The eagle and the African missionary

[A story from my brother-in-law’s newsletter.]

"Hello friends!" The stranger was beckoning to us. "Welcome! Please come inside." We had planned to hike the rest of the way to the top of the mountain and to make it home again before sunset, but this man was evidently craving some human interaction. He deserved more than just a wave and a smile.

He introduced himself as a Malawian pastor. He had reserved this little cottage on Nkhoma Mountain for a few days of solitude and prayer. "And where are YOU from?" he asked us. We explained that we are Americans who had come to Malawi to visit family and that we work as missionaries in West Africa.

The pastor followed my gaze to the stuffed eagle on the wall. "I don’t like that bird at all," he was quick to say. I noticed that he had picked the bunk that was the furthest away from the eagle’s perch.

stuffed eagle In North America, a stuffed eagle might be ideal for decorating the rustic interior of a cottage. Not so in Africa, where long-dead animals hanging on walls are more commonly found in the local fetish market and sold as ingredients for charms and amulets.

This particular eagle was probably a relic from when Dutch Reformed missionaries originally built the mission station at the base of the mountain in the late 1800s. Today, the station is a theological school and a hospital.

"To be honest, I’ve never spent two whole days alone before in my life," the pastor admitted. "So I’m glad you came today. It’s not by chance that I met you. You know something, I think you should come and work as missionaries here in Malawi."

That sounded like a superb idea as we looked out over the granite hills cropping out between lush fields of corn and tobacco. I wasn’t sure if the pastor was just teasing or trying to make us feel honored as guests in his country, so I half-jokingly responded, "Malawi is beautiful, but there are already many Christians here. Maybe you should come with us to the country where we work in West Africa, where Christians are a tiny minority."

I didn’t expect the pastor to reply with such earnest. "I would truly like to go to West Africa some day. I have a passion for missions. And I excel at languages. I learned Swahili in a matter of days."

As I exchanged email addresses with him, I thought about the prospect of Malawians joining the missionaries we currently work with in West Africa – the Brazilians, Swiss, Nigerians, Canadians and many other nationalities. To my knowledge, he would be the first Malawian missionary there, and he would be a welcome addition.

I also thought about the stuffed eagle, and the Western missionaries like me who had unwittingly hung it there. How many blunders of all shapes and sizes have we committed in Africa that will persist long after we are gone? God is in control, and the gospel has spread in spite of our mistakes, but the eagle reminds me of how foolish and blind we missionaries are. We badly need the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom and discernment.

African missionaries have a clear advantage in understanding their neighbors’ cultures and communicating the gospel on their own turf. However, they also face their own set of hurdles, especially when they venture out of their own communities. At the root of many of Africa’s conflicts are deep-seated tensions between ethnic groups. In many cases, the cultural divide between these groups is just as large, or possibly even larger, than it would be for any outsider coming to Africa.

Take the example of another pastor friend of ours sent with his family to plant a church in the staunchly Muslim north part of his country. They haven’t left their own country, but they still suffer the stigma of being from the south. They don’t speak the local languages, they rarely see their extended family, there are no local schools for the five children beyond middle school, and some of their neighbors accuse the pastor of being selfish. Why? They say that he refuses to tell them the secret of how to print real money. Before I met this pastor, I thought that it was only Westerners like me in West Africa were accused of printing their own stash of cash! This Christian family is part of a rare breed in our part of West Africa, living outside of their own community and trying to impact Muslims with the truth of the Gospel. They have been able to reach out to other southerners posted in the north by the government to work as doctors, tax collectors and judges, but it has been tough for them to make any in-roads yet into the native community.

I think also of our Nigerian colleagues. Nigerians are routinely pegged as con-artists all over Africa because of the high-profile scams committed by a relative handful of their countrymen. One hundred and fifty million people (at least 1 out of 5 Africans is a Nigerian!) get painted with the same brush. Nigerian missionaries face this stereotype everywhere they go in Africa.

Please pray for cross-cultural missionaries in Africa. Some have crossed an ocean like my wife and I. Others are "indigenous" missionaries who have crossed the entire continent, like our Malawian pastor friend may do some day if he comes from Malawi to West Africa. Many more have never left their own country but still struggle to reach out across an ethnic divide.

Operation World estimates that in fourteen African countries, evangelical Christians made up less than 1% of the population as of 2001. Pray that the African Church would have the courage, whether they are in the majority or on the margin, to reach out to Muslims and others outside of their own communities.

But the task at hand is too big for the Global Church to leave entirely to our African brothers and sisters, any more than they can expect outsiders to do it all. This is a team effort, and we all need humility to submit to each other, to be guided by the Spirit and to consider each other better than ourselves.

May all of us who follow Jesus continue to look at the crowds around us who are harassed and helpless, and, like our Master and Teacher, have compassion on them.

"The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into the harvest field." Matthew 9:37b-38

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