Friday, July 22, 2011

Hunger pains

It's mid afternoon on March 11, 2011 and we - my husband (Dale) and myself, seven International Studies students from St. Stephen's University (, our host - Tim Bannister (a Canadian Baptist Ministries global field staff serving with his wife, Diane, in Kenya) and our driver, Mike, are on our way back to "the ranch" - Tim and Diane's place on a game refuge, about 40 minutes outside Nairobi. We're a little tired, but excited, inspired, hopeful, cautious, conflicted. We've just spent several hours with a group of Kenyans at a small African Brotherhood Church (ABC) in the village of Thange.

The African Brotherhood Church is an indigenous African denomination with whom Canadian Baptist Ministries (CBM) has a covenant partnership agreement in Kenya. That means that we - CBM - and they - the ABC - have covenanted to work together in integral mission. Integral mission is an approach to mission wherein that recognizes that humans are integrated beings - heart, mind, soul, spirit, body. To be the body of Christ in the world requires that we respect this integration of the human being.Therefore, it's not possible to be concerned only with the spiritual state of a person, without consideration of their emotional, social, physical and intellectual health.

So, in Kenya, CBM and the ABC work together to serve the needs of individuals and communities. We're partners, providing micro loans, helping farmers develop sustainable agricultural methods, building water catchment systems with local churches, proclaiming and demonstrating the love and grace of Christ in a parched land. We've crossed cultures and all kinds of other man made borders and boundaries - we're partners. To be sure, our partnership has had its ups and downs as we've tried to figure out how to do mission and ministry together. It's not easy but it sure is rewarding on a day like March 11, 2011.

Our visit with the church in Thange has included a number of demonstrations. This vibrant and determined congregation has initiated a variety of projects to benefit their own members and the surrounding community.

1. We've eaten meat that was cooked during our visit in a solar cooker - a small, fairly low tech contraption which uses the sun's energy to cook food slowly but efficiently, without further destruction of the local environment.

2. We've seen a water catchment system that collects rain water from one side of the church roof in a huge cement tank and then makes it available to local residents. In a country which suffers from chronic drought, every drop of water is valued and every innovation which allows water to be captured and used wisely is celebrated.

3. We've seen - and tasted! - water that has been filtered on site, using a Kenyan made water filtration system that is reliable, sustainable, and available. As I'm sure you know, clean water is more valuable than gold for those who need it to protect themselves and their children from the many water borne diseases that wreak havoc in countries like Kenya.

4. We've seen a seedlings project by which this small group of Christians have produced seedlings of various varieties for themselves as well as seedlings to sell to their neighbours as an income generating project. They're using some of the seedlings for reforestation to improve the climate and prevent soil erosion. Some of the seedlings are fruit trees which provide - obviously - fruit.

5. We've been introduced to a few of the goats that they have distributed to local families and we've heard about the many ways that these goats can improve the daily lives of their host families - milk, cash income from selling excess milk, and eventually, as the goat reproduces, the option to sell a goat in order to secure money for a child's education. It's amazing how a goat can change the lives of an entire Kenyan family!

6. And speaking of family, the last "project" that we see is the church's work with AIDS orphans in the community. This small church is caring for 15 orphans - 15 children ranging in age from about 5-15, who are amongst the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.

It's been a full day. And then we sit down together in a shady spot and share a meal together. Meat cooked in the solar cooker. Rice. Vegetables grown locally. Unpasteurized honey, produced locally. Doughy things that are delicious and reminiscent of something we call "fried dough" at home. Filtered water. A genuine 100 mile diet, though in truth, probably a one or two mile diet! And noisy, happy conversation. We're family, sharing - albeit briefly and a bit awkwardly - the bounty of the kingdom.

And then there are the parting formalities. They thank us for coming and for CBM's support. We thank them for their hospitality and their witness to their community through these integral mission projects. And then an old woman - I dare not guess her age - but certainly a great grandmother - presents us with gourds that she has dried and decorated - carefully, lovingly, gratefully. Through a translator, she tells us how much she has appreciated CBM and how much the support that we (as representatives of CBM visiting Thange) has meant to her. The gourds are a gift, a tangible expression of her appreciation. We're moved to tears as we accept them and feel the bonds of fellowship and partnership strengthen.

Amidst hugs and dancing and singing, we gradually make our way to our vehicles and take our leave - one more group of strangers and partners who have made the trek to this fairly remote Kenyan village to be impressed and inspired by the industriousness and vision of a collection of brothers and sisters whose day to day lives are so very different from our own. And yet, they are working together with what (little) they have, to hold back despair and hopelessness and even hunger and thirst.

