’s hardly any jungle—that’s in the DCR, mostly—and second, the continent has a wide diversity of culture and stages of development. There’s a mall in Cape Town that’ll knock your socks off. I could go on forever.
2. Diversity is strength.
I’ve taken teams ranging in size from 17 to 6. Each has had its own personality. But more importantly, each has had diversity among its members. Men and women, extroverted and introverted, athletic and, well, not. And in each case, the team has sorted itself out, figured out who can do what, and distributed its strengths to accomplish the tasks at hand. In each case, the differences have led not to divisions, but to increased flexibility in complex ministry opportunities. You need Marys, and you need Marthas. By the grace of God, everybody’s good at something, and everybody enjoys succeeding at that.
3. Aging is a thing.
This summer’s outing was more challenging physically than previous ones, most obviously in the need to take 2 different teams, back to back. One week’s schedule:
- Sunday: 12-hour overnight bus ride from Wa to Accra, Ghana
- Monday: hiking around Accra, sleeping in a real bed in a guest house
- Tuesday: overnight flight to Amsterdam
- Wednesday: all-day flight to Atlanta; drive 3 hours to Greenville; sleep in my own bed
- Thursday: meet new team; drive to Atlanta; 15-hour overnight flight to Doha, Qatar
- Friday: flight to Nairobi; sleep in chairs at the airport
- Saturday: flight to Mwanza, Tanzania, via Kilimanjaro; stay awake until local bedtime so jetlag doesn’t kill you
For 7 nights, sleeping in a different place every night, and only 3 of the 7 are beds.
Seemed like a good idea at the time.
I realized pretty quickly that I was not physically prepared for the trip, and that came as a surprise to me. In previous years, I’ve just gone, and the bod did what it needed to do. Now, apparently, the bod has less natural strength than it did, and it’ll need to be prepared. Years of good health you pretty much take for granted. Time to start workin’ out.
4. Pretty much anybody can go.
Jesus left us a command to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. Most Christians assume that they’re supporters of the goers rather than goers themselves. You know, “pray, give, go”—we do the praying and the giving, and we hire other people to do the going, which would be really, um, inconvenient for us.
Nonsense. Anybody can go. Pretty much. That 1 lady in the iron lung, I suppose she can’t go. And of course there are others with disabling health conditions. But for most of us, there are only 2 obstacles:
- Time. We have jobs, children to take care of. But you can learn a lot, and even do a lot, in just a week or two, provided you have wise counsel on where to go and how to help. You have vacation time; donate one of those weeks, and see how your priorities change.
- Money. Yeah, that. My 2 trips this summer cost several thousand dollars, and I’m not wealthy—though I hasten to add that God has given me everything I need, and a lot of things I don’t. So where does the money come from? Well, here’s the thing. There are people in the church—a lot of them—whose hearts God has touched, who have set aside a hundred bucks, or a thousand bucks, or even several thousand, and they’re asking God to show them where to put it. They’re actively watching for opportunities to invest those funds in ways that will make an eternal difference. I don’t like to ask for money, but after I realized that these people are out there, I found that if you’ll make the opportunity known, the funds will show up. Money isn’t an obstacle. Over the years I’ve had team members whose essential poverty would astonish you. And they went to Africa, for 3 weeks, or 5 weeks, or 8 weeks, because God, through his people, provided.
Be a pray-er. Be a giver. Sure. But be a goer. Don’t sell yourself—and your God—short.