Monday, October 29, 2007

Convention Address

The suffering in Liberia is not unlike suffering in other places of the world. Jesus calls us out into the world, to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison. We are called to be a people of action, people who go out and meet the needs of the suffering.

But it’s not just about what we get done or the outcome, it’s about relationship. It’s about allowing the people we call the “least of these” into our hearts, and being willing to be let into their hearts. And then we realize that we aren’t different after all. We are the same beloved children of a loving God.

I wasn’t sure what stories to share with you from a year’s worth of experiences. But after the Bishop Elect’s sermon yesterday, I want to talk to you about my own faith crisis. I signed up to be an Episcopal missionary because I was feeling unfulfilled in the work I was doing. I thought that somehow in becoming a missionary I would be zapped with extra special faith. That I would feel the presence of God with me all the time, and all I had to do was show up.

It didn’t take me long to realize that that wasn’t how it was going to work. And in the face of the corruption, hopelessness, and the evil that had come from the Civil War, my picture of God just wasn’t big enough to hold it all. I stopped going to church… I was a missionary who didn’t go to church. And I stopped praying. I would lay on my bed staring at the ceiling, defiantly daring God to show up. And all I felt was emptiness. I became depressed. I felt as though I had mistaken my calling. I felt unfulfilled just as I had felt in my jobs in the states. And I would have given up, if it wasn’t for all of you. You supported me financially and with prayer, and read my emails. I couldn’t bear to let you down, and I wanted to be the person you believed me to be.

A friend of mine emailed me some advice at that point. It was, “I know all you feel like is lying around, but that just makes it worse, you’ve got to get out and see where it is things are going right, where your passions are.” I didn’t want to listen to her, but the other way wasn’t working. I thought about it for some time, and realized that there were a lot of things that I loved about my life in Liberia.

I was an instructor teaching agriculture at a college, and I loved my students. I so valued the relationships and the respect that had grown between us. Their enthusiasm for learning was exciting to me. And I realized that even though I was completely unprepared to be a college lecturer (I hadn’t even known that that would be what I was doing), somehow the resources always showed up. Whether it was a book or a website or a good idea, it was always enough. And I finally saw that God was there.

I also loved the time I spent with my friends. We would visit each other’s houses in the evening or go to the local bar and watch the sunset under the palm trees, and we would talk for hours at a time, because that was all there was to do. And as we talked about it, the frustrating things of the day became funny. And God was there too.

I was able to go visit some villages near the university, and I so enjoyed talking to the women, and hearing their struggles, and what their lives were really like. And I could see God in them too.

I was surprised to realize how much of my life I was passionate about, but I didn’t know how to change things so that I could focus on the things I loved best. And then something happened to shake everything up. Some of the students staged a violent protest, and school was shut down for a month. Fellow teachers and I fled from our houses and from campus, on foot, a few miles away where we sought refuge with a friend for a couple nights. The violence only lasted a couple days, and the president of the country herself came to reconcile the two sides to each other. But what I realized was that while I was afraid, what I was most afraid of was being sent home. So with the month that we were out of school, I started to focus more of the things I loved best.

I ended up spending more time in a village called Melekie. I got to know the women’s group there, and they were remarkable. Melekie is a village of about 2,000 people which had no access to safe drinking water. One of the curses of poverty is that it can rob people of the belief that they can do anything to help themselves, but these women were different. With no resources, they had built a school building out of mud and sticks to serve as the facility for a skills training institute, because they believed that through skills the women would be able to lift themselves out of poverty and feed their children. But they had no money to buy the beginning supplies. We worked together on grant proposals, and they figured out how to make their program sustainable and prepared budgets. We were able to build the first latrine in Melekie, we got two wells drilled, and two more repaired, and we got the money they needed to start skills training in four areas. We accomplished a lot. But what was most important to me was the relationships. The women knew that this money wasn’t coming from some faceless benevolent source in the sky. It was coming from people who had heard their story, and were touched by it. People who cared about them, and wanted to help. And I was there on your behalf. And they were so excited, and they send their greatest thanks.

Another project I started working on was with my students. I had taught them about a tree whose leaves are essentially like a multi-vitamin, and it can be used to treat malnutrition and many diseases. The students were very excited about this tree, and they were passionate about development, but hadn’t gotten a chance to work on it. So we started a simple project, where the only cost was the seed. The students designed it. They chose ten communities near the school to plant pilot orchards, and then did 15 satellite orchards. They did all the work to engage and excite the communities, educate them on the uses and care of the trees, and assist with the actual labor. I got to go along and mostly stand aside and watch them shine. I was blown away. The same students I could barely get to do their homework the semester before, now they were dedicating their time and resources to volunteer. I was so inspired by them.

The last thing I did differently is I got more involved in the class I was teaching. I only had four students that semester, and I wasn’t taking it as seriously as I could. We were working on designing a cattle project, which is something I was supposed to have been working on all along. We would go out to the site, which was thick with jungle brush, and we cleared a path around the outside wielding machetes side by side, so that we could make a map and design the facilities. They taught me how to swing a machete, and I taught them how to use a protractor. And besides talking about business plans and improving livestock production, we talked about their dreams, their frustrations, the terror that they had experienced during the war. And we didn’t solve anything. But I for one felt completely different. I called them my boys, even though they were older than me. And they called me their fearless leader, even though I fainted the first time I used the machete. And we formed relationships that made it all worthwhile.

Not much had changed in terms of the circumstances between the first semester and the second semester, the same frustrations still existed, and yet everything had changed for me, because my attitude had changed. Finally I had opened myself. My expectations were not met, but the Spirit was there all the same, waiting for me to say yes.

Mission work will change your life. We are all called to mission work, out of our comfort zones, into the dark and scary places of our lives and of the world. Because it is in the dark and scary places that we finally are able to see that candle that Jesus lit in our hearts. It is in only in the very valley of the shadow of death, where everything else that distracts us falls away, and we realize that small flickering weak flame is the most important thing of all.

We are broken people living in a broken world. But how could there be miracles if we weren’t. God uses us, flawed as we are. Missionaries don’t have some extra special faith, we are just as broken as everybody else, but we said yes anyway.
What will you say “Yes” to? What will our Diocese say “Yes” to? The Bishop Elect said yesterday that we are working on building foundations, by listening and by acting. I hope that our Millennium Development Task Force will be part of that process, and that it will serve as a catalyst for each congregation to begin the process of discerning where they are called in mission, and where we are called as a Diocese. Because we are called to love and to go. To love God and each other, and to go out into the world and be the face and hands and heart of Christ in the world.

And to quote the Bishop Elect again, “Don’t call me Lord, and then not do what I say.” We are called out of fear into great joy.

I leave you with a quote from a song we sang yesterday, “Be not afraid, I go before you always, come, follow me.”