Bruce’s Project

In September 2009, we moved to the Boston area so Bruce could begin his ThD studies at the Boston University’s School of Theology. When we left three years later (last July) he was officially ABD (All But Dissertation). After two years of course work and a year of comprehensive exams with two language requirements thrown in for good measure, all that is left is to write his dissertation.

While we were living in the USA, whenever he could manage it, Bruce headed out to Goshen IN where he went through the Mennonite Church USA archives looking for useful material. He spent weeks scanning letters and other documents into his computer so that he would have access to them when he was ready to start writing. Now he spends all his spare time working with those documents, reading and classifying. Bruce works at a standing desk that he had made according to his specifications (so his back won’t hurt from lots of sitting). We hope that it doesn’t take too long to finish this stage of research and writing!

The topic for this project is the work of Mennonite missionaries in South East Nigeria, especially Ed and Irene Weaver, beginning in the late 1950’s and the Christian movements with which they interacted. He will write about the forces which shaped the missionaries’ approach to their ministry as well as those which shaped the religious identity and expectations of Nigerian Christians.

Bruce began working in Nigeria in 2001 on a part-time basis while we were living in Cotonou, Benin. His interaction with the Mennonite Church of Nigeria motivated the desire to better understand the church there and how the Mennonite Board of Mission and later Mennonite Mission Network’s approach in West Africa was shaped by the relationships between missionaries and local Nigerian Christians of that time .

Church in Ouaga

When we moved to Ouagadougou, one of our priorities was to become part of the Mennonite Church of Ouagadougou.  Every Sunday morning, we arrive at church for the 9:00 AM service. We gather on backless benches and sing in DJula or in French from songbooks.  The service includes a significant amount of singing and praying and the sermon is around an hour long.  We usually finish by 11:30.  If the service can be counted on to start at 9, the end time varies from week to week.  Jeremiah and Deborah find it difficult to sit through the service because it is hot and long and in French!

One distinguishing feature of the congregation is its youth.  The benches are filled with university students and young adults.  Of the fifty or so attenders on any given Sunday, only a handful are over 45 and no one is over 60!  The reason for this lies in the history of the congregation.  The Mennonite Church of Ouagadougou (Eglise Mennonite de Ouagadougou) began as a cell group which met at the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) office.  Siaka and Claire Traore began the group while they were living in Ouagadougou where Siaka worked for MCC.  (Siaka is now the president of the national church and lives west of Ouagadougou in Bobo Dioulasso.)

Four young Mennonites came from the countryside to the city to study at the University.  When they arrived they had a very difficult time finding suitable housing.  They were grateful for the small Mennonite community which provided emotional support and counsel.  Siaka was touched by their plight and developed the vision of a student residence for those from out-of-town.  He shared this vision first with Mennonite missionaries from France.  Since a similar project had developed in Strasbourg, France, due to the same needs for community and housing for Mennonite young people there, the Mennonite churches in France quickly understood the need and supported the project.   The vision grew when Jeff and Tany Warkentin, workers with Mennonite Church Canada Witness, arrived in Ouagadougou in 2005.  Together with leaders of the Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso, Jeff and Tany looked for a suitable building to house the hostel.  They provided leadership to the hostel and to the church which met in the same building.  What began as a small group of male students has grown to 24 students living in the co-ed hostel.

Josué showed us the battery that the solar panels charge to provide lights for the students to study.

While West African congregations tend to be more exuberant than our Mennonite churches in North America, the youthful energy of this congregation has a particular feel to it.  It is not unusual to have jovial eruptions during the service in reaction to what is happening.  The pastor, Calixte Bananzaro, a former teacher, connects well with his audience, often asking them questions and soliciting responses from them during the sermon.  In this way he ensures that they are listening.  The children who attend leave for Sunday School just before the sermon, but occasionally one or two wander back through the room where the adults are meeting.  The service has a relaxed, informal and youthful feel to it.  Most importantly, however, the students have many opportunities to use their gifts and to contribute their ideas. They lead worship, preach, teach Sunday School, organize and lead Bible studies and prayer meetings, etc.  They see this as their church and they are very engaged.  Over the long run, we believe the student hostel will ensure that the students will remain engaged with the Mennonite church long after they are no longer students.  Already a number of the members are former hostel residents who continue to participate in the community due to their sense of belonging; they feel at home there.

Join us in thanking God for:

  • the young members of the Mennonite Church of Ouagadougou who are spending every evening this week and next in a seminar to learn to better lead worship.  They are committing to 21 hours of training on top of their usual studies and work commitments.
  • the Mennonite Church of Ouagadougou’s commitment to training its members.  Currently the church is paying for six members to study Bible and Theology in local programs in Ouagadougou.
  • the recent installation of solar panels that provide a few hours of battery-powered light each night to facilitate the students’ need to study. Lack of electricity at the site has been an ongoing challenge.

