This post originally appeared on the Harding in Zambia Blog. You can read that here.
Why do we do the things we do and why does it matter? Does it matter? And why do we share our experiences with others?
Asked differently, why tweet? Why is a group of 30 Americans invading Zambia for a semester, and what changes when you tweet out of a new context?
In some ways there’s a lot of pressure in going to study for a semester abroad. It’s 2012, which means most of us have an audience somewhere, whether it be on Facebook, Twitter, or elsewhere on the world wide web. How can we communicate the story of a semester of learning through travel and encounter with other cultures?
Going to AFRICA to study abroad is that much more intimidating. Not only is the learning curve high in Zambia, the cultural dissonance great, and the experience culturally immersive, the idea of “studying abroad” has come under fire. Blogs such as "I Studied Abroad in Africa" parody the entire experience. They cite some pretty bad instances of the “White Savior Industrial Complex” colliding head-on with our self-centered Facebook spheres. Stated simply, we assume it is our place as well-to-do white Americans (I’m speaking generally) to enter another country to “save it.” And the way the story is shared on Facebook can look a whole lot like our primary motivation was the cool Facebook albums.
It’s a convicting (be it one-sided) critique that begs continual self-assessment.
But why stop there? Let’s pile it on a little higher.
Going to Africa to a place like Namwianga Mission to study abroad with a CHRISTIAN university who sends out scores of groups every year on mission trips complicates everything. Now the pressure is really on, because many in our circles see “Africa” and think “mission trip.” So we have to have all of the right, religious answers figured out so that we can communicate our message clearly, and, most important, accurately…right?? There’s a critique here too (and Messy Monday "The One About Missions Trips" summarizes it well). “If going on a ‘missions trip’ is the apex of spirituality, how could people be spiritual before there were airplanes?” What is spirituality, anyway? Good question.
All of that said, here we are, 30 of us, living in Zambia, being hosted at the Namwianga Mission. For three months we’ll be living together, taking classes, and learning in many different contexts. In one way, it’s just another semester of school. In another way, it’s an opportunity to learn something about humanity through the lens of one culture encountering another. We come as learners. We want to explore deep, foundational questions, to dive beneath the surface, so that what we learn will not only apply to our immediate context but will also translate to every human encounter for the rest of our lives.
What do we hope to learn? As we build relationships with the people here, study the humanities from an African perspective, learn missionary anthropology, we want to consider what it means to be made “in the image of God.” I believe that there is something fundamentally good about interacting with another person who is different than you are. The problem is, we usually think that we are normal and that everyone else is “weird.” We see something that seems strange to us and make an initial judgment based on our own perceptions of reality, often at the expense of learning something of true value.
That’s where preparation comes in. (1)
We’re going to learn, and we don’t take it lightly. We don’t want to assume anything. We can’t assume that anyone else sees the story to be told, or that our audience cares about anything more than a travel log. (2) We definitely cannot assume that we have it all figured out. What we hope to be able to say at the end of the semester is that we made the most of this special opportunity. We want to be intentional about articulating the encounter, acknowledging the critiques, and using them to clarify our motives and season our conversations.
As we write, blog, tweet, and post, it’s important to us for those back home to know we’re trying to see past the immediacy of our context to the bigger picture. “Trying” is the key word there. We’ll make mistakes, but we seek growth in the attempt.
So, why tweet? We have to give voice to our experiences in order to understand them. Your perspective helps ground ours. We invite you into this conversation hoping you’ll interact with us, ask big questions, and learn along with us.
This brings us to one final question (at least for this post). It’s the question about mission. Do we have anything that we can give? Is there any way we can help? We won’t know the culture well enough to contextualize the Gospel appropriately (even though we’ll be asked to). When we meet someone who has less than we’re accustomed to, we default to giving them money or a toy or some tangible gift. We do this hoping to help, but often end up fostering dependence.
So, here’s what we think. This isn’t comprehensive, but we hope it’s foundational:
God is on a Mission. We participate in that mission. God has created humanity in His image (Genesis 1:26-28), so there’s something fundamentally good about one human encountering another. The problem is that we often don’t effectively reflect God’s image of graciousness, compassion, slowness to anger, abounding in love, forgiveness, faithfulness, and justice (Exodus 34:6-7). In fact, all of humanity has fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). God described himself this way in Exodus, he “revealed his glory” to Moses with this self-description. Got then revealed himself fully in Jesus of Nazareth, fully human, fully divine, Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). Jesus fulfills humanity, defeats sin, overcomes death; in Him we have seen the glory of the One and Only, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). We want to discern the image of God in ourselves and share this image in others through relationship, hoping to help discover what is already there by nature of our common humanity.
That’s how we hope to “help.” Instead of handing out toys and candy, we’ll try to do the types of things that Jesus spent his time doing. (3)
We go humbly. We go trying to learn. We go believing in a God who is at work throughout the history of humanity and even now is at work here in Zambia. We go trying to find Him here.
This blog is our attempt to articulate this story, His story.
- Before students go to HIZ, there’s a lot that is required to prepare for the experience. Every student takes NURS 210 (Nursing Skills) the spring semester before they go to Zambia. Because this class is required for all HIZ students it is also used to introduce Zambian culture and the concept of God’s Mission. They take BMIS 387 (Global Development) during intersession, spending two week’s at Harding’s simulated global village, learning how to begin to answer the question, “How can we help without hurting?” And finally, before we leave for Zambia, we get together for another weekend at HUT for an intense weekend of cultural preparation, spiritual formation, and building a team. <— That’s a lot of preparation.
- There’s nothing inherently wrong with a travel log. In fact, we have one that you can subscribe to. The point is, we don’t want to stop there. We’re not here just to travel, just to cross “Africa” off our bucket list. So we want to communicate the experience in such a way that it reflects this sentiment.
- I’m trying to say a lot in this short little sentence. This definition of ministry is simplistic but deserves attention. The thrust of this post is that we want to acknowledge that God is at work in the world, and we participate in HIS work. That means that wherever we are, there is something to be done. We’re trying to live out this simple sentence (i.e. “doing the type of things Jesus spent His time doing”) in 30 different ways this semester and hope to reflect on it more extensively in another post.