During the long ride back (3 or 4 hours on a pretty treacherous highway!) to Tim's, Dale is talking with Mike (our van driver) about what we have seen and is surprised to hear Mike describe these folk as "middle class", rather than "poor". And yet, middle class or not, he states bluntly that if the rains don't come to Thange soon, these people will be eating roots and experiencing symptoms of malnutrition before fall. It's a stark reminder of the inherent insecurity of any food production system that relies on nature's fickle rhythms. It's a system that once worked well and perhaps still can, if only there is rain.

We quietly reflect on the lesson we have seen lived out amongst our new friends. Our partners. In Thange, life can be lived and enjoyed - or endured - but one day at a time, for we know not what tomorrow may bring.

We've been back in Canada for over four months now but I still think about the church in Thange. I wonder how they're making out. Tim tells me - and the CBC News tells me - that parts of Kenya (and neighbouring countries) are indeed suffering severe drought conditions. The rains haven't come in many, many areas and the situation is dire. The UN has called it the worst drought and famine in decades (see for an up to date youtube report from the UN).

As I type this blog, I'm conscious of the fact that we're worlds apart. We hear and read about the famine and drought as we're enjoying our daily high calorie feasts and watering our lawns and flowers and consuming vast quantities of water, rarely thinking of water as a precious commodity. It's sad to think about the situation in eastern Africa, especially when we've so recently been there and can still picture the people we met who generously shared their table with us only a few months ago. But what can we do? The problems are so much bigger than we are and solutions are so far beyond our resources.

Here's a few suggestions:

1. Follow the news about east Africa - on tv, radio, internet. Don't allow yourself to retreat from the pain and suffering. These are real people. They have families. They love and are loved. They have hopes and dreams. So, for their sake, be informed.

2. Use this as an opportunity to take stock of your own habits of consumption. Be honest with yourself. How wasteful are you? How much do you take your daily bread (and water) for granted? How generous are you with those things which are yours to consume (or share)?

Raise awareness amongst family, friends, and colleagues about these things. Be gentle but don't settle for comments like "Isn't it awful." Of course it's awful, but what can be done? Maybe when we start looking for answers, we'll find them... or at least we'll learn something useful from the search.

4. If you're able to (and who among us isn't?), give of your finances, your prayers and your time to organizations that are already working on the ground in east Africa. Support organizations that have already invested in relationships and partnerships. Go to and if you want to get involved in this way.

Our partners in Kenya are courageous. They are resourceful and resilient. And they know a God who does not disappoint them. They are not pitiful, but proud.

Malnutrition and starvation are evils that ought not to exist in this world. Hunger is a pity but I wonder who is more to be pitied: those whose mortal body is wracked by the ravages of physical hunger or those whose immortal spirit is wracked by the ravages of selfishness and insensitivity and idle complicity in systems of injustice?

We can no more singlehandedly solve the complexities of global hunger than we could become performers in the Cirque du Soleil, simply by wishing for the strength and agility and talent of those amazing performers. But we can do something about global hunger, even if it's as little as reducing our own waste and contributing to the efforts of those who are more strategically placed to help distribute food to the hungry and implement sustainable practices of food production around the world. There is absolutely NO EXCUSE for complacency, indifference or inactivity.

I've just heard that the Canadian government has committed to match - dollar for dollar - all donations made to organizations (including CBM and Canadian Foodgrains Bank) for relief efforts in east Africa. See Dig deep and give generously, not just for this crisis, but for the long haul. The money will help ease the physical hunger pains for some, but more than that, it will help spread the peaceable kingdom - on earth as it is in heaven!

IMPORTANT UPDATE: Donations made to CBM between July 6 to September 16 for East Africa drought relief will be eligible for matching through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). An application will be made to CIDA for matching funds concluding the window for donations allotted by the government.

For more info:

And here’s the link to CBM's info and donation page:

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Risk of Hospitality

I’m not a risk taker. I don’t buy lottery tickets. I don’t run for political office. I don’t engage in extraordinary life threatening activities. I don’t carry a gun. I don’t negotiate with terrorists. I don’t cheat on my income tax or lie to customs officers. I don’t speed - well, hardly ever. Like I said, I’m not a risk taker. I follow the rules. The most dangerous thing I do is teach. But that’s a subject for another day.

I don’t take risks because I don’t have to. I follow the rules because the rules are made by people like me to protect people like me.

