Stoves for Reconciliation

A Letter from Michael and Rachel Ludwig, serving in Niger

February 2020

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One of the pastors laughed as he almost took off his thumb with an old-fashioned wood planer. A few friends remarked that this was a far cry from his normal work of telling people the Good News. We were gathered in a dusty churchyard with the evangelists that my colleague, Pastor Issa, and I are mentoring in Community Health Evangelism (CHE). The focus of the gathering was making molds for clay stoves so that the pastors can make them for others. These four pastors of tiny congregations in the Zinder region of Niger, were all excited about the rare chance to work with wood and make tools they can use in the future.

Like most pastors in our partner church, Église Évangélique de la République du Niger (EERN), these pastors know intense struggles. The basic struggle is to provide enough food for their families living on the edge of the desert where fields are increasingly in demand but the soil is decreasing in quality. The overarching struggle in this 97% Muslim society is gaining respect. Many Muslim and Christian neighbors have built long-term, collaborative, and good relationships. But it is still difficult for a pastor to establish new relationships in a new community. People are suspicious of “new religious teachings.” That is one of the main reasons why the EERN leaders have become so interested in CHE. It is a way for pastors to share skills that clearly help their neighbors and clearly show the love of Jesus that they preach.

Pastors in the Zinder region evening out boards to make their molds for clay stoves.

It doesn’t initially make sense to most pastors we train why they should worry so much about health practices and making clay stoves. But the theology behind CHE, of healing what is broken in the reconciling power of Jesus, is what most often convinces them. When we first offered CHE training in Tahoua, some pastors dove deep into the theology of “True Health.” We told the simple story about a man who fell off his bike in front of his neighbor’s house and how this event escalated into a “blame game.” The participants reflected on this story and discussed how true health was not just physical, but an integration of our physical and spiritual lives. We reflected further on Genesis 1-3 and boiled down those physical/spiritual health issues to the damage that sin has caused to our total health by breaking our relationships. The four most crucial broken relationships are our broken relationship with God, with other humans, with God’s creation, and within ourselves.

All this reflection led a previously disengaged pastor to finally speak up with the question, “Can you really sin against an animal or a tree?” That led to a barrage of examples from other pastors about people disproportionately punishing a stubborn donkey or greedily cutting down trees without caring about the damage to their habitat. As a group, we were piecing together a theology: the theology of how following the reconciling ministry of Jesus is intimately connected to healing the way we use the environment. This can’t be separated from how we care for people who desperately rely on God’s damaged creation.

Reconciliation to the rest of God’s creation is where the training on efficient clay stoves comes in. Using clay stoves that cook with 60% less wood means looking ahead and not simply being reactive in our solutions, care, and love for creation. The question that the CHE method is always struggling with is, “How do we find local solutions that people can love and share?”

Everyone agrees that cooking with clay stoves is a good idea. But of the 10 evangelists we taught to make the stoves so far, only one of them has gone on to continue making them. That’s an indication that making the stoves is either too hard, not helpful, or there are other problems. So, we are reexamining the clay stove molds we made in Zinder. We also asked the pastors there to dig deeper into the CHE method and to help figure out how to make these stoves more locally sustainable.

From the evangelists’ experiences, the stoves were great for attracting their neighbors’ attention and starting new relationships. Everyone was interested and was making special visits to the pastor’s house around dinnertime, just to see how this three-part stove worked. But many worried that the stoves wouldn’t heat food well because they believed that there wasn’t enough space in the stove for the wood needed for fast cooking, and that the long cylindrical chimney in the middle of the stove kept the pot too far from the fire. In addition, the high chimney was causing the pot to be unstable and unsuitable for the type of cooking traditional to the region.

The Ludwig children growing and exploring on one of our many field trips.

These are important issues to be brought up and worked out. These issues led to a discussion about the reason why the efficient clay stove design uses this type of chimney. The chimney increases the wind draft going through the fire, giving the fire more strength and heat.

Clearly, we still have a ways to go in putting together local practices with the best local resources. But what is key from all involved is the commitment to this method that keeps us grounded in reconciling theology, responding to local problems with local resources, and working toward the goal of helping people experience true health. This health flows out of the healing of our relationships with God and God’s creation. It’s easy to see that this isn’t a far cry from the Good News of Jesus Christ!

We thank you for also being engaged in this ministry of relationships and reconciliation. Your support is vital for keeping our family in place to be bridges across the physical and spiritual realms, and between brothers and sisters who need each other. Please continue your prayer support for our two-year-old son’s hip dysplasia. Even after two years of living with us and having good care, his bone growth hasn’t progressed. We are planning to spend several months in the U.S. this year so he can undergo surgery and recover. Through all this, it’s our prayer you will continue to struggle with us to honor and learn from the people of Niger as we grow in understanding what God is doing in our world.

Michael and Rachel

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