Evangelism and justice dance well together in Africa

Mission co-workers and partner churches embrace evangelistic ministries and social justice

by Debbie Braaksma

Mission co-worker Jim McGill brings together masons and ministers to learn best practices for making practical latrines in Niger. This skill will be passed on from village to village where open defecation has long been accepted as the only practical solution. Photo credit: Michael Ludwig

The year was 2009, the place was Yei in what is now South Sudan, the newest country in the world. I was a mission co-worker serving as the first principal of RECONCILE Peace Institute, and our first class of students had arrived. The student body included about 45 church and community leaders from a dozen or more ethnic groups on opposing sides of a two decades-long civil war. They had come to Yei to take courses in community-based trauma healing and peace studies and conflict transformation.
Some people thought we were crazy to attempt to have this group of leaders who had been on opposite sides in a brutal civil war living, eating and studying together in a very intense community for three months. I remember that a European expatriate who also lived in Yei said to me, “I’m afraid that they are all going to kill each other!”
But believing in the Prince of Peace’s call for Christians to pursue justice and reconciliation, the Sudanese church leaders followed their vision to trust God with what seemed humanly impossible. RECONCILE International was established, and my husband Del and I were invited to join their staff. So, there we were — ready to dig in and expecting to see God at work.
As American Christians, we tend to compartmentalize our work into neat categories. So, working from an American perspective, I viewed the work we were sent to engage in as mission co-workers as being clearly in the “Peace and Justice” realm of Christian ministry. A perfect fit for that categorization … right? Weeeeelll …not really.
What I saw happening, spontaneously, was that the students, who were deeply committed to peace and justice work, were also involved in evangelistic ministry among themselves. While RECONCILE Peace Institute was formed by the council of churches and rooted in the Christian tradition, courses were open to church and secular community leaders. And what we observed was that Christian students were often sharing their stories of how the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ had transformed their lives. Now this was not a great surprise because, for the three previous years, Del and I had seen bits and pieces of this happening as we went to various corners of Southern Sudan with our Africa colleagues to facilitate one- to two-week workshops in areas experiencing high levels of inter-ethnic conflict and trauma. Whether it was a workshop on conflict resolution, trauma healing or human rights, we saw participants talking very openly about their faith.
But spending the three months together very intensely with this group of 45 adult students; living, eating and studying on the same campus with them, allowed me to understand how this worked at an even deeper level. What I saw was participants talking very naturally about their faith in an invitational manner.
From what I could observe, the thought of not sharing the story of the comfort you received from Christ, after your siblings were killed, when you are in a class-room discussion on trauma healing is unconscionable to a Sudanese Christian. They took the approach of ‘one beggar telling another beggar where to find food’ and it greatly impacted me. These dear Sudanese sisters and brothers in Christ helped me to more deeply understand that although American Christians tend to polarize on issues of social justice and evangelism, a true witness to God’s love in Jesus Christ includes expressions of both.
And whether these expressions occur in Community Health Evangelism (CHE), water and sanitation programs, or village savings and loan groups, I see this sharing happening again and again. Congregations of our partner churches in Africa engaged in transformational development and social justice initiatives are simultaneously sharing stories of God’s love as expressed in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. As a result, the Church in Africa is growing at amazing rates.
In the CHE program of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian in Malawi, needs identified by 13 communities are creating transformational development programs at the grassroots level. Food security, deforestation and disease prevention are being addressed by teaching good home hygiene, practicing sustainable agriculture and constructing toilets and efficient cooking stoves. As this work is being done, CHE evangelists lead discipleship groups. As a result of CHE’s method of ‘relational evangelism’ combined with community organization and service, several community members have become Christians.
PC(USA) has embraced the call to live out the Matthew 25 vision of “actively engaging in the world around us, so our faith comes alive.” One of the focal points of being a Mathew 25 Church is pursuing congregational vitality. Vital congregations are those that “embrace the call to evangelism” and “have an outward focus … the hands, feet, heart and mouth of Jesus Christ for people who are suffering or marginalized.”
Sounds a lot like the ministry that I see firsthand every time I am able to travel to Africa to meet with our mission co-workers and partner churches: congregations that are actively embracing social justice and evangelistic ministries. These African churches have a lot to teach us in our journey to become Matthew 25 congregations, and many of them are yearning for partnerships with PC(USA) congregations and presbyteries.
If you are ready to enter into a partnership with a vital congregation in Africa, please be in touch with me at debbie.braaksma@pcusa.org. Your faith will be deepened, and your worldview expanded.

The Rev. Debbie Braaksma is Presbyterian World Mission’s Africa area coordinator.