My mother once said that I led a “charmed life” - by which she meant, I think, that things always seemed to work out. She was right. I am educated, financially stable (as much as anyone can be these days), successful, white. Sure, I have setbacks, but they tend to be minor and manageable. They serve to remind me that I'm not God and, more and more these days, that I'm getting older.

It’s not all Hollywood and happy endings, but the reality of my life is unbelievably easier than the reality of the lives of billions of people on this planet. And it's not because I'm somehow better than other people - more virtuous or closer to God. The fact is, I don’t need to offer a bribe in order to secure medical help for myself or a loved one. I don’t need to choose between acting within the confines of a Judeo-Christian morality OR having enough food to eat. I don’t need to lie, cheat, steal, or kill in order to make it through the day. And if I should choose to lie, cheat, steal or kill, it’s not about survival but about justifying a self centeredness that wants to get ahead – to be seen as being “better”, wealthier, more powerful, stronger. A step above those around me.

No, I’ve never had to chip away a fragment of my integrity for a piece of bread, or surrender my good conscience for a night’s sleep. But that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t or that somehow I’m immune from the sordid, risky actions of the desperate. I haven’t sold my soul for a bowl of soup, because I’ve never been THAT hungry.

I’m comfortable and content. And I – or at least people like me – continue to make and enforce the rules – rules that make sure that the game doesn’t change.

Sure, I can see injustices, and I can speak against them, but at the end of the day I'm still well fed, comfortable and secure. And to be honest, I'm thankful for that. I don't want to be tested. I really don't want God to ask me to give all that up. I might try to convince myself - and you - that IF it should come down to it, I'd be willing to give up anything and everything if it's God who's asking. If I know for sure that it's God and I know for sure that he's asking me to give everything up. When I read the story of the Rich Young Ruler, I tell myself that I wouldn't have gone away sad from that encounter. That I would have done just what Jesus asked - sold everything I have, given the money to the poor and joined Jesus' ragtag band. But the truth is, I'm hiding in the crowd, head down, hoping that Jesus doesn't put me on the spot. I'm certainly not going to do anything so foolish as to march right up to him and ask him what he wants me to do! I'm not going to rock the boat or draw attention to myself. I'm too busy leading my charmed life and justifying myself.

As I write this, I realize that it probably sounds a bit like self-flagellation. Why beat myself up like this? It's not my fault that I'm privileged. And for sure I can think of lots of people who have more to give up - or hold onto - than I do. But that's not really the point.

Where I'm going with this has more to do with my attitude toward those whose reality is far different than mine - those who have to take risks, and make choices, and do things that are shameful. If God calls us into the community of believers - to be brothers and sisters with men and women from all walks and classes of life - the challenge is to adjust my attitude so that I can form good, healthy relationships across all kinds of barriers. I think what is missing in my life - and may I be so bold as to suggest that it may be missing in the lives of many of us? - is a real understanding of the biblical principle of hospitality.

When we are willing to take the risk of hospitality, we extend favour to another - not because they deserve it but because they need it and simply because we have the capacity to meet that need, whatever it may be. And when we do it out of our love for Christ and obedience to his command that we ought to love our neighbours as we love ourselves - no questions asked - maybe that's what evangelism looks like. Hospitality isn't just getting together with friends and family over a meal. It's denying ourselves - even to the point of laying down our lives - so that we can bring the blessing of community to those in our path. I can't help thinking that our faith would have a whole lot more credibility if we become a community that learns to take the risk of hospitality - no strings attached.

I've just watched the movie, Les Miserables. There's a scene at the very beginning when Jean Valjean, a newly released convict, comes into town and is settling in for the night on a park bench. An old woman tells him to ask for hospitality at a nearby home - the home of a Bishop Myriel. Valjean is amazed that the Bishop will welcome him to his table and provide a bed for the night and he reiterates that he is a convict. He says to the Bishop, "how do you know that I'm not a murderer?". Bishop Myriel replies that "we will have to trust one another." As it turns out, Valjean steals the silverware and disappears in the middle of the night, only to be arrested and brought back to have his identity confirmed by Bishop Myriel. Much to Valjean's amazement, however, the Bishop corroborates his story that the silverware was a gift. And thus Valjean is released from custody and Bishop Myriel tells Valjean that he has purchased his soul. He must change his ways. And he does. It's a wonderful and inspirational story of redemption, rooted in the hospitality of Bishop Myriel. What if we all extended that kind of grace - and redemptive redirection - to the scoundrels in our lives?