A letter from Michael and Rachel Ludwig serving in Niger
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Mud brick classrooms collapse and the roof falls in on students’ bedrooms at a Bible school. A local church splits and looks for how they will stay active in God’s mission around the world. A small church is attacked, necessitating long-term social and physical rebuilding. Mission personnel worry about the future of their positions and the witness to Jesus that might be lost in their part of the world. We’re being confronted with the problems of sustainability over and over.
Our family is privileged to witness firsthand these struggles across the cultures of the U.S. and Niger. That is, both the struggle for sustainability of a fellowship that represents Jesus Christ and the sustainability of each person’s participation in God’s life-giving work. These struggles lead me to share with you a proverb from the Hausa people of Niger: Ka yar da alheri baya, ka tsince shi gaba, or “Throw your grace behind you, and you will collect it ahead of you.” The Christian community links this saying to the wisdom of Ecclesiastes 11:1, which uses almost identical Hausa wording in encouraging us to “cast thy bread upon the waters, for thou shalt find it after many days” (KJV). We’re excited to witness that this is a season when our partners in the Evangelical Church in the Republic of Niger (EERN) are seeking to follow that wisdom for the future sustainability of the church.
Sustainability in Scarcity
We’ve experienced the Hausa people as very generous, especially by Western standards, but we’ve noticed that there’s also often a mentality of scarcity lurking in communities and the church. The underlying feeling of scarcity is not surprising in this country that continues to be ranked by the UN as the least developed in the world. Scarcity tends to push people to think about what they can get now, how they can immediately use what they have, and to let the future worry about the future.
But we’re happy to see that the church leaders are thinking more and more about sustainability. This thinking shows itself in their recent efforts to establish a rickshaw taxi business for the church. The business trains and employs Christian youth, but it also generates ongoing income for the evangelism programs of the church. The EERN’s new emphasis on sustainability also shows in things like how they are seeking the small salaries for new evangelists from EERN church members first rather than from foreign organizations.
For us the most exciting of these moves towards sustainability is helping to plan how the EERN will integrate the Community Health Evangelism strategy (CHE) into their churches.
Taking Sustainability Further
A central question for the EERN in reaching out to their underserved nation is: How can they help their outreach workers find a foothold in new communities that is based on internal sustainability rather than continued outside intervention? How can the love and transformation of Christ grow in a community by drawing on local resources instead of depending on outsiders offering incentives?
CHE is one tool that can help answer these questions, using a strategy based on simple, locally available solutions to wellness and subsistence problems that the community itself identifies and considers important. We know CHE can be useful to evangelists like one we recently met in the major village about an hour from where we live. One of his main activities is going to other villages or his own to sit with men on mats under trees and tell anyone who will listen about Jesus’ message. He told us a colorful story about regularly walking to a far village you can’t find a ride to—so far that it costs $2 just to buy the soap to wash the dust out of your clothes when you return from that long journey.
This evangelist already hosts five students from other villages who come to his village for secondary school, but the EERN is hoping to expand that as part of a program to reach out to Muslim students and to boost church membership beyond its current two families. He may need better transportation and more rooms on his house, but this evangelist will benefit from the CHE resources that include culturally appropriate methods of surveying communities for needs and easily taught lessons on family practices that address these physical and spiritual needs.
Sustainable Foundations for CHE
People here like the idea of CHE and the idea of sustainability that goes with it. But this strategy is very different from the expectations that people from the villages have formed over the years in response to the regular flow of relief supplies sent by NGOs. Recently I was asked by a regional leader a typical question about CHE: When someone gets sick in the village, what solutions or medicines can CHE bring for them? The answer is complicated, but it boils down to the key concept that CHE is about prevention and not treatment. CHE doesn’t offer much value added after a person is sick; rather, the value is added by making it easier for a community to deal with problems like common illnesses before they come to a head.
It can be hard to explain to some people why this approach is worthwhile for them, but it starts with that Hausa proverb about casting your bread upon the waters and trusting you will collect it after many days. In this way CHE seeks to foster true development within a community, done by an evangelist’s family that is modeling good health, subsistence, and spiritual practices, bringing their neighbors and community alongside through basic planned-out practices that address local needs.
It’s our hope that the EERN will be able to offer CHE training to its evangelists in 2017. Part of our job is to help plan the best process and structure for this to happen, how to ensure hands-on follow-up, and how the PC(USA) can best partner in this effort.
We cannot fully express our appreciation for the engagement you and your churches have had with us in this work of sustainability in Niger! We hope you’ll continue to pray and support our family and this vision of sustainability that is being embraced by our partners here.
Starting in May we’ll be in the U.S. to do two months of mission interpretation describing our work with our partners in Niger, and we look forward to connecting with many of you. We’ll be at the New Wilmington Mission Conference in western Pennsylvania. If you can, please come visit us at this one-week conference that seeks to deepen the missionary spirit in the church.
Michael and Rachel Ludwig
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