A letter from Rich Hansen in Ethiopia
Cross-cultural ministry often explodes stereotypes. How things really are can be very different from what one expects. One of my stereotypes of Africa was a vibrant community-oriented, relationship-centered culture that put us individual-centered Americans to shame! I expected our move to Ethiopia to be a sort of a relational “heaven on earth.” It was one of the exciting things I most looked forward to here.
What I found instead was a paradox. Yes, the community here is in many ways far more important than the individual. But far from being “touchy-feely” in the way I envisioned, what I found over and over again instead is that community expectations—especially among evangelical Christians—are so overpowering that they often stifle trusting relationships. For fear of being judged unworthy, our students at EGST (Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology) are often afraid to genuinely open up to anyone.
“In our distinctiveness we have added color to each other. We have truly become more than what we could be individually. I have learned sharing my heart and concerns. One could easily imagine that sharing oneself with others is not easy. Thanks to the integrity of our members that never was a difficult task at all.”
So reflects a student in the “Personal Development” course I lead at EGST. Students meet weekly in triad groups (three students) for mutual sharing, support, encouragement and discussion of their personal devotional reading for that week. I have been organizing and leading this course for the last three semesters in addition to my other teaching duties.
As the semester ended last week, I had personal meetings with each student to hear them reflect on what they experienced. It was tremendously encouraging and gratifying. Here’s a tiny sample:
• I changed my approach to people around me, including my wife. Now I listen more than I ever did before.
• Especially in ministry, it is very difficult to find real friends. What a joy it has been to be able to tell my triad friends anything!
• I am organizing triad groups where I work; every time I go somewhere in the countryside for the NGO I work for, I try to organize triad groups.
• When I was in sick, all my triad partners called or came to see me; such a thing never happened to me before.
• After my triad experience, I am better able to relate to other people at my work every day.
• As a new student at EGST without any friends, I felt very alone; my triad filled a huge hole. They are now my closest friends at EGST.
• Our triad will continue meeting even though the course is completed.
Like theological schools everywhere in the world, we are in danger of so focusing on our students’ minds that we forget their hearts. At EGST our students are spread across a sprawling city of 4-5 million and most are part-time. Usually they come to our building only to attend classes that are squeezed into already overflowing work and family lives. Who has time for genuine relationships, sharing hearts and spirits?
But the “Personal Development” course is changing this! I’m happy to report that this coming fall this course will be required (for the first time) for all new 100+ incoming students. Even better, our faculty just agreed this month to each mentor 9-12 students in monthly small-group gatherings this coming year. “Personal Development” is moving into the center of our academic life—building genuine spiritual community one relationship at a time.
Thanks again for your support, prayers and encouragement!
- Please pray for our safe travel this summer. We leave June 5 for three weeks of study leave in the UK, then several legs back and forth across the U.S. until early August. Our next newsletter will probably be in September.
- Please pray for God's presence and blessing on our daughter Megan's wedding, which we will celebrate on July 14. It's outside in Seattle, so we're hoping for sunny skies!
- Please pray for EGST as the staff prepare for by far the largest intake of new students in the school's history this fall.
Rich (and Marilyn)
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 95
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