Join us in praying for:

  • the seminar on leading worship.  Pray that the instruction will be useful and will better equip those who lead worship.  Pray also that some of the students who have not yet taken on leadership responsibilities will feel empowered to do more at the end of the seminar.
  • permanent housing for the student hostel.  The students have had to change buildings three times in six years.

Nancy on Suffering Servants and Missionaries

Those in North American churches sometimes laud the suffering and sacrifices made by missionaries.  Missionaries to Africa are often particularly pitied/admired as having gotten the toughest assignment of all.  The “suffering servant” image has also been referred to by African Christians (who must have heard it from the suffering missionaries).  They refer to the challenges of living in places like Burkina Faso due to the heat and the inefficiencies.  The irony is that these missionaries live better than the local Christians who also have to cope with the heat and inefficiencies!

It occurs to me that what we call suffering is often not really suffering and that pitying the missionaries for their noble sacrifices skews what is really going on when people leave their own country to work overseas. So let me counter the prevailing image of self-sacrificing suffering missionaries with another story.  First, let’s talk about the sacrifices.  It is true that missionaries leave their families, friends and church communities.  The children of missionaries see their grandparents less often and may not feel any connection to their parents’ church community.  Living cross-culturally entails a certain level of stress and frustration because minor tasks such as grocery shopping can become very challenging.  There are ample opportunities for misunderstanding and the foreigner can feel awkward and foolish.  As well, missionaries often need to learn a foreign language and so communication becomes very challenging.  Being unable to communicate can feel humiliating.  So there are certainly challenges which missionaries face.

Each challenge, however, brings opportunities for growth and blessing.  Missionaries often form strong relationships with other missionary families who become like aunts, uncles and cousins to their children.  When missionaries return to their sending communities, they often spend extended time living with their parents, enabling strong ties to develop between grandparents and grandchildren.  Our children have fond memories of the things they do every time they visit grandpa and grandma.  Over the years, those rituals have become part of the reason they look forward to seeing their grandparents.  As well, having family members visit the children in their overseas home for a week or more strengthens the ties.  So it does not seem that the children are being deprived of meaningful relationships with their extended family.

While living cross-culturally is challenging, it is also an opportunity to examine one’s own culture from a new perspective.  I have found significant spiritual, moral and intellectual growth happens when I learn from my host culture.  As I see the world through the eyes of my Burkinabe friends, I begin to question values that I have always taken for granted.  For example, it is much easier for me now to give away my belongings and to find pleasure in thinking of someone else enjoying them.  In my experience, relationships are more important than possessions in West Africa.

Learning a language can be humiliating if you see yourself as an expert or leader.  It is hard to be a leader when you can’t even ask where the bathrooms are in the local language!  However, language learning entails so much more than memorizing vocabulary.  Often the missionary who spends significant time studying the local language will learn much more about the culture and the people she has come to serve.  By approaching the new situation as a learner and not an expert, the missionary is in a stronger position to serve and to be useful in the long run.  When you can laugh at yourself for your mistakes and learn from them, you open yourself to build deeper and more authentic relationships with the local people.

Now how about suffering?  Does walking over a kilometer in 40 degrees Celsius (120 degrees F) weather constitute suffering?  How about having the electricity shut off for six hours?  How about having such slow internet speeds that sending and receiving e-mail becomes a challenge?  Or having to stand in line to pay your bills because you can’t pay them electronically?  It seems to me that comfort and convenience have become so idealized in North America that we feel deprived when faced with discomfort or with inconvenience.  We define the loss of comfort or convenience as suffering.

Real suffering is much more than a little discomfort or having to wait for something, however.  I consider that suffering occurs where there is emotional and/or physical pain.  The loss of a loved one, for example, constitutes suffering.  Being physically ill also brings with it suffering.  In my experience, suffering occurs in every country around the world and is intimately linked to our human (ie mortal) condition.  Since we occupy physical bodies which experience wear and tear, we are inevitably going to suffer.  As a general rule, we might say that poor people suffer more than wealthy people because poor people have less access to food, clean water, and adequate health care. Poor people also tend to work at more dangerous occupations and to have less safeguards against accident and injury.

There are missionaries who have lost a child or have suffered a debilitating illness and I consider their experience to be marked by suffering.  Many of us, however, live quite well and better than many of the people we have come to serve.  We eat well; we sleep under ventilation or even air conditioning; we have electricity and running water in our homes.  We have access to health care as well as those things which make for good health, such as mosquito nets.  We have access to financial resources; our children have access to quality education; we have vehicles for transportation.  Furthermore, we often have people who work for us and do the physically challenging jobs such as washing our clothes by hand.

