On Giant Shoulders

A Letter from Michael and Rachel Ludwig, serving in Niger

May 2018

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“When I saw her in the market, she walked like a giant with the heart of a man!” said one of the Muslim religious leaders who were giving testimonies at Rebecca’s retirement celebration. Rebecca was retiring from many years of being director of a Bible school for the Église Évangélique de la République du Niger (EERN). The man was complimenting her for being confident and courageous in her leadership and the way she lives her life, which is also our experience of her. She’s one of the people who’s been blazing the trail ahead of our work in so many ways. You can also call it “standing on the shoulders of giants,” as we’ve seen these “giants” in experience and faith in Niger who are helping to build up interest and credibility for the Community Health Evangelism (CHE) methods through sharing their own practices and life experiences.

At first, it didn’t seem like there were people jumping up to support CHE in Niger, although many were open to hearing about it. But we’ve seen important people like Rebecca rise up in each place we’re doing training, and they’re showing others how these same ideas have worked in their lives. The importance of local advocates like this became so clear to me at our most recent training in the Maradi region, when one of these giants in the faith spoke up. The 30 evangelists had eagerly gathered in the shade inside the church building, waiting to find new ways of doing outreach in their villages. But many were puzzled that we spent the first day of the training telling stories about people solving their own community development problems and preventing their main health problems. They kept trying to put a spiritual interpretation on every story and acted surprised that they could have a role in the community other than to be a “pastor” and “teach the Bible.” Sensing some of this disconnect, Pastor Saley, who was recently elected secretary for mission and outreach of the national church, stood up and got everyone’s attention by sharing how he’s seen these ideas transform his ministry.

Pastor Saley happens to be part of another organization’s two-year training that was based on CHE methods, which taught him the importance of his small church getting involved in the midsized city in which they’re located. One of the outreach methods he learned was starting a small business, which begins to build relationships by providing a service to the community, and it also provides income to sustain the work of the church. He’s gone from neighbors being reluctant to build relationships with him as a pastor, to being a welcomed community business-person with people coming back again and again to the gate of the church to purchase pay-as-you-go phone credit, which is the way all phones work here. He’s gone from relying on the national church, who sent him there for a small salary, to making more than that on his own and asking the national church to use his salary money elsewhere. As the other evangelists started to understand the connection between self-sustainable ministry and local solutions to problems in his life, I could feel the room turn to being much more receptive to the direction we were going. And this is a major point of CHE, that people need to hear voices from their own community discussing and suggesting the value of solutions that are possible locally, or else even the most brilliant trainings and solutions will not be used in people’s everyday lives.

It was similar in our training in the Dosso region, where there was one pastor who’s been a real “person of peace” like Jesus talks about in Luke 10:5-7. Pastor Yaji is the regional president and has taken pains to welcome us, repeatedly asking us when we would come to train the region because he was quick to catch the point of the CHE method. I’ve been amazed with how the evangelists have related so many of the things we’ve taught there back to something they’ve seen this regional president do in his own house inside the church compound where we’ve been meeting. From using compost to develop a garden for healthy food for the family to establishing ways to help his wife with the cooking and housework, it’s felt like he already broke the ice for modeling CHE practices, which has helped people understand their importance and give them local credibility. Sometimes I’ve talked with other ex-pats here about how the CHE ideas seem very foreign to this culture because there are so many handouts expected here. But finding people like Pastor Yaji (which could be translated Pastor Spicy) is a great reminder that God has been sprinkling his multiple flavors of salt and light all over the world. It’s not just us who come bringing helpful ideas from God!

This brings us back to the long, solid witness of Rebecca. Despite being retired, she still attends the CHE class I teach with my EERN counterpart once a week. And she’s constantly encouraging the students to think about what they can do with this information to help with the problems around them, from making soap to finding ways to irrigate small gardens at the Bible school. A perfect example of how she’s blazed the trail ahead of our training came from the students’ reaction to the introduction of micro-business training. Some of the students responded that the story we used to introduce the importance of micro-business really wasn’t realistic because they can’t do much with that small amount of money (which they would even have trouble saving up), and why should they spend time away from studies or their pastoral work, which is why they’re at school. Rebecca replied that the woman in the story was exactly like her, selling food by the side of the street when she was a young pastor’s wife. And that’s the only way she could pull off paying her children’s school fees, which has been a big blessing to her family through the years. This stopped the complainers in their tracks and made it clear that she knew exactly the difficulties and the blessings of this type of training.

These faith-giants in Niger are a great reminder that we do not do this work alone. God has been working in this place for a long time. God’s been working in people to turn them towards him in many different ways, even through micro-versions of sustainable development at a person-to-person level, much like CHE. Now it’s these people who inspire us and make us continue to believe that the CHE ideas can take root and make a difference in the lives of pastors and their communities. These stories also turn us to reflect on the importance of the many faithful people we have supporting us in the US. Without your encouraging shoulders to stand on, we really couldn’t be sharing in this work. We appreciate this as we thank God for you, and pray you too can see how you stand alongside these faithful brothers and sisters in Niger in the important work of sharing the love of Christ with their nation.

Michael & Rachel Ludwig

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