A Letter from Josh Heikkila, serving in West Africa
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When I was a Young Adult Volunteer in Ghana in 2002, the Presbyterian pastor of the town where I stayed explained to me how he was taught in seminary that it was necessary for a Christian couple – especially if one is a pastor – to sleep in the same bedroom and in the same bed. Anything else, such as the local tradition of each spouse having their own bedroom in their own small structure, was considered a legacy of the pre-Christian past and therefore wrong.
Recently, I read an article online which brought this conversation to mind. Forbes magazine was writing about how having two master bedrooms was one of the biggest trends in newly constructed American homes. I laughed when I read this, because it seemed like Americans were perhaps waking up to what Ghanaians knew long ago – that having a separate room and bed for each partner in the relationship was not such a bad idea after all.
When I think about what Western colonialism taught Africans in the past, it makes me wonder if there are things we are doing today which we will also later come to have second thoughts about. It’s easy to say mistakes were made in the past, but are we ready to consider that we ourselves could be making them now, as well?
As anti-racist and anti-colonial education becomes more present in American culture, schools, and churches, there is a sense that the institutions of the Western world still have an important message we need to share with our international partners. While I’m quite supportive of efforts to share this experience and testimony, I often find myself worrying that we are falling back into the same patterns of what was done in the past. For this reason, could our good intentions also be reopening old wounds?
I frequently hear the argument that Westerners “brainwashed” African Christians to behave in certain ways, and we now have to free them from the mental bondage we imposed on them in the past. Even if I’m convinced Africans might need to be more progressive in certain aspects of life, to portray our African partners as brainwashed and requiring enlightenment is problematic. Claiming that we are right and someone else is wrong becomes, in effect, an excuse for not listening to their opinions, beliefs and experiences. This objectifies our partners and robs them of their dignity.
It also makes me wonder, how is it that we as the former Western colonizers have been able to free ourselves from this same past brainwashing, while the formerly colonized in Africa are still under its control? To say this, even if only implied, comes across to our partners as incredibly arrogant and condescending. We could do it on our own, but they can’t.
Even when our Ghanaian partners acknowledge there are certain areas in which they need to change, they are frequently hesitant to come out and talk about it with Americans and Europeans. Doing so perpetuates the legacy of portraying the West as knowing and doing what’s best and Africa as needing to catch up.
The late Yale University professor Lamin Sanneh, a native of the West African country of Gambia, wrote something 30 years ago which I believe remains relevant for today: “[Western] writers harp on the idea of African [Christian] converts as classic victims who henceforth lost their original capability. In any event, the spate of atoning ink spilled in rehearsing the wrongs and injuries done to Africans swamped any possible independent African response, allowing the West to continue as the authoritative outlet of what was, or was not, good for Africa.”
Professor Sanneh continues, “to view Africans as a victimized projection of Western ill will is to leave them with too little initiative to be arbiters of their own destiny and meaningful players on the historical stage.”
From what I see, our African partners remain skeptical of a lot of what is going on. They question whether our current desire to educate them is just a continuation of the long history of Western countries believing they know what is best, branding Africans as backwards, and feeling the need to impose enlightened values on them. If it is different this time around, they ask, then how? I believe we haven’t done an adequate job reflecting on this, and therefore we must find a better way of being in conversation with each other.
In today’s world, we often talk of the need to listen to diverse voices – “the danger of a single story,” as Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has phrased it. This is without a doubt true, because listening to diverse voices greatly enriches us, not only on the level of faith, but also simply as human beings. But diverse voices can have different perspectives from our own, which can even be in profound disagreement with our own deeply held beliefs. Whether we like it or not, we still have to listen to these voices and respect them. Being dismissive of them only repeats the mistakes of the past.
Throughout its history, the church has always struggled to listen to how the Holy Spirit is still speaking. Our Presbyterian Book of Confessions has a wonderful quotation from the 1528 Synod of Berne: “Where something is brought before us by our pastors or by others, which brings us closer to Christ, and in accordance with God’s word is more conducive to mutual friendship and Christian love than the interpretation now presented, we will gladly accept it and will not limit the course of the Holy Spirit, which does not go backwards towards the flesh but always forward towards the image of Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Our Reformed Confessions also remind us that we need to be constantly vigilant of our own motives. Sometimes when we become convinced that what we are doing is good and right, we end up losing track of how it is serving our own interests as much or more than it is serving Jesus Christ.
The late South African theologian David Bosch described the delicate balance of these two as “bold humility” – boldly proclaiming where the Spirit is leading us and yet doing it in a way that is humble and respectful of others. I pray that God is helping us to be boldly humble at this time, as we try our best to live as Christian siblings with our partners in West Africa!
Please read the following letter from Sara P. Lisherness, the interim director of World Mission:
Dear partners in God’s mission,
I don’t know about you, but daily my heart grows heavier. News about the pandemic, wars, wildfires, gun violence, racism, earthquakes and hurricanes cloud my vision. It’s hard to see hope; our world is in a fog. Yet we trust that God’s light and love transcend the brokenness of this time.
God is at work transforming the world, and you, through your prayers, partnership and encouragement, are helping us share this good news. Thank you for your faithful and gracious support of our mission personnel.
How can we see through the fog? What will the church be after the pandemic? Could it be that God is doing “a new thing” and is inviting us to perceive it? Through all the uncertainty we know that God’s steadfast love and care for all creation will prevail and that God’s Spirit is at work in each of us.
We all have an integral part to play in fulfilling God’s mission. As we seek to grow together in faithfulness there are three important steps I invite you to take in supporting our shared commitments to God’s mission:
Give – Consider making a year-end financial contribution for the sending and support of our mission personnel. Your support helps mission personnel accompany global partners as together they share the light of God’s love and justice around the world. Invite your session to include support for mission personnel in its annual budget planning.
Act – Visit The Mission Yearbook for Prayer and Study to delve deeper into the work God is doing through the PC(USA) and its partners in ministry around the globe: pcusa.org/missionyearbook.
Pray – Include our mission personnel, our global partners, and our common commitments to share God’s grace, love, mercy and justice in your daily prayers.
Thank you for your faithfulness to God’s mission through the Presbyterian Church. It is my prayer that you will continue to support this work with your prayers, partnership, and financial gifts in the coming year. We hope you will join us and our partners in shining a beacon of hope throughout the world.
In the light of hope,
Sara P. Lisherness, Interim Director
Presbyterian Mission Agency
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
To give please visit https://bit.ly/PCUSAmission
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16
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Tags: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, David Bosch, Lamin Sanneh, Matthew 25
Tags: Joshua Heikkila
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