Living in West Africa requires losing our sense that we are entitled to efficiency.  It means accepting that a certain level of physical discomfort is normal.  Both of those are good things. I feel blessed to live and work in Burkina Faso.  I believe that God has chosen me for this work not because I am noble, but because God loves me and wishes to bless me.  I am grateful for the opportunity to serve!

Open House

Last Sunday, we opened our house to the members of the Mennonite Church of Ouagadougou.  It was an opportunity to offer hospitality to the church and also to make more contact with the students who fill up the majority of the seats at church.  It was a big undertaking for us, since neither of us ranks hosting people (cleaning house, making food, having things look nice …) as among our stronger gifts.  To prepare enough refreshments for up to sixty people along with figuring out where everyone would sit took some planning.  In the end, all our efforts were more than rewarded by a very meaningful encounter.

By the time the open house was to start (2:00 PM) we had plates with sandwiches and cupcakes set out; watermelon cut up; soft drinks on ice; chairs and benches set out.  But no one came!  So we went and lay down for a short nap until 3:00.  Then we went back to waiting.  At 3:45, the first people started to trickle in.  Lesson number one:  don’t bother inviting people over the hottest part of the day.  Most people prefer to set out after three!

The first to arrive were two young women who used to live in the student hostel and who continue to relate closely to the church and to the student community in the hostel.  Pastor Bananzaro told us later that originally the hostel was only going to host male students.  Then one of these young women, Ebenezer, asked, “What about the female students?” The wisdom of the leaders shines in this story.  They told the young women who wanted a room in the hostel that if they could make it work, then they were welcome to live there too.  Rather than deny them the opportunity to try, they were given a chance.  Fortunately, Ebenezer and Elizabeth are very confident and have strong leadership abilities.  They opened the way for other young women to also join the hostel.  So today the hostel is co-ed and it has been a positive experience for the young men and women who make up the student members of the hostel.

Other students came and soon the house was full to overflowing with chatter and laughter.  Both Deborah and Jeremiah found themselves engaged in conversation as the students wanted to get to know them better.  In broken English (on the part of the students) and broken French (on the part of our children) they began to make some connections.

After everyone had eaten, the student hostel president (whose name also happens to be Jeremiah) called all the students together.  Jeremiah explained that this gathering was an opportunity for the students to get to know us better, since there were no older adults present, and so he suggested a question/answer session.  We crowded into our living room/dining room area and the students asked us their questions.  It was a good opportunity for them to get to know us, but it also gave us a glimpse into their concerns simply by paying attention to the kinds of questions they asked.

The first question was “What is your job description?”  A very good question indeed, since we are still working that out in discussion with the National Church and the mission partnership council.  Another question:  “Do you have experience working with students in other contexts?”  We were able to talk about our experiences in Benin, our past history, our vision for ministry and how we hope to work in Burkina Faso.  The session ended with the promise that we would find other opportunities to interact.

Deborah’s Birthday

Tuesday October 2 was Deborah’s eleventh birthday.  How should we celebrate?  That was the question of the last two weeks.  We could invite the girls from Deborah’s class to come to our house for a party, but since we are still in “settling in” mode the lack of furniture makes us somewhat uncomfortable hosting her friends for the moment.  As well, Deborah is still getting to know the girls and boys in her class.  Yet we wanted to make her first birthday in Burkina Faso special.  What should we do?

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Deborah and Miago. Why is it that every time we take a photo for the blog the kids are wearing the Raystown Resort tie-die shirts that Grandma Yoder gave them?

After more discussion, Deborah decided she didn’t want a party with friends this year.  Next year would be soon enough.  Now it was up to mom and dad to make the birthday unforgettable.  The first thing was to make Deborah’s favorite cake:  wacky cake (chocolate cake).  What about gifts?  Then it came to us: Deborah wanted a cat.  There was a family who had left behind a cat when they went back to Europe.  The cat was being temporarily lodged with another family, but needed a home.  Could we adopt Miago and give him to Deborah for her birthday?  We could and we did.

When Deborah got home from school, Miago was hiding in a corner of the bathroom.  I told Deborah to go look in the bathroom for spiders (something she routinely does before setting foot in the door!)  She went and looked in and saw a white and ginger colored cat.  Her reaction:  she jumped up and down clapping her hands and saying “Thank you, thank you!”  Every year from now on she will celebrate both her birthday and the adoption of Miago on Oct. 2!